Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
This is my third offering in super human or Ubermensch. These three seem to point to a theme that’s a keystones to later works. The first was The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford and this is actually the second chronologically and the third was Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human. All three stick with me as three that I encountered in my early reading history. If I were to add more to this I'd add Mary Shelly's Frankenstein which might at least account for a trend that the other three books take.
I read all three when I was in my teens and I think that the negative outlook of Odd John and The Wonder left me at a place where I avoided rereading them. More Than Human has the benefit of some small amount of hope that the Ubermensch might survive. All three still hold the tone set by Frankenstein; in that the super human would look much like a monster to us. To this end there is always some bit of mutation to the physical appearance and some lack of morality in the sense that whatever they might use for morality is something we can't understand.
J.D. Beresford's Wonder was someone who had no peer at the end of his life and he had a lack of a sense of wonder along with his own strange morality. In Odd John we see this at the beginning but John has a longer life and a better chance at coming to terms and perhaps at staving off the sense that there is nothing left to marvel at or be in awe of.
John's physical difficulties are mostly his slow aging process. And we all say, ‘How can that be bad?’ But John is born with an intellect that goes for beyond his age and with the slow growth easily out strips his physical appearance which is doomed to always be well behind his chronological age. At an early age he takes an interest in everything; but specifically politics, and its power and wealth. His physical problems may account for his interest in medicine. And of course he studies theology, philosophy and the sciences.
He eventually saturates and become disenchanted with everything he takes an interest in. He also is becoming aware that there is nothing in modern theology, philosophy and the science that helps explain what he is. Throughout all of this his one anchor is his mother who seems to have some telepathic connection to him and displays some level of understanding of him and his plight.
His eventual conclusion that he'd have to make his own search for others like himself and in turn uncover more about why he exists lead him down a dark path that begins to show the skewed moral sense that he was forming for himself. Once again being the super human with no peer to study and to guide him, John creates his own moral standard based somewhat on the simplest survival characteristics that all humans have. This comes to the forefront while in his teens, when he takes up with a police official named Smithson. He and Smithson become friends and through his usual precocious inquisitiveness John learns much about breaking the law. His intent is to rob from the rich and fund his quest. This works well until Smithson finds him in the act and John has to make a snap decision resulting in the death of his 'friend' Smithson at Johns hand: and knife.
Because the story is told from another friends Point of View this part is told in a frame story from some future time when John finally decides to confide in the narrator as to what was going on at that time in his life. It might not have come up had that friend not thought to mention he had noticed a peculiar change in John at that time. The moral dilemma in this is that John admits that this was mostly a choice of his survival so that he could continue his plan to bring together others like himself in a community that would work for their own betterment. John had at some point given up any notion that they would be able to help present mankind whom he considered to be on the level of an animal such as a pet. This also is a common thread that runs through these types of stories.
This, when compared with the other stories of this nature, might leave the reader wondering if there were not some ingrained fear in man that, given evolution, there would eventually be a higher form of intelligence that might make present man look like a common animal. It seems ironic from there; that the fear is that the higher one would treat us like we treat our pets and then that that carried over to the notion of having a different moral sense that allows them to kill a man under the right circumstances. I had to stop and think about that; is this how we do treat or pets?
Where J.D. Beresford's wonder, Victor Stott, was doomed to be alone and in fact was plagued by another child who looked similar to him but did not have his gift; John has the power of telepathy and through it he finds others like himself and it becomes his life’s ambition to assemble them and found an island colony. Throughout he uses the narrator as his front man for inventions he creates and sells and makes both of them rich. This gives him a great power over the narrator and sometimes it sounds like John abuses him; while at the same time he values the man enough to know that he needs to let him live a somewhat normal life. This probably gives the reader a better picture of John than we have of Victor and the Gestalt of characters in More Than Human.
I think that the Ubermensch in this novel have something that is better than that of J.D. Beresford's Wonder and that is that they never lose that sense of wonder. Yet what makes this particularly dissatisfying is that once again there is no room for both normal man and the super man and a decision has to be made. It's interesting what that decision finally is.
If I have any qualms about this novel it would be the large sections of expository writing that begins to dominate as soon as John reaches that age and stage where he is giving up on mankind. I'd be inclined to believe that he was beginning to reflect the views of Olaf Stapledon; what with the long-windedness of the dissertations.
If you are interested in reading this I'd suggest finding a paper copy. My paper copy from long ago wandered off -long ago; so I used the online e-book, which I think comes from the same source as some gutenburg text that probably was scanned in and only lightly edited. There are numerous obvious problems and some not so obvious that come of that and unless you are a forgiving reader I'd suggest again, find a paper edition.
Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human comes long after this; yet he uses the same notion of telepathy and a few other evident powers shown in this book. He continues the discussion on morality and how that might differ for the super human. What he does differently in the community of the superior’s, is that he makes them dependent upon each other to form an entire gestalt being.(The lesser parts are not so superior.)
This is a great SFF Classic that still stands well when considering the time it was written and is a novel that should be of great interest to those continuing the conversation about Homo Superior and what that looks like and how they might change or endanger the course of mankind.
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