Sirius: a dog without a world

Sirius (1944) is another example of Stapledon’s interest in superbeings and the various social and psychological issues connected with them. His novel Odd John explored this interest by looking at a super-intelligent human, a homo superior, an evolutionary leap in the development of mankind. In Sirius he does the same thing with what could be called canis superior (even though he doesn’t use the term) — an advanced dog with human-level intelligence. In this case, as in that previous novel, Stapledon gives us a thorough and stirring look at a superbeing from both inside and out — from both the personal and the societal level.

A quick synopsis: an English physiologist does experiments with animals, trying to increase their intelligence. He has his best success with dogs, and manages to create many with higher-than-normal canine intelligence, although they are still basically “just” dogs. However, this scientist has one true breakthrough in the form of Sirius, who turns out to be the mental equal of his creator. Written before the discovery of DNA and even longer before the beginnings of genetic engineering, Stapledon’s animal experiments are accomplished through various hormones and chemicals applied to the developing fetus, so it’s not exactly a precise science. Never again is the scientist able to recreate the exact conditions that led to Sirius. He’s one-of-a-kind, a species unto himself, all alone in a world that isn’t ready for him.

Stapledon subtitled the novel A Fantasy of Love and Discord and that’s a pretty accurate description, for there is plenty of both here. Sirius’ creator doesn’t want him known to the world just yet, so he takes him home and raises him in secret as a member of his own family, which includes his infant daughter Plaxy. Sirius and Plaxy grow up together as siblings, with such a deep bond between them that they think of themselves as one entity, Sirius-Plaxy. The love between these two, and the way their relationship changes as they grow older, is the most touching part of the story.

Sirius also has positive experiences with several other people, including a neighboring rancher who teaches him to be a sheep-dog. But he also quickly learns that not all humans are as good and caring as those he grew up with. Indeed, throughout the novel Sirius feels deeply conflicted about humanity and what to think of them. Often he gets very frustrated when considering the flaws of the “superior” species. For example:

Loyalty with dogs could be absolute and pure. With men it was always queered by their inveterate self-love. God! They must be insensitive really, drunk with self, and insensitive to all else. There was something reptilian about them, snakish.

Nevertheless, Sirius is connected to humanity in a love/hate relationship that he can’t break. Other dogs are just dumb animals to him and he can’t relate to them in any meaningful way. The only beings he can relate to on a mental level are the very humans he is so conflicted about, some of whom, once his existence is more widely known, consider him a creature of Satan and want him destroyed. But humanity is not his only source of conflict; he is also confused about his own nature. He struggles to reconcile the civilized part of himself with the instinctual canine part, and sadly comes to realize there is no place where he will ever fit in:

… but you can’t make a world for me. Indeed, it’s not possible for me to have a world at all, because my own nature doesn’t make sense. The spirit in me needs the world of men, and the wolf in me needs the wild. I could only be at home in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world, where I could have my cake and eat it.

The tale ends in tragedy for Sirius, as it did for Odd John. Both are victims partly of their own nature, and partly of humanity’s inability to accept anything which threatens its sense of superiority. This may seem a pessimistic outcome, but I believe it’s also a very realistic one. Stapledon’s superbeing novels tell us something about superbeings, but they also tell us quite a bit about ourselves.

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