Frequently, tragic novels feature a main character who makes selfish or impractical decisions, leading to a personal disaster of some sort. Along the way, readers are often challenged to decide between their feelings of compassion or contempt toward that character – Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a classic example of this sort of thing.
Even though Olaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel Odd John is also a tale of hubris, the conflict between compassion and contempt takes place within the main character, in how he feels toward us, as contemporary homo sapiens. It is the story of a genetic mutant who becomes aware of his natural superiority, contacts other mutants like him, and attempts to prepare his emerging race of homo superior for the coming end of mankind.
Published the year before the Spanish Civil War and four years before the beginning of World War II, OJ references the inevitable build-up toward a global conflict that will threaten civilization itself. Stapledon (1886-1950), a philosopher who served as a conscientious objector during World War I, was evidently inspired by world events to reject mankind’s assumed place of permanence as the planet’s dominant species. He considered us to have too many natural limitations to grasp the truth about our place within the universe, and invented “odd” John Wainright to tell us so.
When I told John that I intended to write his biography, he laughed. “My dear man!” he said, “But of course it was inevitable.” The word “man” on John’s lips was often equivalent to “fool.”
Through the perspective of a family friend (OJ is a fictional biography, written in the post-Victorian style of dithering and euphemisms), we witness much of the entire life of John, from his earliest days to second-hand reports of his death. First taking on mathematics, he quickly develops the ability to comprehend abstract principles far beyond professionals. Throughout his childhood, he takes on different interests – medicine, engineering, finance and fistfighting – mastering them all and proving too “odd” to be integrated into society, much less grammar school. He obtains some satisfaction in mastering the hearts and minds of the neighborhood kids, impressing them with acts of mischief.
Many passages of OJ are told as transcriptions of John describing his past actions to the biographer. This technique of storytelling is especially useful for many of the more disturbing aspects of John’s story, which are (meekly) challenged by the morals of Stapledon’s time.
The first of these episodes involves theft and murder. Having become interested in burglary, John goes on many nighttime adventures breaking into wealthy households. One of these trips finally results in an encounter with a local policeman, who catches him dangling from the roof:
“I must have hung motionless for three seconds at most, but in that time I saw myself and my world as never before. An idea toward which I had long but doubtfully groping suddenly displayed itself to me with complete clarity and certainty. I had already, some time before, come to think of myself as definitely of a different biological species for Homo sapiens, the species of that amiable bloodhound behind the torch. …”
How convenient for John, to arrive at this train of thought when faced with prospect of suffering the consequences of his actions. He decides that his independence, needed to “advance the spirit on the planet,” is too important to be subject to the rules of the humans around him, and disposes of the policeman (Smithson) with swift but brutal action.
John’s account of this strange incident sowed me how little I had known of his real character at that time.
“You must have felt pretty bad on the way home,” I said.
“As a matter of fact,” he answered, “I didn’t. The bad feeling ended when I made my decision. And I didn’t go straight home. I went to Smithson’s house, intending to kill his wife. I knew she was down with cancer and in for a lot of pain, and would be broken-hearted over her husband’s death …”
It’s clear that by this time, John has – by recognition of his intellectual superiority – found his own justification for imposing his will on the lives of others. He does this more and more often, albeit in ways other than killing, as he matures into adulthood. He has various sexual relationships with young people of both genders, although the narrator frets more about the sex itself than the emotional manipulation. He poses as a lost youth and gets taken into the houses of various unwitting families. The narrator himself is an important tool for John – he earns the nickname Fido and becomes the public face of John’s many business ventures. Fido plays the part of the eccentric millionaire, filing patents for John’s many inventions and covering for his frequent disappearances.
After spending time among the “intellectuals” of English society, John appears to give up on living among normal humans, and retreats into the mountains of Scotland. There he lives alone for an extended time, surviving the brutal weather with hardly any equipment. Stapledon spends quite a bit of time detailing these adventures, first from the recollections of two Scottish climbers that spotted John, and through the words of John himself, after he finally returns to Fido. Somewhere along the way, John developed psychic abilities:
John paused, and I interjected, “What sort of quality?”
He looked at me for some seconds in silence. Believe it or not, but that prolonged gaze had a really terrifying effect on me. I am not suggesting that there was something magical about it. The effect was of the same kind as any normal facial expression may have. But knowing John as I did, and remembering the strange events of his summer in Scotland, I was not doubt peculiarly susceptible. I can only describe what I felt by means of an image…
Eventually, John discloses to Fido that he can telepathically connect with other “supernormal” minds across great distances. He decides to seek them out and build a utopian colony of super-humans to live separately from the rest of the world. His first quests lead him to individuals who are telepathic but critically undeveloped as physical or psychological beings. One plays a bizarre panflute while institutionalized, and another is a permanent infant with a monstrously evil mind. However, he does find capable supernormal companions from across Europe, some who grow to share in John’s affectionate derision of Fido. Many of them are recruited into founding a utopian society on a distant Pacific island.
