Stapledon’s third novel, Odd John, began life as an appendix to his second, Last Men in London (1932), a short piece that was called “John’s Story”, which was never published. (In a neat chain effect, Stapledon’s next novel, Star Maker, which he began working on before Odd John was finished, can be linked to this one, as one thing the titular John leaves behind at the end is “an amazing document… purporting to give an account of the whole story of the Cosmos” — a pretty accurate description of Star Maker.)
Odd John (published in 1935) tells the story of the (short) life of John Wainwright. Born to a British GP and his Scandinavian wife after an eleven month gestation (Stapledon makes no mention of how difficult the birth must have been, particularly considering the baby’s outsized head), John proves to be mentally quick but physically slow to develop, in part because his increased brain-power means he has much greater control over his bodily processes. So, we’re told, he “actually had to learn to breathe”, while his walking, when it finally begins, “was probably seriously delayed by [his discovery of] mathematics”. Nicknamed Odd John, he’s obviously physically different, with particularly large eyes and a large head (the cover for the first edition is closely based on Stapledon’s own painting of his protagonist, so, however cartoony it seems, it gives a good idea of how odd Odd John is supposed to look). He is, in fact, an example of Homo Superior, the next stage in human evolution.
The novel recounts, first of all, John’s self-education and his attempts to understand those peculiar things called human beings he finds himself living among; then, when he realises the differences are too great — when he announces “I’m through with your bloody awful species” — his contacting the few other examples of his own kind, and their attempt to set up a colony on a remote island where they can study, develop, and seek to fulfil their potential away from the judgements, incomprehension, and inevitable conflict with the “sapients” — the rest of humanity.
It’s a very Wyndhamesque novel, though with a colder, more satirical tone. With its tale of strange (bleach-blond, in both cases) children whose evolutionary advancement (or, with Wyndham, alien origin) puts them at odds with the rest of humanity, leading to isolation and eventual conflict, there’s an obvious parallel with The Midwich Cuckoos. But there’s also a touch of The Chrysalids in John’s telepathic reaching out to others of his kind, and with Chocky, too, in the way John’s parents, like Matthew’s in the latter novel, decide not to bring their prodigy of a child to the attention of the authorities, for fear he’ll be taken away and experimented on (and there was me thinking suspicion of governments was a Cold War thing).
But Odd John is very much a between-the-wars novel. For one thing, there’s its attitude, prevalent among the intellectual circles of the 1930s, that it was nationalism that was to blame for the coming conflict (here, John says: “A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners…”). Its protagonist is also a distinctly pre-Nazi superman, in that Stapledon presents him quite coolly making ethical choices that, a decade later, it would be unthinkable to present without explicit condemnation. In fact, it’s John’s ethics that, to me, stand out as the most evident point Stapledon is making about his “next step” in human evolution. Stapledon’s narrator — in his own words “a rather half-hearted free-lance journalist” and “a very incompetent biographer” — has a tendency to downplay, if not entirely excuse, what are in fact acts of cold-blooded murder, incest, the rape and vivisection of women, and even genocide by either John or his small community of “supernormals”, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way.
So, what’s going on here, in a book Stapledon subtitled “A Story between Jest and Earnest”? Are we supposed to take John’s occasional and self-justified acts of inhumanity — or, as he sees it, of his true humanity applied to a race (us) that cannot be called fully human — as part of a rollicking adventure, a light jest about a big-brained superman who in earlier chapters dismisses all our science, religion, psychiatry and poetry as the products of a race that’s “not really grown up”? I think, if anything, Stapledon’s calling his novel a “Jest” is defensive — a brush-off in case we really are offended. But what he wants to do is shock us. Stapledon wants us to realise how alien, how inhuman (in our terms), the next stage in evolution might be, and the best way to do that is to present it treating us as though we’re so much less than it, less than its own definition of human.
(Another take is that the narrator — whom Odd John nicknames “Fido” as though to underline how we’re all below his degree of human — may in fact be under some sort of psychic-hypnotic influence. We learn, later in the novel, that John and his fellow supernormals can bamboozle normal humans with the power of their minds, and John wants “Fido” to write his biography — not so we norms can better understand him, but so the next wave of supernormals knows a little more what to expect — so it’s in his interest to downplay the more negative aspects of John’s career. At the same time, John is presented as engaged, curious, open, personable, and even kind, so it’s sometimes hard to equate the persona with the occasional atrocities.)
What is this next stage of human evolution anyway? Right from the start, John has an ambivalence about not only the life and sufferings of we human beings, but his own, too. He laughs at his own pains and misfortunes, seeing them from a cosmic perspective, even while in the throes of suffering them. This is an attitude found in the more advanced beings in the other two Stapledon novels I’ve covered, Last and First Men and Star Maker, in both of which our more evolved descendants learn to see their tragedies, even their own coming extinction, as necessary events that “deepened and quickened the universe” itself.
Living among the community of supernormals, the narrator is given a glimpse of what Homo Superior (and, presumably, Stapledon) regards as the true measure of an evolved outlook:
“The true purpose of the awakened spirit… is twofold, namely to help in the practical task of world-building, and to employ itself to the best of its capacity in intelligent worship.”
(“Intelligent worship” meaning something like a combination of scientific understanding, philosophical enquiry, and aesthetic wonder.)
Meanwhile we humans, who think ourselves so advanced, are seen, by these supermen, as “about as clever along [our] own line as the earliest birds were at flight. [We’re] a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.”
(Elsewhere, Odd John announces that “Homo sapiens is at the end of its tether”, which resonates with H G Wells’s final, despairing end-of-life outburst against a world that had just been through a second World War, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945).)
Odd John received a fair amount of mainstream attention when it was published. (Stapledon seems to have found a position as a sort of public intellectual, perhaps after the model of Wells.) Not all of the reviews were positive, but nevertheless, Odd John was a book everyone felt the need to remark on, even if only to say how odd it was. The Evening Standard made it their book of the month in October 1935, declaring Stapledon “a writer who has one of the deepest and strangest imaginations of our times: perhaps the deepest, perhaps the strangest.”
It perhaps seems less strange today, now we have supermen of all kinds flooding our culture, but the ethical shocks Stapledon delivers through his seemingly so personable and child-like version of the Übermensch are perhaps the thing that gives this novel a lasting place, not just in science fiction, but the culture as a whole.