Odd John and Sirius; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

My Olaf Stapledon series concludes with two of his most well known novels.

One’s about a super child. The other’s about a super dog.

Alternate perspectives on Odd John: From Couch to Moon and Speculiction.

Alternate perspective on Sirius: Speculiction

Raw Feed (2004): Odd John and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon, 1972.Odd John

Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest — This 1935 novel may very well be the archetypal superman/mutant/superchild novel. It’s hardly the first. H. G. Wells certainly had an earlier version with his The Food of the Gods.

Stapledon, a professional philosopher, was clearly interesting in using the viewpoint of his super mutant John in criticizing human affairs. That, of course, is one of the time honored purpose of sf, but it was also interesting to read the author of the ultimate in cosmic tales (so much so that Stapledonian is an adjective in discussing sf) — Star Maker and Last and First Men — write a personal story though you could argue his Last Men in London was a bridge between the two scopes of story.

I suspect that every author of superchildren since has had to contend with this novel. In particular, the narrator is sympathetic to John like a dog to a human. He regards John as above human morality thus doesn’t judge him when he murders a policeman or when he commits incest with his mother Pax — an incident of incest in which the narrator coyly says he can’t describe but talks about it explicitly enough where we know what happened if not the details of the act itself.

There are some similarities in philosophy, plot devices, and themes between this novel and the Last and First Men series: there is mention of communism (John regards Soviet communism as egotism, a secular religion), the projection of the psyche into the past and future (the enabling mechanism in Last Men in London), and the idea that man needs a spiritual quest (the object and practice of which is not to be found in conventional religion though elements of it are there) is reflected in both the series and this novel.

Indeed, it is that ineffable nature of the quest which the colony of supermen which dooms them. They pursue their mysterious, unexplained task at the end as, in a parody of British-Soviet relationships. The British government crushes the island colony. The Soviets want to incorporate it into their empire which the supermen resist.

I found it interesting that, in what I suspect was marketed as a mainstream British novel, references to homosexuality (John’s first sexual experiences are with a tamed bully who he manipulates into regarding him with a begrudging canine loyalty) are blatant. In presenting a biography of John that uses an historical perspective after his death (the narrator relates stuff told to him contemporaneously by John as well as stuff he found out later), Stapledon gives a pretty detailed story of a superman, physically slow to age but very advanced mentally, growing up and finding a purpose in life and the deliberate, manipulative, secretive way he gains knowledge of the world of men and power in it.

I found the associated supermen and superwomen (including the very long-lived Jacqueline who has gained an exquisite knowledge of humanity by centuries of on-and-off-again prostitution) with their hyperdeveloped talents (but always lacking the complete gamut of talents and perspective that John has) equally interesting as John himself.

John comes to see himself as having a religious purpose and one chapter’s title, “John in the Wilderness”, alludes to that. The sex life of the supermen and superwomen on their island colony is casual but not excessive, and John and Lo do not have sex with each other for a long time because they want each other to be fully mature. (The mutants are described as having a remarkable degree of detachment from themselves and an ability to analyze their motives and feelings.) I’m not sure where the “jest” part of the subtitle comes in — perhaps the very idea of the mutants themselves. I’m pretty sure the “earnest” part comes in Stapledon’s, via John, criticism of society.

Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord — This is the other bookend, the companion, to Stapledon’s Odd John in examining human society and psychology.

The later novel featured a superhuman or, as John himself puts it, a “real” human. This novel features a “super-sheep-dog”, a creature created with judicious breeding and application of hormones in utero. It is a creature with high human intelligence but frustrated by a lack of hands, of cunning hearing and voice and smell but poor vision and, most tellingly, (and in an echo of a complaint made by Frankenstein’s monster) a creature without a world. “Why,” complains Sirius to his maker Thomas, “did you make me without making a world for me to live in.”

In a rough sense, this novel can be seen to be like H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau in that both feature an attempt to raise a beast to the level of human. (Wells’ Outline of History and The Science of Life are read by Sirius and Wells’ opinion that man possesses “horrible selfishness” as “an imperfectly socialized species” gets a brief mention, so there’s a fair chance that Stapledon had read Wells’ novel before publishing this story in 1944.

However, whereas Wells’ novel despaired at taming the bestial inheritance of evolution with social institutions like law and religion, Stapledon’s Sirius doesn’t so much despair at taming his violent, destructive animal impulses (though the wolf does call to him and, at times, he, in his eyes, murders a horse and a man as well as attacks several humans) as despair at not having any sort of world to fit his para-human thoughts and desires in with.

