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.


Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

1935 HB from Methuen

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.

1965 Berkley PB, art by Richard Powers

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).

E P Dutton HB, 1936

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.

Ed Emshwiller cover to Galaxy Publishing edition, 1951

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.)

1978 NEL PB, art by Joe Petagno

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.)

Some scenes depicted are not necessarily in the novel… art by Robert Stanley

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.


Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

First HB dustjacket, from Methuen, art by Ethel “Bip” Pares

After his first novel, Last and First Men, Stapledon published Last Men in London (1932) and Odd John (1935), but it was 1937’s Star Maker that was the true successor to his first book.

Like that debut, Star Maker isn’t so much a story as a trip through time (and, in this case, the entirety of space as well, before moving outside both space and time in the final chapters). It starts with its narrator leaving his family home one night in a state of bitterness, to sit on a hill and regard “our own house, our islet in the tumultuous and bitter currents of the world”. Soon, it is not his own little house he’s regarding from the outside, but his world, Earth, as some force takes him up on the start of this novel’s journey:

“The Earth appeared now as a great bright orb hundreds of times larger than the full moon. In its centre a dazzling patch of light was the sun’s image reflected in the ocean. The planet’s circumference was an indefinite breadth of luminous haze, fading into the surrounding blackness of space… The spectacle before me was strangely moving. Personal anxiety was blotted out by wonder and admiration; for the sheer beauty of our planet surprised me. It was a huge pearl, set in spangled ebony.”

This makes me think of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth seen from space, taken in 1972, and how it and other Earth photos (Wikipedia has a timeline of them) brought out the preciousness of this speck of rock that we call home, thinly coated with a life-preserving environment, an island in a vast, harsh vacuum — just as Stapledon describes it — and how that fed into the burgeoning environmental movement. (And this makes me wonder who was the first writer to properly see the Earth as such a “Blue Marble” in fiction.)

David Pelham art for 1972 Penguin PB

The narrator becomes “a disembodied, wandering view-point”, capable of inhabiting the minds he encounters, and sharing their experiences. He finds he can enter into dialogue with these beings, and that they can even become fellow travellers. Soon, the narrator is at once the Earthman experiencing all the wonders and mysteries of the cosmos, and a conglomerate of disparate beings, all journeying, like him, by mind, experiencing the many worlds they encounter, learning their stories. In their quest, this narrator becomes aware that he and his fellow travellers can move through both time and space, the only limit to their travels being that they can’t connect with — even become aware of — planets whose inhabitants have evolved to a level of consciousness too far beyond their own. They have to advance their own awareness and understanding before they can experience these more realised beings, or even perceive them as more advanced. There is, for Stapledon, no way to be a purely passive viewpoint and genuinely perceive the truth; you have to be altered by what you see.

As he/they range on this cosmological quest, the narrator becomes aware that “every world that we entered turned out to be in the throes of the same spiritual crisis as that which we knew so well on our native planets”:

“…in which the ideals of the masses are without the guidance of any well-established tradition, and in which natural science is enslaved to individualistic industry…”

This, to me, sounds so much like the modernist crisis of the early 20th century, as found in the likes of T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf: an existential crisis of meaning, driven in part by the First and Second World Wars (themselves perfect metaphors for “natural science… enslaved to individualistic industry” and taken to mass-murderous extremes), but also by the destabilisation of so many ideas and ideals thanks to the revolutions in thought brought about by Darwin, Einstein, and others. As Stapledon’s narrator sums it up at the start: “horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world’s delirium”. But whereas the emphasis in the literary moderns, who were often staunchly elitist, is on the sensitive individual suffering from angst and despair, Stapledon sees this as a worldwide crisis, whose roots lie in the clash between the lone individual and the community:

“This crisis I came to regard as having two aspects. It was at once a moment in the spirit’s struggle to become capable of true community on a world-wide scale; and it was a stage in the age-long task of achieving the right, the finally appropriate, the spiritual attitude toward the universe.”

Les Edwards art from 1999

Star Maker, then, is an attempt to understand this early 20th century moment by stepping outside it and asking: “What if this weren’t just our own dark moment, but a stage that all intelligent races in the universe go through — what if it has a million variations throughout the cosmos? Why might it be necessary?” The answers, for Stapledon, lie in the reason for all of this — life, the universe, everything — and so in the nature of its creator, the Star Maker.

First, though, he has to confront the fundamental question of whether there is a Star Maker. There are certainly moments of cosmic despair as the narrator ranges through the universe:

“The appalling desert of darkness and barren fire, the huge emptiness so sparsely pricked with scintillations, the colossal futility of the whole universe, hideously oppressed me.”

I fully expected Stapledon to leave the question of whether there was a Star Maker hanging till the end — in the classic Lovecraftian style of ending with the moment of overwhelming confrontation — or perhaps to never answer it at all. But no, Stapledon wants to examine what such a Star Maker would be like, so he has to have one and bring it on stage. At first, his narrator becomes aware of the Star Maker through its many aspects. One moment it’s “sheer Power”, another it’s “pure Reason”, or “Love”, or “unreasoning Creativity”. But these are just the trunk, tusks, tail and legs of an elephant too vast for him to perceive as a whole. All the time:

“The felt presence of the Star Maker remained unintelligible, even though it increasingly illuminated the cosmos, like the splendour of the unseen sun at dawn.”

