Just recently, I had some words to say regarding Olaf Stapledon’s superlative novel entitled Sirius (1944), which featured as its protagonist a German shepherd/border collie mix who, thanks to his owner’s experiments in genetic engineering and hormonal supplements, winds up a canine with the mentality of a human genius. It was the first book that I had experienced by this British author, and I loved it so much that I immediately began reading an earlier Stapledon novel, Odd John (1935), which can happily be found in the same 1972 Dover edition as the 1944 work.
As it turns out, the two make for a supremely well-matched double feature, as Odd John also deals with the subject of above-average intelligence, but this time in a human being. But perhaps I should not use the expression “human being,” with its connotation of Homo sapiens, since the subject of Stapledon’s book, John Wainwright, deems himself as being of a breed quite apart; as a matter of fact, Homo superior.
And, as it turns out, for good reason. This idea of the ”Ubermensch,” the mutated or genetically altered superman, was a favorite theme in the sci-fi of the 1930s to ‘50s, and I have earlier spoken here of such examples as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The New Adam (1939), Jack Williamson’s Dragon’s Island (1951, and the first novel, it is believed, to employ the term “genetic engineering”), and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Mutant (1953). In the following months, I hope to be able to read such vintage examples of the subgenre as J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911, and a book that is actually referred to in Odd John) and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930, and generally assumed to have been an inspiration for the Superman character), both of which have been patiently sitting on their bookshelves here at home for years now.
But getting back to Odd John: This was Stapledon’s third novel, and was originally released as a 1935 hardcover by the British publisher Methuen, featuring beautiful cover artwork by Eric Fraser. Like the Sirius novel of nine years later, Odd John takes trenchant potshots at modern-day life, delivered via blistering commentary by its title character. Both books are written in the form of biographies by men who knew their subject well, after a close association, and both feature tragic conclusions that go far in demonstrating how ill equipped the modern world is at accepting an entity of supergenius. Of the two characters, John gives evidence of more remarkable abilities, but strangely enough, the canine Sirius comes across as more human, and certainly more humane.
Whereas Sirius’ biographer was only revealed as being named “Robert” in the later book, the author who gives us the short and tragic life history of John Wainwright never reveals his name at all. A family friend of the Wainwrights, and later a freelance journalist and husband, he is given the nickname “Fido” by John as the tale progresses, in mocking recognition of the many faithful services that our adult narrator renders to the youth. Our biographer’s narrative cleaves into two fairly discrete sections. In the first, we learn that John was born after his mother, Pax, had carried him for a full 11 months. A child with enormous eyes and a thatch of wooly white hair, John did not begin to speak until he was 5, after which he quickly became loquacious, and then well versed in both reading and mathematics. He did not walk until he was 6. By the time he was 11, he had read all the medical, philosophy and biology books that he could acquire, entered into a fitness regimen to strengthen his atrophied body, gone on train trips to study the adults around him (a “beastly cocky little freak” is how the world apparently saw John), and become a burglar in his search for thrills and new experiences. It was during the course of one of those burglaries that John had found it necessary to kill a policeman, at the tender age of 11. As a teenager, John had built a laboratory for himself in a beachside cavern and begun to invent a great number of household gadgets, using our narrator to procure patents for them and thus quietly build up a great fortune. After a period of bisexual promiscuity, during which, it is suggested, he even had carnal relations with his own mother (!), John decided that he was in need of some spiritual cleansing, and so went off to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, where he lived alone in a cave, hunted and gathered like a primitive, and became capable of working wonders.
In the biography’s second, and perhaps more compelling, section, John uses his newfound telepathic abilities to search the world for his own kind. He discovers two such — an aged madman in a Brighton lunatic asylum and an evil infant in the Outer Hebrides — but they are not suitable for his future plans. In France, he makes mental and, later, actual contact with a woman named Jacqueline, who had been born in 1765 … around 160 years before. He is also able to make contact, in Port Said (an area that Stapledon knew well, having lived there till he himself was 6, and later having worked in as a shipping clerk from the ages of 24 to 26), with an Egyptian named Adlan, who had been born in 1512 and had died 35 years before he and John meet mentally! Eventually, John is able to gather some two dozen examples of Homo superior from around the world, and, using an advanced-design yacht and airplane of his own creation, transports them to a lonely island near the Tuamoto Archipelago, in the South Pacific. There, the mental and physical sports endeavor to found a colony, and all indeed does go well for five years or so, until their island is discovered by the world’s major powers, resulting in tragedy and John’s death, at the age of 23. (And no, this last bit is not a spoiler; it is revealed by our biographer on the very first page.)
