Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
Published by Gollancz, March 2012 as part of the SF Masterworks series.
Originally published 1935.
Review by Mark Yon
Here is, reissued, one of those SF tales that was of a type so common around the 1940’s and 50’s: except that this one set the mould in 1935. Though short, it challenges the reader, and leaves you much to think about afterwards.
Odd John is a tale of a ‘superman’: John Wainwright, an Englishman who claims to be the forerunner of a new species, homo superior. Told by his friend and butler-type, nicknamed Fido, it is the tale of how John grew up, became an adult and ultimately the consequences of his superior status.
In the new introduction from Adam Roberts (which, like most of the Introductions in this series, I’d recommend reading afterwards) Adam begins by saying that this superman story is odd. Personally I can’t disagree with that. Wainwright is not a man enhanced by the gaining of superpowers or from a more advanced future, he just is more intelligent, and looks down upon normal mortals without his abilities.
The tone of the book is one of superiority and condescension and this is shown by an uncomfortably sneering tone throughout. Nevertheless, John has a tale to tell, and despite being an unsympathetic host recounts his past and his present views on the world.
Though John has clear views on the world, it is also apparent that his views are flawed. His thinking on religion is basically that it has no place in the world, and his relationship with his mother is quite shocking to human morals even today. It is clear that John operates on different rules to the majority of the human race.
It is this difference that leads to his downfall, something highlighted from the first page of the novel. The last part of the book has John and his fellow supernormals set up a colony in the Pacific, from which they can continue to view Homo Sapiens with distain and create a new world order. This does not end well and the book at the finish has a denouement of what these days could be described as ‘a W-T-F moment’. Superiority does not necessarily mean domination and can lead to mistrust and aggression.
In the end this is a tale that leaves the reader with mixed feelings. Stapledon’s tone is so low-key and un-dramatic that the poignancy of the events within is quite telling. John is so different that it is clear he could not be seen as anything other than a threat to ‘normal’ humans, and yet his demise is rather sad. By telling this tale, even with a main character that is insensitive and at times unpleasant, the human race doesn’t come out of this well.
Whilst not as well known as Stapledon’s Star Maker or First and Last Men, Odd John is a valuable read. I would not say that Odd John is an enjoyable tale, but it is one that makes the reader think and is therefore all the more important for that. When people talk of SF being a forum for ideas, it is perhaps the thought-experiment that is Odd John that they are thinking of.
Mark Yon, March 2012
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