In his foreword to my S.F. Masterworks editon of Last and First of Men by Olaf Stapledon, Gregory Benford suggests that the reader skip the first four parts of the book and start reading at The fall of The First Men. The reason is that the first four chapters are documenting the "history" of the twentieth century, and the future of western civilization. As Stapledon wrote this in the late 1920ies (I guess, book published in 1930), and thus long before some of the 20th centuries most sad history and most amazing scientific discoveries (which sometimes was one and the same thing), what was future then is inaccurate history today.
I would not go so far as insisting on the same course of reading (the recommendation to skip chapter 1-4, was in turn written in the 1980ies). Even this alternative future has some interesting observations and thoughts; and although even the trajectories of that future seems improbable, I somewhat believe that is because now almost 90 years later we have somewhat different values. So it is indeed an interesting story.
That said, I found the book picking up speed and becoming much more interesting after those first four chapters. So, if you are just giving it a try and not feeling too sure if you will read it or not maybe skipping the first four chapters is an acceptable plan. On the other hand, the text is not hard, so anyone with normal patience will be rewarded by the full scope of the book.
The story of Last and First Men considers humanity as a whole, and not only the Homo Sapiens, but all kinds of humanity that may follow. It is probably best described as a history of the future. The narrator is one of the last men living in a very distant future with knowledge of the whole human history, looking back and explaining to a reader of the 20th century. There is no protagonist or actual plot in the book; instead of drama and tension, there is imagination and philosophy, and written in a very captivating manner. One stay on just to see where everything will develop.
What impresses me about the book is the imagination and thought that has gone into the story. Naturally many of the elements of the story is influenced by the world view and knowledge of the 1920ies, and has to be read with this in mind. However now and then some truly brilliant idea pops out. Like how a future species manage to map a three dimensional map of the galaxy by having access to many, many views of the night sky through the history. And many more ideas must be there.
When it comes to technical and scientific ideas, I am impressed that the book foresees genetic manipulating/engineering. Stapledon does puts it some 40 million years into the future and the process is done by changes in the germ plasm - DNA was not yet discovered when Last and First of Men were written! This does make that particular feat of science fiction writing even more amazing. Germ plasm by the way is a term first used by the scientist August Weismann in conclusion with a (now defunct?) theory of inheritance (though germ plasm itself does exist in some organisms, see wikipedia), and was probably state of the art science in the early nineteen hundreds.
The book also discuss the process of adapting planets to host life. I do not know how early these ideas popped up in fiction literature, but I am sure that this must be one of the first.
The imaginative science and engineering ideas are however secondary to the future development of the human spirit and the mind. I believe Stapledon wanted to show how, in his view, a brilliant future is dependent on humanism and collaboration. In any of the future civilizations gaining any significant humanistic progress (and thus transforming to a higher order of mind) mankind lives in a world state where he regain his individualism at the same time as he is a part of something that (to me at least) seem like a perfectly working apparatus.
While I find that kind of world order very un-human (humans compete, unfortunately; however that does not mean we should not try to be above that), and in some way naive, I still must salute Stapledon for making me think about things.
It is quite easy to guess that Stapledon went into fiction to present ideas in philosophy and thoughts of the future to a broader audience (as indeed is indicated by his wikipedia page ). It is impressive to see how he imagined the future of civilization, and how human kind will rework itself in order to survive. The question that reading this book presents to at least me is: just how could this enterprise be achieved? Stapledon has his new world order, but as it does not seem plausible to me, I am left thinking: How could we get there? In the end I will have to agree with him that the Firs Men (us) could not achieve this. Then how future intelligence could, well that is one of the gems of thoughts that this book has provoked in me.
On the other hand, Stapledon's point is that these states can not be attained by the First Men (us), and his narrator does indeed point out the fact that the reader could not possibly fathom some of the truths of the future. Finally, Last and First of Men is worth reading for the thoughts on levels of conciousness and minds. Although not very deep, they are still of importance to the story. In the book higher order of conciousness of the different humanities are attained as a combination of stages of self-insight and social order, often with biological evolution as a base step. While much of this is too fictional, and also not really my style, I find it interesting. This because some kind of conciousness could be formed right here right now; in human communication, in the memes that live in our society. Or why not in the internet? (Was that in the Ender books by the way?) I think that complexity is the base, not necessarily order. This new conciousness would of course be something completely different than Stapledon's (it will for a start not be more aware of us than we are of our basic neurons), and will not be of any higher order or anything that communicates back to the human mind. In any case, reading the books recalled those philosophical thoughts to me, and that is positive.
So, to end a (again too) long review: this is an interesting book filled with great imagination and philosophical ideas. Read it with the 1920-1930ies in mind, enjoy the future, and get inspired. .L
Note: Last and First of Men seems to be avaliable through Project Gutenberg Australia.