A perusal of OJ reviews have yielded some discussion of Nietzsche’s superman ideas. This gathering of super-normals bears some resemblance to the concept of the Übermensch of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but I see a critical difference (in my admittedly novice-level understanding of such things): Nietzsche’s super-humans are people who have willed themselves to their new status, while John and friends are all differentiated as genetic mutations. Also, the Übermensch does not wish to escape his world, whereas John clearly does, by creating an island utopia. Stapledon may have been influenced by Nietzsche but OJ does not make him a philosophical descendant.
Stapledon’s philosophy is focused* on the limitations of “normal” humans who make up the contemporary world, and the super-normals in OJ are fictional creations for illustrating these limitations. One of these limits is the impossibility of a planned society. Late in OJ, one Chinese super-normal suffers a nervous breakdown after “reverting” to a normal status, i.e., losing her telepathic connection. She attacks her romantic partner with a knife before being sedated, and then killed. It’s a curious incident that occurs for one of two reasons: 1.) it’s impossible for “normals” to live within a society of super-normals (but Fido himself spends a long time on the island to document the society), or 2.) it’s not quite possible, even for a group of telepathically connected super-normals, to create a utopia that allows all of its members to thrive as individuals.
OJ ends after a series of confrontations between the super-normals and “normals” who arrive by ship. The details of these encounters do not seem important, and Stapledon describes them with a kind of half-interested repetition. The greater point was that the super-normals realize that they cannot hope to sustainably exist on their own. It is debatable that OJ fully explains Fido’s involvement, and ends in a plausible fashion.
Despite my misgivings about the ending chapters, Stapledon’s novel is a pillar of SF in its early decades. It is a dense, philosophical novel that deepens the speculations of Wells, and has a style and presence of its own. 8/10.
* Maybe. This is only my first Stapledon novel.
I wish I hadn’t lost my copy of it, years ago. Haven’t read it in many years. Many of the details you mention in your concise synopsis (I always wonder how you do those) sound only vaguely familiar. I think I’d understand it better now, but I liked it very much then.
I do seem to recall that at the end, John is somewhat transcending his earlier arrogant homo superiority. He’s perceived the limitations of his plans, and of himself. A highly evolved man is still a man. I seem to remember a highly evolved woman who would say to him “*Odd* John”–emphasis on the odd. Because the workings of his mind were inscrutable even to her. He was not all of a piece.
The connection to Wells is obvious–this is Stapledon revisiting the themes of The Invisible Man–Wells conception that in humanity’s struggle to evolve a better version of itself, there will be many failed experiments along the way (the narrator of Last and First Men refers to John in passing as precisely such).
I could never really sympathize with the invisible Mr. Griffin, though. He seems incapable of any degree of self-understanding, nor can he form relationships with others beyond those of dominance and intimidation–he’s all about schadenfreude and ressentiment. I don’t think that can be said of John. Even though he can be equally ruthless. He evolves in more ways than one as the book proceeds.
Supermen stories litter the genre, as you know, and they frequently are telepaths of some type. Some authors, like Van Vogt, Bester, Kuttner, emphasized all the positive aspects of telepathy, suggested that it would bring about a new era of mutual trust and understanding. Thedore Sturgeon was a bit less complaisant about it in More than Human, but still assumed superior abilities would lead to superior people. I think Stapledon was ahead of the curve in suggesting that the most talented are often the most dysfunctional, and would, in any event, be unable to work together well–John’s trying to herd cats here. (Interesting that this book is so often paired with the one he wrote about a dog.)
Octavia Butler made many of the same points, in greater depth, in her Patternist novels. I’m not sure there was much left to say with the idea, after she got through with it. (She also wrote a short story about a secret society of telepaths in America–that is still racially segregated. If we could read each other’s minds, would we really trust each other more?)
Can’t wait for us to get Sirius. 😉
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Let me just look at the chronology here–Nietzsche started expanding on earlier ideas Goethe and other German romantics had about the Ubermensch back in the early 1890’s, then The Invisible Man (which can’t really be called romantic) came out in 1897. But Nietzsche’s book wasn’t published in English until 1896. No clear line of influence there, I’d think. But Stapledon would have been well familiar with both.
