Odd John and Sirius are two novels by Olaf Stapledon, paired together in a dual edition. This is not a thoughtless choice, as both novels are explorations of the same idea, manifested slightly differently: what happens when a superhuman intelligence is introduced into a human world? How long can it survive?
When I say “superhuman intelligence,” I don’t mean “Albert Einstein.” I mean creatures with a level of intelligence that makes them superior to others in the same way that humans are to, say, domestic cats. Stapledon’s protagonists represent a substantial step forward in evolution; they are intelligences that render their bearers patently inhuman, in one case a new species entirely (Homo Superior).
The titular Odd John is the epitome of such an intelligence: a boy born in rural England with inconceivable powers, who understands the limitations of the human world while still in his crib. He is powerful, an inventor, hypnotic, capable of traveling through time mentally, but incapable of using regular language to communicate his experiences to “normals,” namely the one who narrates the novel. The result is that the reader gets only a hazy understanding of John’s “real” intellectual life — which is, incidentally, totally impervious to human moral codes — discovering only the confused fragments that a devoted human intelligence could put together.
Of course, John is doomed. After a long spiritual struggle with the essential truths which he alone understands, he begins to discover that the universe may be indifferent to intelligence, no matter how refined. Unfettered, he founds a colony of Homo Superiors in the South Pacific, which becomes a utopia of the mind for several years before it is discovered. After a fitful psionic war with the “normals,” John and his fellow Homo Superiors inexplicably destroy their own island, killing themselves in the process.
Odd John is kind of an eldritch tale: what did these supernormals know? Why did they kill themselves? Sirius, the second book of the novels twain, is less foreboding: it’s about a genetically manipulated alsatian with the mind of a man, but the body (and instincts) of a dog. Smart as any other member of his human family, with which he converses in a sort of barking pidgin English, he struggles his entire life with a laundry list of insecurities: his handlessness, his inability to see color or appreciate visual art, the fact that his hyper-sensitive hearing makes human music painful, and the dark bloody drives of his canine self. Sirius is a human spirit, but he isn’t human either; as a singular being in the world, with the earnest heart of a domestic dog, the conflicts that torture him are tragic and ultimately unresolvable.
What’s refreshing about Olaf Stapledon, ultimately, is that although he wrote in the early 20th century, his work isn’t particularly representative of the greater literary tendencies of that period. Odd John and Sirius were both penned in the 1930s; While the Modernists were raging and “the novel” was being completely reinvented, and Story (capital S) was falling to the wayside in favor of fragmented, alienated texts, Stapledon was writing weirdly matter-of-fact, heady, narrative books about dogs with human intelligence. Both Odd John and Sirius feel like serial novels from some Dickensian 19th century universe; a quality that evokes earlier science-fiction writers, like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, who were great one-chapter-after-another writers.
Only with Stapledon, the earnest linearity has something methodically sinister about it: here, story is a winding path to doom, to unjust, irrational death. You have to keep going, because it is written forwards, but you don’t want to see the end: a massive alsatian lying broken and bloody on a Welsh hillside, half-wild, half-martyr.
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