My first (but not to be the last) taste of Stapledon

Looking to increase my familiarity with earlier eras of science fiction, and its classic works and authors, it’s natural that I would come at some point to Olaf Stapledon. Published in 1935, Odd John is, I’m fairly certain, the oldest sci-fi novel I’ve read so far. And I must say, if there was SF this good being produced back then, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of it. Especially from Stapledon, who is an interesting author. He had degrees in Modern History and Philosophy, and that background seems to have given depth and insight to his fiction. It certainly is evident in Odd John.

Written a few decades before the term “transhumanism” was coined, this novel deals with that kind of issue: the emergence of a new strain of humanity that is so far advanced it threatens to make “normal” humans obsolete. The mechanism behind these superbeings (which he labels Homo superior) is good old-fashioned genetic mutation, even though it’s not explored in any real depth; it’s not a “how did this happen” story, but rather a “what would be the consequences of…” story. The novel revolves around one particular superbeing, an odd fellow named John, born in England early in the 20th century. Right from the start it is clear to everyone that John is different. Very different.

After a gestation period of eleven months, John is born looking extremely frail, underdeveloped, and peculiar, with short white hair and abnormally large, dark eyes. Throughout childhood and later life, he suffers from a delicate digestive system, and due to his small body he always looks years younger than his true age. His mental development, however, is the complete opposite. His mind quickly outstrips those of everyone around him: siblings, parents, teachers, mathematicians, scientists, everyone. He voraciously absorbs all the knowledge he comes across, mastering a subject, then getting bored with it and moving on to another, all the while feeling disdain for the cognitive limits of the “normals.” At a young age he comes to the realization that he is of a different species than those around him. As he grows older, John goes through various life stages. For a while he spends his time creating novel new inventions. Later, he goes through a period of “finding himself” — a spiritual journey, for lack of a better term. Later he develops telepathic abilities and discovers that there are others like him around the world. There is then a period of travel to gather these kindred souls together, and later still they all travel to a tropical island to found their own colony dedicated to their purpose of creating a new and better world. But this ends in disaster when the normals discover what they are up to and sense a threat to the established order.

Through the instrument of John, Stapledon offers quite a critique of we Homo sapiens. On the receiving end of this criticism are such topics as politics, religion, social conformity, the desire of the rich to get richer, nationalism, and human nature itself. Consider this striking opinion of humanity:

I have looked pretty carefully into lots of minds, big and little, and it’s devestatingly clear to me that in big matters Homo sapiens is a species with very slight educable capacity. He has entirely failed to learn his lesson from the last war. He shows no more practical intelligence than a moth who has fluttered through a candle-flame once and will do so again as soon as it has recovered from the shock. And again and yet again, until its wings are burnt. It’s as though the moth knew that the flame meant death, yet simply couldn’t stop its wings from taking it there.

And this passage so predictive of what was to happen in the next decade or two with Hitler and Stalin:

But Christianity’s played out. So these folks 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 and gentleness, but by hate and ruthlessness.

Ironically, these superbeings sometimes behave ruthlessly themselves. They are not above killing normals who obstruct their plans. Stapledon never comes right out and condemns this; rather, he presents it as a philospohical problem for the reader to ponder. Should Homo superior’s treatment of Homo sapiens be considered any different from Homo sapien’s treatment of other animals? One “normal” who is basically John’s pet has this to say:

Certainly, had the killings been perpetrated by members of my own kind, such a deed would have deserved the sternest condemnation. But who am I that I should judge such beings who in daily contact with me constantly proved themselves my superiors not only in intelligence but in moral insight?

John and his compatriots sometimes look kindly on humanity, but it’s a patronizing sort of kindliness, the way we would view dogs or cats or cows; if they need to be killed for a greater good, that’s mildly distasteful, but so be it.

This novel certainly makes one think about the issues surrounding an advanced daughter-species of humanity and how they might view their parent species. I was also struck, many times throughout the book, by how it reminded me, in lots of little ways, of other books written in later decades. I get the sense that a lot of later authors were influenced by Stapledon, and had read this book in particular. Now I’m glad I’ve done the same.


2 responses to “My first (but not to be the last) taste of Stapledon

  1. 1935? Oh, come now. Surely you’ve read H.G. Wells and Verne?

    Seriously, though, thanks for turnin’ me on to Stapledon. I’ll have to check him out.

  2. Bill the sci-fi guy

    I’m definitely planning on reading some of Wells’ stuff somewhere down the line.

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