Odd John by Stapledon, Olaf, 1935

Odd John by Stapledon, Olaf - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Superman stories have always been important in speculative literature. They are often tales of human potential - either the potential of mankind as it exists now to deal with contemporary problems, or the potential of our genome to evolve new attributes and abilities to deal with changing environments. What is often most interesting about these stories is not that they are usually predicated on some unforeseen and radical jump or transformation in biology that results in a being that is drastically different in genetics and potential than any of its ancestors, but rather the human trajedy that can result from such a radical and quick change. What comes after that in the literature varies greatly, but the better stories, in my opinion, discuss the racial, social and sociological implications of the change, and try to expand past one individual's impact on the world. Odd John is one of those larger-focus stories, though it does have a decidedly personal touch to it. It's the story of the life and education of John Wainwright, a British mutant who thinks of himself as in the vanguard of a new race of man called homo superior, as told through the recollections of his human friend and man-in-waiting, affectionately nicknamed Fido.

The book has two phases. The first concerns John's maturation into an adult. The second is about a society in microcosm he created in the South Pacific for others like himself. John Wainwright as a character was a very interesting person. Fortunately Stapledon treated us to the story of his life from birth. The reader is told on the first page the rough outcome of the story, and that John is very special because he is different from the rest of us. We're given a window in on John's upbringing and get to watch as he went through a somewhat familiar set of childhood circumstances. His responses however were anything but ordinary. John was a strange boy, with a strange appearance, who throughout his probably immortal life appeared quite younger than he really was. Actually, Stapledon's stretched my patience a little bit with constant reminders of that last characteristic. John was passionate about studying and was naturally brilliant and talented. He went out of his way to converse with men and women of means, or with some specialized knowledge. He was sublimely attractive and disarmingly charismatic, so he did pretty good getting into the good graces of the well-to-do, the knowledgeable, and the downright brilliant. John also saw his purpose early in life, and especially because of his odd appearance and affect on others, he decided to become a hunter before he could be preyed upon. Still, his upbringing could be described as every bit as traumatic as our own - maybe more so; John had the form and impulses of a boy, but the drive and resolve of a man. Needless to say, he spent much of his childhood frustrated, though because of his unique circumstances and his incredibly sharp mind he realized early that it was morally acceptable for him to treat homo sapiens as animals; he could love them, and he cared deeply for them, but once they became dangerous or posed a threat, he could kill them without hesitation.

Stapledon did a very good job putting John through the wringer as he grew up. Interestingly the biggest intellectual changes in the boy came with in the nascent stages of his sexual maturity; immediately after his first negative experience. That negative experience was with his first woman; everything prior had been with other boys and some men. Eventually John came to view sex with humans as a form of bestiality, which may have been a consequence of his hunter/prey dilemma, or possibly even a cause of it. Stapledon's text is deeply layered delves into the confusing stew of an individual's psycho-sexual maturation to tell the real story of John's development into an adult. Honestly, it’s as difficult to tell which the chicken is and which the egg as it is to decide which came first: Not that it really matters. Like I said above, this story could be anybody's.

Told in hindsight after the death of the subject, the book's narrator was an adult who watched, fascinated and enthralled, as John grew up and became a man. Fido was completely taken with John (a factor which to me hinted at latent homosexuality), and really only objected to the most ruthless and bloody of John's antics, and even then only briefly. Because of this none of the shock that other humans would have felt was written into the story. That it remains shocking, without all the little witness characters running around, telling the reader how to feel about this or that, is a testament to Stapledon's acumen and abilities. Make no doubt about it; this is a somewhat scandalous story, even in our era, eighty or so years after it was originally published. But the story is distilled though Fido. Moreover, much of the story had to be told by comparison to human experiences, simply because John was not the narrator. I certainly do not think that Stapledon was incapable of telling the story through John - this story is brilliant, and Stapledon is acknowledged as an excellent author because he really is - but the reader has work to do here in order to get the full impact of the text.

Stapledon is one of those old authors who I believe should be read by today’s readers. He is firmly in the camp of the idealists of his day and for the most part eschews action sequences; in fact, to a degree probably congruent with his own pacifism, which was legendary. This book is one of Stapledon’s masterpieces, though it, like some of his others (he has five) is a masterpiece by today’s standards in name only. I doubt seriously that it could compete in anybody’s estimation with its contemporary equivalents. Consider books such as Dune, Dying Inside or Flowers for Algernon as excellent modern examples of the type of intellectual superman that Stapledon posited in Odd John. However what it lacks in the execution – the details of Odd John do tend to become a bit mind-numbing after a time – it more than makes up for in spirit. I personally believe that Stapledon put more of himself into each of his novels than most other SF authors have or do. I can just imagine Stapledon, sitting cross-legged in a suit in an easy chair, spouting the details of this book as if they were his own personal recollections. As usual, that is just me wool-gathering, but its my own image and I think it works.

Much of the spirit of this book arises from John’s need for and love of community; that and the quite human way in which he stumbled as a youth as the first member of his race, as far as he knew, and learned from those missteps. John was as human as they come, and I identified strongly with his feelings of alienation, and sympathized with most of what he did to overcome.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)

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