While learning of John’s activities on his lonely island, and of his group’s experiments with both the physical sciences and in the realm of spirituality, the reader might well be forcibly reminded of another group of youthful and assorted mutants; namely, Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s now-famous superhero group of 1963, here, we have a collection of oddball misfits with a vast assortment of talents and backgrounds. Thus, Ng-Gunko, an Abyssinian youth who is a master at telepathy; Lo, a Russian girl with a spongelike mind; Jelli, a deformed Hungarian girl who can read a newspaper from 60 feet away and see outside of our color spectrum; Marianne, a French girl with photographic memory; Sigrid, a Swedish girl with the ability to “comb” others’ minds till they are sane; Shen Kuo, a Chinese lad who can probe mentally into the past; and on and on. It is a colorful group, to be sure (“Jesus Christ! What a troupe!” a British officer remarks at first sight of them), one that communicates telepathically with one another, and that has also mastered the art not only of hypnosis, but of hypnotizing the very atoms in matter, making possible instant atomic fission. The scenes in which our narrator visits John’s colony and studies these young and budding mutants, and the scenes in which John and his band come into conflict with the world’s superpowers, are both fascinating and exciting to behold.
As mentioned, Stapledon — who had, 10 years earlier, at the age of 39, received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Liverpool — uses his main character to offer up observations regarding humankind and today’s institutions, just as he would do later in Sirius. Thus, regarding religion, John sniffs “ … Ninety-nine percent slush and one percent — something else, but what?” Of the psychiatrist, he opines “ … The poor man is all at sea when he comes up against really grown-up people.” Regarding philosophy, he states “ … Philosophy is an amazing tissue of really fine thinking and incredible, puerile mistakes.” Of mankind as a whole, he says “ … Homo sapiens reached his limit a million years ago, but he has only recently begun to use his powers dangerously.” And in an instance of youthful prescience, John even predicts the inevitability of WW2, almost to the year:
…That’s what’s going to get Europe. And its power depends on its being a hotch-potch of self-seeking, sheer hate, and this bewildered hunger of the soul, which is so worthy and so easily twisted into something bloody. If Christianity could hold it in and discipline it, it might do wonders. But Christianity’s played out. So these folk will probably invent some ghastly religion of their own. Their God will be the God of the hate-club, the nation. That’s what’s coming. The new Messiahs (one for each tribe) won’t triumph by love or gentleness, but by hate and ruthlessness … Then what with this new crazy religion of nationalism that’s beginning, and the steady improvement in the technique of destruction, a huge disaster is simply inevitable, barring a miracle, which of course may happen. There might be some sort of sudden leap forward to a more human mentality, and therefore a world-wide social and religious revolution. But apart from that possibility I should give the disease fifteen to twenty years to come to a head. Then one fine day a few great powers will attack one another…
John offers up these thoughts to his older friend “Fido” when he himself is around 15, in the year 1925. World War 2 would begin 14 years later.
John, it should be added, is a character whom it is hard to precisely like. It is not that he is immoral, per se; just that his morality is quite different than ours. During the course of his short life, he not only murders that policeman, but is also responsible for the deaths of some British sailors on the high seas (to keep the knowledge of his yacht and crew a secret), as well as the deaths of all the natives who had previously occupied the island that he wanted for his own. Yes, unlike Sirius, John is hardly loveable. And yet, our narrator makes us somehow feel for him, and for all that he and his band of misfits are trying to accomplish and give to the world. Despite his many crimes, his aloof bearing, his haughty and condescending manner, one cannot help but admire Odd John, and even marvel at his many attainments. I have read that no less a figure than George Pal, the producer and/or director of such wonderful sci-fi films as Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space and The Time Machine, had at one point purchased the rights to adapt Odd John for the big screen, and that David McCallum was set to play the title role. Sadly, that film never quite got off the launching pad, leaving us to wonder what might have been. Stapledon’s novel, it strikes me, would still make for an impressive big-screen presentation, provided that the filmmakers kept things in the spirit of the author’s highly literate and decidedly adult third novel. Beautifully written, thought provoking, colorful, exciting, and filled with a raft of highly unusual characters, Odd John is a simply wonderful novel, and indeed, barring one unfortunate instance of the “N word,” virtually a faultless performance by Olaf Stapledon, an author who is now a very solid two for two with this reader…
Well, I have a new candidate for Rename This Awful Cover.
Actually, three candidates.
Really? I like them all…especially the one on top, from the original hardcover….
Okay, actually, it isn’t the worst of the three.
Marion, I had exactly the same thought.
Thanks for this detailed review. I’m a great fan of Stapledon’s best known works, Star Maker and Last and First Men, also combined in an ancient Dover edition. But I haven’t read the two you have reviewed. Star Maker is dazzling and reads like a sourcebook for many of the SFF ideas adopted by generations of writers. I have a review of it on my blog, if you want to get an idea of what it’s about.
My pleasure, John. I have that Dover edition you mentioned, containing “Last and First Men” and “Star Maker,” here in the house and really do hope to read it one day soon. Very glad that you enjoyed this review of a book that I hope you get to experience one day, and hopefully enjoy as much as I did….