Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review of Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

Brian Aldiss designates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the first science fiction novel.  The story of human creating human and the discordant relationship that results, H.G. Wells took its inspiration and wrote the The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).  A similar premise (human attempting to endow animal with human intelligence and appearance), Wells nevertheless took time to examine the animal side in balance with the human.  The third link in this chain of humanity’s god quest (unnatural means of endowing sentience in living flesh) came after a much shorter interval: Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (1944).

But Sirius is also part of the natural evolution of the writer’s own oeuvre. Like Last and First Men’s follow up Last Men in London, Stapledon saw fit to rework the ideas of his novel Odd John, publishing Sirius nine years after.  Continuing with the theme of super-intelligence, Stapledon threw the gauntlet down to himself by shifting premise from super-human intelligence to super-dog intelligence, aka human intelligence.  While superficially seeming a cheesy idea, Stapledon unpacks the idea with his trademark attention to detail.  Few science fiction writers these days who look into every nook and cranny of the wild ideas their brains conjure, Stapledon opens the concept of Sirius from nothing, scrutinizes it closely, develops every inch within natural frames, then closes it in literary fashion.

Sirius, Canis Major, the dog star, brightest star in the sky, the name—whatever you will have it’s ulterior meaning to be—is given to the laboratory creation of Thomas Trelone.  Sirius a lucky accident after years of failure attempting to develop the cranial capacity of dogs, the success prompts the doctor to move to the Welsh countryside with his wife and four children where he can continue to work on his idea while giving Sirius the open space he needs for his intellect to come into fruition.  Growing up essentially the fifth child, Sirius’s head is larger than normal, but otherwise gives the appearance of a normal Alsatian.  He learns to understand English, speaks in his own doggish version of the language only the family can understand, and develops what few human manual skills his clumsy paws and snout allow. His mind far more advanced, however, his thoughts and words do not belie the limits of his body.

Kept secret by the Trelone family, the doctor apprentices Sirius to a nearby sheep farm to maintain appearances, in turn giving Sirius a healthy outlet for the inner animal lurking just below his surface.  Though initially despising the treatment, considering himself better than other dogs, he comes to appreciate the outdoor life and regiment of farming and the seasons.  It’s the public which doesn’t come to appreciate him, however.  Viewed as unnatural, even demon-possessed by some neighbors, as WWII breaks out in England, Sirius finds himself in a fight for survival as much from the attacking Germans as his own neighbors.

But where Stapledon fully endears the reader to the intelligent canine is is the manner in which he balances the “sentient” and animal sides of Sirius.  Wells examining the beast within in The Island of Dr. Moreau for a variety of species (including homo sapien sapiens), Stapledon likewise keys in on the roots of Sirius’ DNA.  The Amish have a wilding in their late teenage years, and so too does Sirius.  Both cause and reliever of stress, his attempts to come to terms with the wolf inside while maintaining civility is presented in as realistic as possible terms. At the conclusion, the reader views Sirius not as a human in fur, rather a super-intelligent dog.

Like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sirius has a subtitle: A Tale of Love and Discord, which, similar to the subtitle of Odd John (A Story between Jest and Earnest), remits Sirius to something slightly less than realism.  While Stapledon certainly revels in the details of his concept, the subtitle reminds the reader the novel is a thought experiment focused as much on the human reaction to Sirius as Sirius himself.  Society unaware of his sentience, and therefore his ability to understand and judge their behavior, one of the major observations Sirius makes is the dichotomy of how humans act around other humans and when they think they are alone.  Sirius getting interested in religion and spirituality, Stapledon likewise explores the idea of something beyond from the dog’s perspective, and how it relates to what humans think of cosmology and existence in an indeterminate world.  Sirius is also portrayed dealing with Doctor Trelone’s ambitions as they conflict with his own, as well the idea of autonomy in a human world that views matters in terms of hierarchy.  But the most significant observation, and not necessarily one Sirius makes directly, rather an aspect that comes about as a result of his existence, is the human reaction to differences, to Otherness, and the resulting fear and paranoia.  The secret of Sirius’ abnormality gradually slipping out, he receives a variety of responses from those he comes in contact with—responses Ballard would be proud to endorse.

In the end, Sirius is a wonderful companion volume to Odd John and a continuation and confirmation of the themes and ideas of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells.  Numerous stories have come after featuring sentient dogs (Simak’s City, Zelazny’s “He Who Shapes”, Denton’s “Seargent Chip”, et al), but none have yet developed the idea with the same integrity and attention to aspect.  Most important, however, is the manner in which Stapledon relates the premise to the human condition.  After all, a talking dog is just a fun idea (see Disney) until you endow it with relevancy.


  1. Thanks for this review. I read Last and First Men and Last Men in London many years ago, and compared to the mind boggling space journeys, I found the human sections very readable. This has made me want to read his other novels, so now I'm confident about putting them back on my reading list! :)

    1. Stapledon is a breed of his own. I've yet to encounter any writer able to combine science fiction and philosophy in the way he does. One of the most brilliant minds the field has known... Enjoy your re-discovery.