Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

1972 Penguin PB, art by David Pelham

First published in 1944, Sirius shares a lot, in its themes, with the previous decade’s Odd John — Stapledon even referred to it as “my ‘Odd Dog’ novel’” — but with the crucial difference that, whereas John is a human who far exceeds normal human levels of intelligence, Sirius is a dog raised to (high, but normal) human-level intelligence. So, he isn’t going to be creating any super-scientific technologies or casually getting rich through ultra-shrewd investments. And the limitations placed upon him by his body (his lack of hands), and the equally debilitating limits that come from living in a society where he, as an animal, has no rights, and where he’s even more likely than Odd John to be regarded as freakish and unnatural, are brought that much more to the fore.

(At a number of points, the tone of the book reminded me of William Horwood’s novel Skallagrigg, whose two main characters have cerebral palsy, and have to deal with both their own less-able bodies and being treated as inferior to other human beings. Stapledon’s novel could easily be read, metaphorically, as being about physical disability.)

1979 Penguin PB, art by Adrian Chesterman

Before he’s born, the puppy Sirius is injected with hormones to promote the growth of his brain. He’s not the only dog to be treated, but the others either only develop remarkable-for-dogs but less-than-human intelligence (they can’t talk, for instance), or die young. A crucial part of Sirius’s story, though, is that his creator, the physiologist Thomas Trelone, decides to raise this dog within his own family, as much like one more human child as possible. Trelone’s wife, Elizabeth, has just given birth to a daughter, Plaxy, so the two are raised as, in effect, siblings, and develop an almost twin-like intimacy, with little wordless calls they use as their own private language, and so on.

It’s not long, though, before Sirius becomes aware of his limitations. Having no hands, he’s stymied in what he can do — and, thus, is also limited in how he can use his intelligence to explore the world as his foster-sister does. His eyesight is poor, too (he’s also completely colourblind), though his far superior sense of smell gives him access to an entirely new perspective on the world than his human family possess.

1944 HB from Secker and Warburg

Trelone has plans for his canine prodigy. After as much of a human-level education as he can get (Sirius can’t go to school, and Plaxy soon tires of passing on the lessons she’s learned every time she gets home), he’ll be sent to a nearby farm to gain some experience as a sheepdog. After this, he’s to come to Cambridge and be more thoroughly tested in the lab, while working to devote himself to the field Trelone thinks will be most suited to him, animal psychology.

Sirius suffers the first two stages as much as he can — working on the farm, he has to pretend to be just one more smarter-than-average dog who can’t speak — but after a while at Cambridge he begins to develop his own ideas. One such impulse comes from moments in which he has felt a wider, and bleaker, sense of his place in a vast, indifferent universe:

“Sometimes when Sirius was out on the hills alone in the winter dawn, examining the condition of the snow and looking for sheep in distress, the desolation of the scene would strike him with a shivering dread of existence. The universal carpet of snow, the mist of drifting flakes, the miserable dark sheep, pawing for food, the frozen breath on his own jaws, combined to make him feel that after all this was what the world was really like; that the warm fireside and friendly talk at Garth were just a rare accident…”

Stapledon cites McCulloch’s book as a source for Sirius

This prompts him to want more than Trelone’s purely scientific education, and he starts to ask about religion. He’s sent to spend some time with a cousin of Trelone’s wife, a priest who works among the poor around London’s docks. Sirius soon realises he needs to find his own mix of these two approaches to life, the religious and the scientific, and settles on that very Stapledonian word “spirit”, which crops up in the future histories Last and First Men and Star Maker, meaning that sense of a thing that transcends the merely physical circumstances of life, yet, unlike religious ideas of a soul, comes with no guarantees or guidelines. Whatever it is, it’s still evolving, and needs work. Like those future races Stapledon wrote about in his first novel, Sirius finds “in fate’s very indifference… a certain exhilaration” — a challenge to create his own meaning, rather than the despair of meaninglessness. By the end of the novel, the dog has come to embody Stapledon’s ideal of how to live as an intelligent being in the modern world:

[Plaxy] saw that Sirius, in spite of his uniqueness, epitomized in his whole life and in his death something universal, something that is common to all awakening spirits on earth, and in the farthest galaxies. For the music’s darkness was lit up by a brilliance which Sirius had called ‘colour,’ the glory that he himself, he said, had never seen. But this, surely, was the glory that no spirits, canine or human, had ever clearly seen, the light that never was on land or sea, and yet is glimpsed by the quickened mind everywhere.”

