It is probably safe to claim that Olaf Stapledon (1866-1950) is best remembered today as a science fiction writer, rather than a philosopher; since his recognition as the first winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award (2001) and admission to the SFWA Hall of Fame (2014), there has been a steady trickle of reviews and articles about his work. His deep-thinking content and post-Victorian prose are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but his work can still provoke some intense debate.
Earlier, I praised Odd John for being inventive as a novel and as a book of ideas – the titular character was not sympathetic, but served to turn a mirror on ourselves as modern humans. I also thought the narrator was rather meek, but his stuffy and indirect way of describing things illustrated the level of discomfort Stapledon’s contemporary readers would have with the way a generation of super-humans disregarded their social and sexual norms.
In Sirius (1944), we see similar tricks: Stapledon again utilizes a rather passive narrator – the unfortunate Robert – who describes the singular life of the title character. In this case, Sirius is a sheepdog who was prenatally treated with an experimental compound to grow his brain to human complexity. He develops an acute understanding of language, psychology and machines, but retains his canine genius for hearing and smell, as well as the capacity to love a human. He is the unique product of a wayward biologist, who can readily create intelligent sheepdogs, but never again another Sirius. This may have been far-off speculation in Stapledon’s time, but by 2013 science has discovered a genetic treatment that induces enhanced brain development – including strikingly primate-like formations of folds and gyri – in prenatal mice. Just like John of Odd John, Sirius is intelligent but not human, and therefore is compelled to demonstrate the value of social codes and taboos by breaking them.
If that introduction seems overly informative for a blog that tends to avoid major spoilers, it’s because Stapledon starts the novel at a point near the end of the actual story:
During that strange meal Plaxy told me, as I had guessed, Sirius was her father’s crowning achievement, that he had been brought up as a member of the Trelone family, that he was now helping to run a sheep farm, that she herself was keeping house for him, and also working on the farm, compensating for his lack of hands.
Sirius is not set up to make the reader turn pages, asking what happens next; Stapledon wants you to ask how did we get here, or why did that happen instead. This is not a brisk Hard Case Crime novel or a wild SF adventure yarn – Stapledon’s bulky sentences would never serve that style of literature. His writing, an understandable obstacle for some, suits the reader willing to chase the philosophical questions.
the creation of Sirius
Thomas Trelone is a iconoclastic English scientist who has achieved a modest reputation by enhancing the intelligence of sheep-dogs in controlled experiments. He reliably produces dogs capable of understanding human commands with a sense of logic and resolving issues in the pasture; several herdsman in Wales purchase and employ these dogs, making the practical acceptance of their unusual intelligence. However, to secure his fame within academic circles, Thomas pursues the idea of producing a dog with human intelligence. His experiments result in the chance creation of Sirius, with (minor spoiler here) all other attempts resulting in failure; Sirius is one of a kind.
Thomas raises the puppy Sirius to be the constant companion of his daughter Plaxy (or equally, the other way around). They play together constantly and share, to the best of their abilities, in human-behaviors and canine-behaviors. The dog attempts to keep pace in Plaxy’s early tutoring sessions:
So far as possible, Sirius took part in all the simple lessons that Elizabeth [the mother] gave to Plaxy. He was never very good at arithmetic, perhaps because of his poor visual powers; but he managed to avoid being outclassed by Plaxy, who was none too good herself. His spelling, too, was very bad, probably for the same reason. But at an early age he showed a great interest in language and the art of precise expression. In spite of his visual weakness he read a good deal, and he often begged members of the family to read aloud to him. This they did very frequently, knowing how great a boon it was for him.
Just as amusing are Robert’s descriptions of Plaxy’s adventures outdoors with Sirius, where the two happily explore together and mark their territory. Sirius also learns to read the mood states of his family by the odor, identifying their “cross smell,” “tired smell,” and so on. There’s some rich material in this story for those seeking questions (don’t look to fiction for answers) about the role of pets in family life.
the talent of Sirius
Besides language (he approximates words through various whines, barks and other vocalizations), Sirius demonstrates an exemplary capacity for reasoning. This is partly an outcome of the time he is forced to spend alone, or without someone who could understand him. He maintains his dog’s talents for smell and hearing, often attempting to encode human emotions through the terms of his keen senses. He is often limited by having paws instead of hands, and regrets his inability to grasp and control things. Above all these things is the dog’s capacity to love a human, which becomes the main theme of Sirius.
Now, a disclosure: the plausibility of all this is going to be helped or hindered by the reader’s enthusiasm for dogs. To know one as your pet is to appreciate its talent for understanding your habits and tendencies. Stapledon did not assume the mind of a dog like Jack London did for his Call of the Wild, but he invented a hybrid creature that could put the canine perspective into human terms.
Stapledon freely stretches our suspension of disbelief when Sirius learns to speak English and Welsh, administer first aid to injured sheep and compose his own music. Thomas and Plaxy construct special gloves for him to control a pencil with his paw, and he gradually learns to write his thoughts. During his sheep-dog apprenticeship, he even manages to post a letter at one point:
Not till several days later did Sirius find an opportunity of writing his letter. In spidery capitals it said, “Dear Plaxy, I hope you are happy. I am lonely without you, terribly. Love, Sirius.” With great care he addressed the envelope, hoping that his memory was trustworthy. He had serious difficulty in folding the paper and putting it into the envelope. Then he licked the gummy-edge, closed it, and held his paw on it.