Peter Goodfellow art, from 1979

Even at the end the Star Maker remains — has to remain, if Stapledon is to be intellectually honest — “a dread mystery”. It’s interesting that one of the books that influenced Stapledon in his writing of Star Maker was Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1934), which was about the essentially incomprehensible, alien, or inhuman aspects of divinity, and how the holy is so often associated with darkness — interesting because Otto’s book was also a key influence on C S Lewis, and fed into the shadowy aspect of the primitive goddess Ungit and the not-to-be-looked-on Mountain God in Till We Have Faces. Both Star Maker and Till We Have Faces are about how we cannot even begin to perceive the nature of the divine (or of that level of reality we might call divine) until we ourselves have changed. (Lewis, though admiring Stapledon’s book, thought it “ends in sheer devil worship”.)

Stapledon’s approach (or his narrator’s), in this novel, has been to try to understand the crisis early 20th century Earth is going through by rising above it and putting it into a new and wider perspective. At first, that perspective is to learn that other worlds are going through the same crisis — in fact, have to go through it. Then, rising above that level, he discovers that not only species go through this crisis, but stars too — stars, in Star Maker, are conscious entities, and one of Stapledon’s most inventive moments is to reveal that what we think of as the universal laws of gravitation that dictate how the stars must move in their galactic orbits are, to the stars themselves, closer to social rules or aesthetics. They have no need to obey them — they are, then, not laws — but the stars do obey them, because not to do so would bring them shame and a kind of aesthetic pain.

The ultimate end of this rising-above approach is to see humankind — and the many created races that inhabit our universe with us — from the viewpoint of their creator. What, then, are we, to the Star Maker?

“And at once I knew that the Star Maker had made me not to be his bride, nor yet his treasured child, but for some other end… It seemed to me that he gazed down on me from the height of his divinity with the aloof though passionate attention of an artist judging his finished work; calmly rejoicing in its achievement, but recognising at last the irrevocable flaws in its initial conception, and already lusting for fresh creation.”

The Star Maker, it turns out, has a dual nature. It is at once outside and (when engaged in creation) inside time, evolving in response to what it has created. Stapledon’s cosmos is not an entirely top-down hierarchy. Humankind, and the other races, are not just there to be the playthings of their creator, but to teach that creator how to better create. Which could be a harsh sort of idea — our purpose, it seems, is to be flawed, and to try but fail, so the next iteration of creation might be less flawed — but it comes, for Stapledon’s narrator, as a kind of consolation:

“The incalculable potency of the cosmos mysteriously enhanced the brightness of our brief spark of community, and of mankind’s brief, uncertain venture. And these in turn quickened the cosmos.”

Jean-Michel Nicollet art from a 1979 French translation

What, for me, sets Stapledon’s cosmicism apart from, say, Lovecraft’s (who reveals what I take to be his own longing to be a “disembodied, wandering view-point” in the universe in The Whisperer in Darkness), is that Stapledon is always aware of — insists on — there being both a plus and a minus. At every stage in his narrative, an intelligent race of beings triumphs only to realise its limits, or to find there is more striving to be done; or it fails and learns and starts again. Ultimately, even the tragedies have a purpose. This can make reading Stapledon, particularly as a piece of sense-of-wonder science fiction rather than of philosophy, a mite frustrating, as every payoff is tempered, every revelation is not quite the last. (Another comparison is with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater, whose narrator indulges in a superficially similar experiential tour of the universe, though unlike Stapledon’s narrator he tries very much not to become involved or changed by the wonders he sees — until the final confrontation with that “huge white eyeless Face”, which is where Smith leaves it. Stapledon pushes on, still asking questions.)

Spine of the first edition

Is there a final answer, then, to the modernist crisis that kicked this novel off, and those questions the narrator asked at the start:

“Had we, perhaps, misconceived our whole existence? Were we, as it were, living from false premises?”

The response Stapledon gives is a typically Stapledonian one, in that it isn’t any sort of final answer, but is, rather, an opening up of new questions. Returning to Earth, at the end, the narrator is struck by “The littleness, but the intensity, of earthly events!” He sees his own situation, then, from not a new perspective, but from two perspectives: not just that of the human being caught up in his own troubles and all the intensity of a contingent, mortal life, but also from the cosmic viewpoint, from which his suffering is really quite a minor thing, but nevertheless part of a much larger, ultimately hopeful, project of creating something better.

This is perhaps the key thing that prevents Stapledon from writing Lovecraftian cosmic horror. He does see and acknowledge the horror, but also acknowledges that it is, however true to the one perceiving it, only one perspective among others. The point is not to be caught in one viewpoint — not that of the suffering mortal, nor that of the vastly removed Star Maker — but to move between them, to step outside or inside as required.

(Which is what I’ve always thought is one of the main benefits of “escapist”and imaginative fiction: the ability to step outside of it all, get a new and expanded, or at least refreshed, perspective, then return.)

Is Star Maker fiction or philosophy? Reviewing it in The Sketch when it first came out, L P Hartley called it “the most ambitious novel, if novel it can be called, that I ever read”. It’s certainly not a story, as most novels are. It uses the techniques of fiction to present a philosophical idea of how the cosmos might be ordered, of how the crisis of 1937 might be faced. If Stapledon had written about the nature of his Star Maker as philosophy, he’d have been dismissed as a fantasist; but by writing it as fantasy, he can say something that feels like a sort of truth, even if it doesn’t have to be taken as literally true.

At the same time, it’s a difficult read — far more abstract, and (literally) disembodied, than his Last and First Men. One of those monuments of imaginative literature, Star Maker is a book that, for me, has grown the more I’ve thought about it.