Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review of Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

At a time when American sci-fi was wallowing like a pig in mud on a hot summer’s day (the pulp era), what little science fiction existed was swimming almost entirely in literary waters. Save for H.G. Wells’ staid presence and C.S. Lewis’ thinly veiled apologetics, very few other writers were on the UK scene regularly using the ‘yet possible’ to tell stories.  But quantity was made up for by quality.  One of the most questioning, challenging, and influential writers to ever pick up a pen, regardless of era, was published in this time: Olaf Stapledon.  A doctor of philosophy, he applied knowledge to humanity’s deepest questions in thought experiments that pushed at the limits of understanding in ways other writers have yet to equal.

Odd John is Stapledon’s third novel (1935).  Though continuing to work with the supermind idea that comprises parts of his previous works (Last and First Men and Last Men in London), the novel sees Stapledon breaking fresh ground—or at least a new tangent in a familiar domain.  The story of a boy born into a normal British family, his semi-mutated features give rise to the possibility he will be limited in some fashion when he grows up.  John, as the baby is named, proves to be the exact opposite.  Remaining silent for the first couple of years, he suddenly bursts into coherent language, and thereafter offers one intellectual surprise after another.  Physically slow in developing, his brain, however, is obviously multiple degrees more intelligent than the average human’s.  Coming to terms with his abnormality, John follows his own path toward adulthood and realizing his dreams.  Problem is, will humanity let him?

Though a couple of pulp conceits enter the story (e.g. psi powers), Odd John is focused on the social and personal aspects and effects of being a cut above intellectually.  In the context of humans around him, John struggles to come to terms with his situation, and after doing so, struggles to identify himself as human given the paradoxes and self-destructive behavior innate to humanity around him.  The resolution of this struggle, the actions it leads him to take, and humanity’s ultimate response are the driving force, regardless of genre elements. 

Psi powers at no time presented as anything beyond representations, there is a flightiness, a playful, fanciful tone to Odd John that one does not find in Stapledon’s Star Maker or Last and First Men.  It makes the novel’s sub-title A Story between Jest and Earnest apt.  Plotting not rigidly coherent, it instead serves as a platform on which Stapledon can explore an idea, resulting in a few story twists for which the reader must swallow their disbelief in order to continue reading.  ‘In jest’, Stapledon creates space for these twists, as well as the ideas which stretch the imagination, like telekinesis and telekinetics, without requiring the reader to take them seriously.  Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, by contrast, pushes psi powers on the reader as realistic possibilities that humanity will discover and explore, sapping credibility in the process.  Odd John, on the other hand, remains as readable today as when it was originally published.

Like Last Men in London, Odd John contains open views on going back to nature and sexuality, and seems to foresee the counter-culture movement post-WWII.  (Watching Stapledon and his British-ness tip-toe around descriptions of sex, however, remains humorous.)  Another piece of history Stapledon clearly foresaw was WWII—Hitler invading the Czech Republic four years after the novel was published.  With the first world war still so close in the rearview mirror, in the novel Stapledon is openly angry at the idea humanity will so soon engage in another round of mass killing.  At one point, in fact, John gives up on the human species, calling them collectively too stupid to alter their course and avert disaster.  John’s, i.e. Stapledon’s, attempts to rationalize this behavior makes for fascinating reading.

Odd John, while lacking the seriousness of Star Maker or Last and First Men, is nevertheless a thought-provoking concept playing out in all too human terms.  Some events fanciful (particularly the ending), Stapledon nevertheless never loses an opportunity to put mankind under the microscope and lay bare its flaws, all the while setting his sights on the possibilities for improvement.  John the hyper-intelligent human (something akin to Nietzsche’s conception of the uber-man) the mirror reflecting our foibles, some of the flaws becoming visible are a penchant for war, greed, and fear of the unknown—other, more positive options available for human energies.  The novel quietly influential, it’s impossible for any story featuring super intelligence and psi-powers not to owe some debt to Odd John, or at least be in dialogue.

A side note: looking through the various covers that appeared on Odd John throughout the years, I came across this abomination.  The cover copy reads “He had to be stopped, for all women were his playthings and all men his pawns” and the image, well, it is what it is.  It’s been a long time since I encountered such a poor representation of a novel.  It shows a huge (if that word is big enough) disconnect between the writer and the publisher.  One interested in art and social commentary and the other underhanded profit, I can only imagine the googly eyed teenager who picked up this book for the cover met with nothing but disappointment.  The Richard Power's cover (above) is far more appropriate.

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