Essentially, this is the story of a romance between a woman, Plaxys, and Sirius with, near the end of Sirius’ life, a sort of love triangle introduced between the two and narrator Robert. Raised together since it is Plaxys’ father that creates Sirius, it is their relationship, the unit they both eventually refer to as “Sirius-Plaxy”, that is the object of the subtitle’s “love and discord”. It also symbolizes the love and hate that Sirius feels for man in general.

Stapledon throws in a few cryptic bits of crypto-Freudianism. The narrator has, as Plaxys chides him, a penchant for amateur psychoanalysis. He thinks Plaxys’ complex relation with Sirius is mostly the result of her ambiguous feelings about her father, the man who created Sirius. I can’t figure out if this relationship between Sirius and Plaxys ever involves sex. Plaxys at one time describes herself as Sirius’ bitch. When confronted by a minister with the local villagers’ suspicion that Plaxys’ and Sirius’ relationship involves sex, she doesn’t deny it and just says she loves Sirius. The narrator Robert merely says people couldn’t understand the relationship of the two in a passage which sounds like the coy account of incest between John and his mother in Odd John.

There are, in fact, several similarities in theme and plot.

Both novels feature similarly named females (Pax and Plaxys) who comfort their super-protagonist. However, apart from the one bit of incest, there is no romantic feelings between John and Pax, and Pax is clearly John’s intellectual inferior. The mothering of Sirius is done by Elizabeth. Both novels feature relatively straight, if non-salacious, references to sex. Both John and Sirius feel, at times, that they are mating with beasts (which, compared to them, they are). Plaxys and Sirius eventually agree that their respective biological needs and urges will involve sexual and romantic partners other than the other.

Both protagonists embark on both straightforward and deceptive means to learn about the world of man. John uses the guise of his child-like body to take in the confidence of adults. John, as mere dog, eavesdrops. When dealing with those who know his intelligence, he has conversations.

Both novels feature sympathetic narrators who are personally acquainted with the protagonist. (First person narrative on the part of super-man or super-dog would be unworkable and unbelievable though both are described as leaving records behind.)

Both go through phases where they are interested in certain things. In his religious phase, Sirius hangs out with a minster in London’s poor East End.

Both are very introspective.

Both look for some purpose. Sirius, however, never really finds one.

Both retreat from civilization. John goes to the island colony. Sirius goes feral in Wales.

War and international tension play their part in the downfall of both. John’s island community gets caught in the conflict between Britain and the USSR. Sirius is accused of being a Nazi spy.

Both of course find fault and flaws with humanity yet are sometimes amazed at the accomplishments of civilization.

Both feel detached from politics. Sirius can’t even really believe that the war has anything to do with him, though, ultimately, it claims Thomas’ life and Plaxy gets drafted. I particularly liked his amazement that the people he meets at Cambridge seem to despair of one of the things he is most jealous of in humanity: “handedness”, the ability to do manual labor.

He notes that everyone seems to want their kids to be “blackcoat” intellectuals. He thinks it sad that the human race is divided between the rural folk he meets as a sheep dog working for a kindly neighbor, the intellectuals of Cambridge, and the poor of London.

Discussion of communism even shows up here, quite explicitly. Sirius and Plaxy have a discussion about communism, and Sirius (and, I suspect, Stapledon through him) rejects Soviet style communism or the notion the proletariat should be in charge for some vague notion of a spiritual communism directed and for a spiritual end.

Indeed, as with the diversely mutated and appearing supermen of John’s colony, Sirius and Plaxy see their diversity and love for each other part of a noble, higher community of intelligence bound by love. That is why I suspect Sirius and Plaxy have sex. Because Stapledon regards it as a sort of infrequent, perhaps unsatisfying — unlike the better “fitting” normal sexual partners of each — expression of a spiritual love.)

I think this novel is more interesting and better than Odd John because of Sirius’ more alien nature (though John develops psychic talents which Sirius doesn’t).

Stapledon does a nice job of having Plaxy torture Sirius about his poor sight. In turn, Sirius has a world of smell to explore (which is often revelatory about human motives and feelings — he often, as a mere dog, notes human hypocrisy in sexual mores and even sadism) which is almost totally closed to humans. He loves music though he finds human composition and performance of it crude and hopes to add his own compositions to man’s though, apart from a performance in church and duets with Plaxys, the plan comes to naught.

 

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