Now the positive-thinking Yanks get into the act, egged on in part by John W. Campbell (who thinks a race of superior telepathic mutants taking over and replacing us would be really cool).
The Demolished Man–1952 (won the Hugo in ’53)
Mutant and More than Human came out in ’53.
Dune (not about telepathy, or a superior race, per se, but still a superman with strange mental powers)–1965.
Then comes Octavia with her outsider even among the outsiders POV–Patternmaster, then the far more interesting and original Mind of My Mind and Wild Seed–’76, ’77, ’80.
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Of those in your list, I haven’t read Mutant (I think you mean the Kuttner/Moore book) or Patternmaster yet. I would add “Dying Inside,” Robert Silverberg’s novel about a telepath who discovers that he’s losing his ability. Some aren’t big fans of that book but I consider it an all-time classic.
Campbell’s fascination with ESP helped make him a dedicated fan of L. Ron Hubbard, of course, but that’s another story altogether. It does hint how deep his interest ran.
I’ve never read the Silverberg book, and clearly I should have. I think it might be a different line of descent from the books I mentioned, though. More along the lines of what Westlake was interested in–not so much how people with such abilities would impact society, as how those abilities would impact their sense of self. You can do both, of course.
My edition of Mutant was credited solely to Kuttner (not the pseudonymous Lewis Padgett), and I don’t know offhand whether Moore collaborated with him on that, though their work is known to be intermingled to some extent.
Amazingly, helping to cause the rise of Scientology may not be the most heinous thing John W. Campbell ever did. But we do owe him some good stories. (None of which were written by Hubbard.)
Don’t forget that in Dune both the Bene Gesserit and the menats are clearly ‘superior’.
The difference maybe being that in most books you mention (haven’t read everything) the telepathy/Überness comes from a more or less contemporary mutation, while it took millenia of carefull training, breeding and evolution to bring about the Bene Gesserit and mentat powers. The powers Paul and his descendant have are merely added value, and also the result of breeding/evolution.
Viz. telepathy: Asimov’s Second Foundation is important too, and similary, it happens only millenia in the future. What happens in 5 with the prospect of the entire universe becoming telepathically connected is maybe the most utopian of all, and maybe not too dissimilar to Last And The First Men (although I think Asimov’s succeeded better in fleshing it out in a story, achieving something that’s both emotionally and logically beyond Stapledon’s abstract mysticism).
I find Stapledon’s Last Men more compelling than the Second Foundation. I believe in them more. Asimov really wasn’t that good with character (a fine writer, but a conventional one), and since his books are much more traditional in their structure, that matters. Asimov’s vision is grand, but his characters aren’t. Except maybe the Mule. I tried reading what came after the trilogy, lost interest.
One thing that’s self-defeating about that story cycle is that he’s trying to write an adventure story–where adventurers don’t matter. Everything is proceeding according to historical rules as laid out by Hari Seldon, and it would all go the same way if none of these people ever lived. It’s like one of those “You Are There” books. (Remember those?) There was a lot of that in SF, Heinlein did it too, and I don’t like it. The actions of individuals do matter, even if there are things none of us can change.
Last and First Men is written as history after the fact, by a human so changed by evolution as to scarcely count as human anymore, proud of what all species of human have achieved, but facing the basic limitations of life and the universe. All stories have an end. Just not too soon, okay?
I kind of feel like we did Dune already. Of course the origins of special abilities can vary from author to author. Depending on the point being made, the idea being expressed. The idea behind the stories where it’s some random mutation is the same as in the X-Men (where do you think Stan Lee got that from? His original title for that comic was ‘The Mutants’). New types of people keep coming along, and we shouldn’t prejudge them–they may have value, and after all, we looked pretty weird to the Neanderthals (who had reason to fear us, but we probably carry them in our genes, and I don’t think the current consensus is that we killed them off–just out-competed them).
The fact is, every new generation sees itself as a sort of mutation, an advancement over what came before, which is why these stories are always popular among the young.
Another reason to do it that way–it just happens of itself, through ordinary natural selection, chance mutation–is, of course, because of the memory of the dark side of eugenics, embodied by Hitler’s Aryan breeding program. An awful lot of American SF authors of the Mid-20th were Jewish, and of course they all lived through that era.
Butler’s Patternists are both random and planned–Doro, the supreme mutation (and perhaps the most frightening character in all of SF), looks for people with these talents, and breeds them selectively over millennia to make a race for himself. So many influences Butler weaves together there, all the way back to Frankenstein. And she’s saying so many different things, philosophical, political, cultural, and personal, it’s mind-boggling.