As the novel enters its final quarter, it returns to a theme from Sirius’s early life, the close relationship with his human foster-sister Plaxy. The two have grown apart, tortured by the differences between them, yet always drawn back to the unity they call “Sirius-Plaxy”. It’s here the novel presents its most challenging aspect, as Stapledon takes their relationship into a physical intimacy which, although strongly implied in the published text, was apparently more forthright still in the draft he first submitted.

2011 Orion PB, art by Cliff Nielsen

I have to admit it’s this part that comes close to breaking the book’s spell, for me. Stapledon heads into this sexual territory as though it were the natural, even only, next stage in the couple’s relationship, when it should surely be possible that the two would feel absolutely no sexual pull towards one another, being of different species. And if that weren’t enough, there would surely be the incest taboo of their having been raised as siblings. It feels, though, that this is an area Stapledon is intent on exploring — not for its salacious aspects, which aren’t dwelled upon, but as it allows him to philosophise on love, and how it can thrive on difference:

[Plaxy:] “We are bound to hurt one another so much, again and again. We are so terribly different.”

[Sirius:] “Yes… But the more different, the more lovely the loving.”

For Stapledon, the key point is “the fundamental identity-in-diversity of all spirits”. And this is needed to combat Sirius’s alienation:

“There is no place for me in man’s world, and there is no other world for me. There is no place for me anywhere in the universe.”

To which Plaxy counters:

“I’m your home, your footing in the world.”

(There is, apparently, another thing that could have driven Stapledon to have this novel contain a forbidden love-relationship. In his biography of Stapledon, Robert Crossley says that parts of the book were inspired by an affair Stapledon had around this time.)

Cartoon of Stapledon from The Daily Herald

The book received a good amount of attention on its release. The Times Literary Supplement named it their “Novel of the Week”. The Western Mail’s H M Dowling brought in comparisons with Swift, Shelley (Percy Bysshe, though those with Mary are there, too), and Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Lynd of The Daily News was less impressed:

“The book, repellant as the exhibitions of freak sideshows in old fair grounds, is written in the semi-scientific language of a work of popular psychology and in this, perhaps, Mr. Stapledon sins against more than the dignity of science.”

While L P Hartley, in The Sketch, was mixed. For him, “As an allegory of the spirit, tormented in the search for a fulfilment it cannot find, and of the individual persecuted by the mob, there is much to be said for this book.” Yet, “The physical aspects and embarrassments of Sirius’s peculiar make-up are ruthlessly insisted upon, with a complete—indeed, with a positive and challenging—lack of humour.” Ultimately, for him, Stapledon “fails because he cannot effect a unity between fantasy and realism.”

I think Sirius is the most accessible of Stalpedon’s novels yet. It contains the same themes — of the spirit in a constant struggle against an indifferent fate, and exalting in the challenge of life even though it knows it must fail — as his earlier novels, but couched in, oddly enough, far more humanly-relatable characters. Stapledon’s long-distance view and challenging moral stance is still here, to some extent, but so are thoughts about love, loyalty, family, and the business of making a living, which didn’t feature in the future histories. Its ultimate message — “the most valuable social relationships were those between minds as different from one another as possible yet capable of mutual sympathy” — might have been brought out by the war that was raging as the book was written, but it remains a valid idea to this day, just as Sirius remains a readable book.

Comments (1)

  1. Angiportus Librarysaver says:

    The sex bit squicked me out too. Despite that I seem to recall humans occasionally get sexual with animals, and dogs hump all manner of things, so it isn’t wholly implausible. It just seemed unnecessary. But since this story was back-to-backed with Odd John thanks to the Dover Company, I had had quite enough tragic endings, and am just glad that I got to the Last and First Men/Star Maker combo first [mind seriously blown].

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