Are you ready to enter Stapledon-Woolf space?

Jim Worrad returns to this blog in the latest of a series of guest posts. Jim is a member of The Speculators writing group, a writer of weird and wondrous Space Opera stories and an interviewer for Interzone magazine. Here Jim has done no less than identify a new literary element – are you ready to enter Stapledon-Woolf space?


Please indulge me. I have identified a literary element, a meme-state if you will, which I hope will be of some small use to anyone grafting away at space opera. I call it Stapledon-Woolf space.

I’m sure you’ll recognise the surnames. Olaf Stapledon, of course, wrote First and Last men and Star Maker. I use his name in reference to his penchant for scale–has anyone ever daubed tales upon a larger canvas than this man, in terms of time and space? Millennia pass within a sentence, races rise on page 48 and are rendered extinct halfway down page 50.

I open Star maker at random to read:

‘The great majority of the stellar population had now passed their prime; multitudes were mere glowing coals or lightless ash.’

As someone once put it, Stapledon is a writer who can’t write about anything unless it’s everything.
At the very other end of the scale game we might usefully identify Virginia Woolfe. Her stream-of-consciousness style and innate hypersensitivity capture the least moment and the smallest detail:

‘With a painful effort of concentration, she focussed her mind… upon a kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity…’

Stapledon-Woolf space is a fiction-state in which the scale characteristics of both these writers exist simultaneously. Or, more simply, a single sentence in which galactic grandeur is meshed with some small matter, something human and intimate. An example, off the top of my head, might be-

‘He recognised the scent upon her, a perfume distilled from the flowers of a hundred worlds.’

A crude example, but I hope it illustrates what I’m driving at. There’s better, of course. Iain M Banks’ latest novel, Surface Detail, describes a massacre of sentient star ships-

‘…collapsing into particles more dense than neutron star material, all that prized wit, intelligence and knowledge-beyond-measuring snuffed…to a barely visible ultra-dense cinder almost before they had time to realise what was happening to them.’

On the other hand, I skimmed through Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality stories thinking they’d be drenched in Stapledon-Woolfe sentences and found none. The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, for instance, has its share of epic imagery and more human detail than many ‘literary’ stories, yet the two extremes never bind together in a single line. As with many space opera tales, there’s only a background radiation of proto-SWS. Still, doesn’t stop C’Mell from being a favourite of mine.

So far I’ve found three properties to Stapledon-Woolfe space-

  1. It is inherently complex.
  2. It is inherently unstable.
  3. It is unique to space opera.

1) is simple enough – SWS cannot exist within one word. At least, I know of no word in English whose meaning holds such gulf-like contradictions.

As for 2), a state of pure SW cannot be maintained for long within a narrative.  A sentence or a short paragraph at most. Firstly, the Stapledonian and Woolfian elements pull in opposite directions. But, more to the point, the story itself will curtail SWS before too long. It has to, or the plot would lose all momentum and die.

3)- is contentious, I’ll admit. But I’m sticking with it. No other subgenre has the requisite colossal dimensions as Space Opera to tolerate such extremes. The stars in Epic fantasy can only ever be cosmetic, something for the characters to gaze at in wonder but never comprehend, never approach. And Hard SF, in my experience, rarely concerns itself with the personal for long or at depth.

So how, as SF writers, is this of any use to us? Well, in my opinion, the fusion of Stapledon-Woolfe space creates a charge, a buzz of textual energy the reader cannot help but feel, if only unconsciously.

This Stapledon-Woolfe energy is a bit beyond my ability to explain, I’m afraid. All I know is I get a tingle upon reading it. A unique one at that, a sort of gut feeling within the brain. Maybe it’s in having the human condition framed by the very stars themselves, a view to how utterly microscopic yet inexplicably vital we are. As Olaf himself put it in Star Maker’s appendices:

‘A living man is worth more than a lifeless galaxy. But immensity has indirect importance through its facilitation of mental richness and diversity.’

A final note of caution. No writer should intentionally create sentences chock-full of SWS. That would be artificial and could only make for artificial writing. The key is in editing. A few – a very few – sentences of a first draft will naturally contain Stapledon-Woolf particles in an unrefined state. So edit and identify them. Refine and enrich them. All the fun of being North Korea with none of the concomitant nastiness.

Hmm… I’ll go now before the inspectors arrive.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

13 thoughts on “Are you ready to enter Stapledon-Woolf space?

  1. This is not the strangest thing you’ve said Jim. For a start this wasn’t mentioned down the pub.

    I suspect that these sentences act as aleph points within narratives. They allow the reader and writer to hold everything important to the narrative in their heads for a moment.


  2. I’d contend that one work in the comic book field which exhibits S-W Space is Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’ – which has whole universes folding into submicroscopic realms, human minds expanding to take in all of the history of humanity in a moment…


  3. Though I haven’t read ’em, I’d offer (From what you two are saying) that they are not so much pure Stapledon-Woolf as containing the potential for a high frequency of SWS.


  4. Found this through Will Ellwood’s newsletter. I like the article a lot. You bring up a very interesting clash of perceptions not often seen, but very much appreciated by me whenever someone pulls it off.

    I’d like to know your thoughts on this example:

    Stapledon-Woolfe Space in Animaniacs?

    If you agree that this short demonstrates SWS, it definitely goes against the notion that SWS can only exist in Space Opera and it can be argued that the whole thing is based around the comparison of the grandeur of the universe to the minuteness of us, humans. Or more specifically, Mickey Rooney. I know it’s not a long example, but the same idea is sustained throughout the sketch. Giving some argument against your 2nd rule.

    I hope I’m not misunderstanding your article in some academic way. What do you think? Is this not applicable to short works that are pretty much solely based on the concept?

    Also, please don’t take this to be me trying to poop on your parade. I love the idea of SWS, but I think there are so many ways to show any given literary trope/meme as to make rules a difficult thing to screw down. You have made a valiant first effort here, and I’m sure, like all great ideas on their way to being brilliant, you will revise and tune this one for a while.

    Thanks for the read.


      1. I tend to be of the opinion that no literary 1 genre has no truely unique effects and that it is possible to always find a more general way of describing an effect so that it applies to all literature.

        1 – Film, comics, prose, poetry and games all do share lots of techniques and effects, but I suspect do have some properties inherent in each form.


  5. Also, I’d contend that you see this type of thing sometimes in scenes depicting experiences with psychadelic drugs, though none specifically come to mind right now.


  6. I’ll see your Animaniacs and raise you one Monty Python!

    I guess SWS particles are flying all over the shop with both these examples. Its tempting to claim that they don’t count by virtue of not being literary examples, but, now I write it, it just comes across as a rather cheap and innacurate get out clause.

    Err…. umm… alright, for the duration of both songs, Animaniacs and Monty Python become Space Opera! Yeah…

    Personally, though, these don’t share a quality with my favourite moments of SWS- that of Serendipity, of the character almost sort of stumbling on to the realisation. Much as I love these songs, they actively try and seize the moment/ feeling. Great for comedy, but in a novel it would feel too contrived.

    Thanks for your interest, Steve, means a lot. Interesting thoughts on psychedelics, too.



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