But what’s so moving to me about it is that they have, in fact, moved beyond race. They all have the same problems with their abilities, they are in many ways an oppressive culture, but in the end, all that matters is the Pattern. That embraces all colors. But here come the Clayarks. And we’ll never know how that worked out.
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I agree about Asimov and characters, and your point about its problematic status as an adventure is interesting, hadn’t thought about it like that, I’m not sure if I fully agree though, so when I reread the trilogy (later than sooner) I’ll try to keep that in mind, but yes, individual actions do matter indeed. (The next Asimov I’ll read is The Gods Themselves.)
Have yet to read Butler, Wild Seed seems like a good place to start, thanks.
It’s an open question where to start the Patternist books. Wild Seed is not the start of the series, it’s a prequel. It takes two unsympathetic characters from the previous book and tells us where they came from, how they got the way they were, somehow makes you feel for them, even though one of them is, for all intents and purposes a demon of incalculable evil (Odd John is a mild-mannered decent sort of chap by comparison, who Doro would literally eat for lunch), and the other is–well, that’s enough preview.
I started with Mind of my Mind, which I think is the best book of the series (Wild Seed is a very close second). I think there are moments in Wild Seed you can’t fully appreciate before you read Mind of my Mind.
To me, those are the two key books of the series. Patternmaster is a solid futuristic yarn with some great ideas–in the same class as a good Jack Vance novel. Clay’s Ark is her take on something like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Very limited in its perspective, and only the barest hint that the Patternists are out there. I wish she’d written a novel about how the Patternists first encountered the Clayarks, but we’re left to guess about it. The other book is made of 99% unobtanium, because she refused to let it be reprinted. It’s a sidebar to the story as a whole.
But the two central books are Mind of My Mind and Wild Seed. One is contemporary America (at that time), one set in the past, linking Africa and America. It’s such beautiful writing, full of heartbreaking ethical dilemmas, and a searing take on American history. Butler at her best is a revelation.
The Gods Themselves is Asimov at his best, and revelatory in its own right. Incidentally, I once visited Schiller’s birthplace. 🙂
I don’t think John outgrew his low opinion of H. sapiens at the end … maybe there was some hopeful phrasing by “Fido” Griffin (who was always looking for approval). He was more wrapped up in the fate of his psychic friends network, so to speak. He did seem humbled by the challenge of his utopia at the end, although it was presumptuous of him to think that he had prepared enough to preserve his accomplishments. Fido’s book never communicated just what it was that they had accomplished on that island – such a thing could only be understood by others of H. superior. However, these super-normals were mostly living in isolation from one another, and there was no indication that the colonists convinced them to change.
It would be challenging to make Fido a more respectable character. I got the impression that John would have dropped him for someone else if he ever grew enough of a spine to, you know, try turning him in for murder. To be a consistent narrator, Fido had to remain subservient and only provide the weakest of moral protestations.
I think we have to recognize that Stapledon is humorously identifying with both his narrator and John at the same time (this is, after all, a story ‘between jest and earnest’).
One the one hand, Stapledon’s a lot smarter than most people he knows. On the other, moving in the high-powered intellectual circles he did, there must have been people who made him feel pretty thick, but at the same time, had some serious personality issues. (He’s approaching this paradox a bit differently than the Big Bang Theory writers, of course.)
Something of this quandary also exists in Sirius. There the narrator is not so servile, but he’s got a rather unique romantic problem.
(Not totally unique. Pretty sure the main reason my girlfriend invited me to move in with her years ago was Peggy, my dog of the time. Not a rival, precisely, but she felt her proper place on the bed was sandwiched between us….)
The reason Sirius and Odd John are so often paired in an omnibus edition is that they are his two best novels from the perspective of character. His other books tend to be more about ideas–in these two, the ideas are in the service of making us understand two anomalous beings.
Sirius is his supreme achievement as a protagonist. And I think the closest Stapledon got to telling us who he really was, and what his core beliefs were.
I don’t mean to say that Asimov has no good characters. Susan Calvin, Lije Baley, R. Daneel Olivaw–they all trigger warm memories. But I’ve never really bonded with any of his people. Even the ones who are robots.
His writing means a lot to me. There are others in the field who strike a much deeper chord.
Interesting that my favorite books by the Dean are whodunnit mysteries (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun), and the only SF by my favorite mystery novelist which I consider worthy of multiple readings is set on another planet.
But even there, I’d give Westlake the edge.
Not that I’m trying to prejudice you. 😉
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