Olaf Stapledon – Odd John (1935) Review

8.5/10

This novel is only 200 pages of rather dry prose, but I wrote a whole essay about it. I found it thoroughly fascinating.

This novel has the illustrious honour to be called the first Superman story. A bit strange, because the first Superman comics were drawn just two years before, in 1933. But actually, Stapledon’s book is in conversation with an older SF book about a child with superhuman intelligence: J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911). In any case, this novel was apparently doing something new at the time. It is the biography of an odd little man with super-intelligence and what he does with it. Stapledon did not make him a hero. Odd John is a mutant and not at all interested in being a first-responder to whatever idiotic things those dumb and expendable humans are up to. John is more interested in spiritual growth, exploring the limits of his power and establishing a creepy cult for himself. That is indeed quite different from other superhero stories.

From the first pages that we jump into the biography of John’s life, there are all sorts of things off about him, even as a baby. His mother carried him for 11 months, then he came out as some mangled meat croissant. He has crazy eyes. Didn’t walk till he was 6 years old. But learned advanced mathematics in his first years. Odd John is the kind of kid that laughs at odd moments when it isn’t at all clear what he is laughing about. Just everything about him screams unnatural, freakish. Stapledon wants us to feel disgust towards him, that makes us think “there’s something really wrong with that kid”. Disgust and fascination. That is the hook that pulls us deeper into the novel. 

It kind of makes sense, in a disgusting sort of way, that when you are a kid and you start to understand human motivations so thoroughly that you understand people much better than they do themselves, and you haven’t developed any understanding of morality yet, that manipulating people for your own plans becomes part of your childish journey of self-expression. That’s where it all starts to go wrong. The rest of John’s life is still concerned with that journey of self-expression, to see how far his capabilities go and what his place in the world is. John doesn’t see himself as part of the human species and that the difference “…carried with it a far-reaching spiritual difference, that my purpose in life, and my attitude to life, were to be different from anything which the normal species could conceive…” From that vantage point, he has no parents to teach him how to be. It is all a bit Nietzsche and may take inspiration from Also sprach Zarathustra (1885).

Where Siegel and Shuster’s Superman comics are purely escapism and good-natured power-fantasy, Odd John is a much more bleak and serious take on the super-powerful individual. It has a lot more in common with Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953). Stapledon’s biography of John is extremely considered. He thought very hard about every step in John’s spiritual development and what activities and experiences that would entail. The first step in John’s spiritual journey as a ten year old child is to gain life experience and independence, and for that he needs to get filthy rich. John basically uses the capitalist system against itself and feels contempt for the childish morality of humans trying to gain as much wealth as possible, but he needs it for his grand plans. Even as a young kid burgling the neighbours, this plan was already set in motion in his mind.

There are undertones of homosexuality in the story. The narrator of the novel is a man who, as an adult man, describes himself as someone who fell under John’s spell when John was still a kid and became his dog, his slave. Which is disturbing but it is ok that it is disturbing because Stapledon wants John to be disturbing. Stapledon hints at the psychological and intellectual domination that John exerted even as a young kid, and the man’s slavery may have stayed only in mental domain. But when Stapledon starts describing John’s sexual awakening, John first aims his arrows at boys and men around him with an irresistible, calculated manipulation, and later moves on to women. At first repellent, he had a queer grace that he could make strangely enthralling, according to the narrator.

There is one chapter, “The World’s Plight”, in which John unloads all that he thinks on Mr Narrator; his full unsalted opinion on psychology, politics, social movements, nations, religion, science and intellectuals. It feels as if Stapledon himself is talking, although I don’t know what he really thought of things, but he has John going on about the understandable demise of religion and the spiritual emptiness of modern societies, about people choosing outlets to unload their hate on and Europe choosing the madness of nationalism (this was the 1930s). It’s a pretty eloquent rant, but I wonder if this is Stapledon himself talking. 

An interesting question is whether John’s superiority complex is justified. John clearly shows that he can play with humanity as he sees fit. He could become its benevolent ruler, its god-king, if he would see that as a good use of his time. He sees a new World War coming, a second one, and he could choose to take control and stop it, if he had any interest left in our species. About that superiority complex, is it a superiority complex if I were to say that I am more intelligent than a gibbon? I mean, I surely hope I am. Should we intervene in wars between chimpanzees because they are killing each other or do we feel distanced from it because we are a different species? The thing with John is that he still has the body of a human and is therefore not obviously of a different species. Is it possible to believe that a creature is qualitatively superior and non-human even when it still looks like a human? Given that there is a large neuro-diversity in human populations already, can we recognise the difference? If so, is his different sense of morality justified? Is morality something we should enforce on this creature or do we let it find its own place in the hierarchy of power?

John maintains pretty revolting attitudes, though, and the narrator seems brainwashed, so it is up to us to make up our own mind about him.

In some sense this is a tale of hubris. John is Icarus, trying to take off in a world that is not ready for it. In one telling scene, John finds a fellow superman, a quiet Egyptian who was actually dead for a long time but whose mind was so powerful that he could make contact with people in the past and in the future, and the Egyptian peers into John’s future and basically tells him that he doesn’t see much good. The Egyptian lives a poor, humble life, which John doesn’t understand, because John is a man of action and it is written in the stars that this is John’s way, while the older and wiser Egyptian is more praising of the world of Homo sapiens. John’s actions will be his downfall, but the Egyptian also sees the World Wars in Europe and concludes that that is not for him to praise, and maybe men of action like John is what the world needs in that age.

In the end it never really becomes clear what the great spiritual achievement is that John and his group accomplish. It is beyond human understanding and we’re just clueless bystanders, as it has been all throughout this book. That is what made Stapledon a master of science fiction: his ability to make us feel small.

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12 Responses to Olaf Stapledon – Odd John (1935) Review

  1. M. says:

    Dry prose is an understatement. I can’t remember which of his I read (the vast historical ones that go far into the earth’s future), but I recall them being a damn slog to read. Not sure I can handle another one, but this one does sound more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved those future history books of his! But yeah I can see how they can be a slog. Odd John is more concerned with human affairs and has a group of main characters, so that makes it easier to digest. Still, most of the text is long paragraphs of the narrator just telling what is happening, much like a biography.

      Like

    • bormgans says:

      I read two, and especially the prose of Sirius rubbed me the wrong way, to the extent that I don’t think I’ll ever read any Stapledon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek says:

    It seems to be one of the genre classic worth visiting… I’m a bit worried about the style, though, if it is so dry… I remember not enjoying Bester due to his writing even when I saw the book was solid.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    Hmmm mmmm mmmmmmmm… Don’t know about it. I need to give Stapledon a try, and this might be a good start, but if you felt this was dry, Jeroen, you who have enjoyed Asimov’s animated mummies, I fear this might be too much for me 😉 Still , I’ll keep this title in mind. It’s short, and does sound interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, animated mummies. That is very true. Stapledon… I don’t think he’s much of a fiction writer. He writes history books and biographies that happen to be SF. I think his masterpiece is Star Maker, and that’s very much written like a history book.

      Liked by 1 person

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