The whole episode is a minor entertainment, but carries the message that Sirius can achieve surprising amounts through sheer persistence. Stapledon was well aware of the unlikeliness of several of Sirius’ human-like feats and probably thought they would lighten the novel a bit. Some of Gary Larson’s most famous Far Side cartoons of the 1980s were centered around animals and our inability to communicate with them, and the subject was probably funny in 1944.
I already linked to the critical review on Weighing the Pig Doesn’t Fatten It, which brings up the fact that the premise of Sirius matches that of Frankenstein. There is some overlap, owing to the influence of Shelley’s 1819 masterpiece on many SF novels – better this than the bug-eyed monsters of the pulp era. I happen to like Frankenstein quite a bit, and am ready for another Frankenstein story every so often. There are important differences, however. Sirius was raised in a family and enjoyed a deep companionship with Plaxy, and Thomas also went to great lengths to educate him, elements vitally missing from the life of Frankenstein’s monster.
norms and taboos
Also, unlike the perpetually frustrated monster of Frankenstein, Sirius has frequent sex with a variety of female dogs throughout the countryside. Giving in to these temptations with beings he feels are of a different species is one-half of Sirius’ “wolf” identity. The other half takes the form of violent outbursts, sometimes directed toward dog rivals and abusive humans, and sometimes toward innocent creatures, like a small pony. Is this predator, under a veneer of civility, specific to Sirius or a reflection on human nature that is only perceptible to this unique creature? Stapledon argues the latter, clearly because there’s a war on – the orgy of destruction he had been worrying about since Odd John, at least – but in a way that doesn’t quite tie together. It’s the dated prose that gets in the way, here; I’m afraid the lessens of Stapledon (and Wells as well) will reach fewer readers as time goes on for this reason.
Much less detail is given to the extent of the physical relationship between Sirius and Plexy. There’s clearly temptation on his part, derived from the confusion of his identity as dog on the outside, but something approaching human on the inside. Stapledon’s post-Victorian language, and his increasingly curious choice of the jealous Robert as the narrator, obfuscates the matter; we’re left to interpret the most likely truth for ourselves.
However, many folk of the countryside have concluded the worst about Sirius and Plexy. Salacious gossip about the pair runs rampant, and the two are increasingly isolated. Sirius is acceptable as a talented sheep-dog, but not as a something who can fill the roles of man. The sexual rumors, and the ill will that they provoke between the Welsh locals and Sirius, that finally bring events to a head. The final chapters can feel like an unsatisfactory conclusion to the novel, but it realizes the sense of doom that had been lingering over the characters since the advent of the War.
The real taboo that Sirius guilty of breaking is attempting to share the mantle with mankind as the species in charge. Once the open-minded sheep-herd Pugh (maybe my favorite human character) and Thomas (the only source of intelligent dogs) depart from his life, Sirius is rejected by the society around him. Without these individuals, the hostility around him drives Sirius into his wolf-state with increasing frequency. The behavior of the locals is despicable and earns Sirius his sympathy from Robert.
Sirius’s enemies were not be intimidated. Whenever he went to the village, a stone was sure to be thrown at him, and when he whisked round to spot the culprit no one looked guilty. Once, indeed, he did detect the assailant, a young laborer. Sirius approached him threateningly, but immediately a swarm of dogs and men set on him. Fortunately two of his friends, the local doctor and the village policeman, were able to quell the brawl.
A pacifist and natural skeptic, Stapledon clearly refutes the rough “stiff upper lip” nobility of survival that has characterized the country during the war, replacing it with suspicion and bitterness. He does not go so far as, say, Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird (I haven’t read anybody since that goes that far), but the ordinary people of the time don’t come off very well at all. There is a curiously parallel circumstance in Angus Wilson’s The Old Men of the Zoo, where the English of the countryside turn against zoo animals after the bombs start falling.
the legacy of Sirius
As hinted in the opening chapter, the war effort frustrates Thomas and deprives him the resources to grow his breeding program. This means that Sirius is destined to have no natural or scientific progeny; the value of his existence is to be assessed by his life, alone. I don’t think Stapledon makes an indictment of science this way; Britain was struggling for its very existence at the time. Rather, it is a broader statement about the inability of our culture to grasp at the rare opportunities it receives to truly learn about itself. In this way, the emotional tragedies of Sirius become larger intellectual tragedies of chances missed.
After about a week since finishing Sirius, I find that it is not the dog’s failures that resonate, but his successes. He managed to balance his innate happiness as a working sheepdog with his intellectual ambitions and achieve a temporary satisfaction. He attempted to blend in the society of urban intellectuals, but found their company empty and wisely departed. Maybe this conclusion arises only from a committed “dog person”, but in the end, the life Sirius led was one worth reading. 9/10.
NOTE: Looking back on this article (spurred by the comments), I neglected to mention the other significant friendship between Sirius and a human. After attempting to mix with the intellectuals in London, Sirius found his way into a poor neighborhood and a modest Methodist congregation. The minister Rev. Geoffrey was open to meeting Sirius, and grew to appreciate the dog’s intelligence as well as his aspirations for spiritual enlightenment. Their discussions about the soul, and whether Sirius possessed one, are another highlight of the book. I thought the ending of this subplot was rather awkward, but I should have mentioned Rev. Geoffrey in the article.