This week’s classic Science Fiction review looks at Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.
Odd John is an odd book. Written by philosopher Olaf Stapledon, Odd John looks at how the next step in human evolution would view its predecessors. Humanity may not be comfortable with the answer.
Odd John – Summary
The novel is narrated by a journalist who has come into contact with the eponymous John. It is clear as soon as John can speak that he is unique. He easily masters any intellectual field and is also able to manipulate people at will. As he grows these differences with ‘normal’ people become more pronounced and he eventually tries to find people of his own kind, who he calls ‘homo superior’.
Odd John can be a strange read for modern audiences for a number of reasons, such as its subject matter, its jarringly old fashioned tone and the strange digressions into tangential stories. That said, it is still enjoyable, thought provoking and certainly a book all science fiction fans and philosophy students should read.
Odd John Analysis
The character of Odd John is clearly inspired by the Ubermensch of Nietzsche and as such is beyond our own moral understanding. What we can understand is that he views homo sapiens in much the same way as we may view our own ape ancestors; interesting but not as fully sapient as ourselves.
Where Odd John deviates from most depictions of super-humans is in his morality. Throughout the novel, John commits acts we would consider to be heinous. He is not above killing a human that stands in his way and in one instance incest is even hinted at. Part of the reason the novel is a great work is that throughout all of this the reader is in no doubt that the normal rules of morality do not apply to this character. Stapledon is not condoning the killing of a lesser species or inces. He is using John’s actions to highlight the boundaries of humanities moral understanding. In
Stapledon is not condoning the killing of a lesser species or incest. He is using John’s actions to highlight the boundaries of humanities moral understanding. In effect, the morals applicable to ‘homo superior’ are as understandable to us as ours are to a chimpanzee.
A key aspect to Odd John is that he considers it his duty to live his life to its full potential. For him, the idea of being less than what he could be is abhorrent. This is evidenced by John’s willingness to dispose of any human that gets in the way of his reaching his potential. Through this Olaf Stapledon raises some interesting moral questions and also issues a challenge to the reader to try and follow John’s example when it comes to trying to reach their potential.
Many books are called challenging when, in fact, they are simply impenetrable or fundamentally not enjoyable to read. Odd John challenges the reader to think about morality, their own potential and their spiritual growth. There are few books in any genre that can claim that.
You can buy Odd John on Amazon.
Top Three Quotes from Odd John
“it is a great strength to have faced the worst and to have felt it a feature of beauty. Nothing ever after can shake one.”
“The truth of the matter was something much more subtle and tremendous than any plain physical miracle could ever be. But never mind that. The important thing was that, when I did see the stars (riotously darting in all directions according to the caprice of their own wild natures, yet in every movement confirming the law), the whole tangled horror that had tormented me finally presented itself to me in its truth and beautiful shape. And I knew that the first, blind stage of my childhood had ended.”
“Homo sapiens is a spider trying to crawl out of a basin. The higher he crawls, the steeper the hill. Sooner or later, down he goes. So long as he’s on the bottom, he can get along quite nicely, but as soon as he starts climbing, he begins to slip. And the higher he climbs the farther he falls. It doesn’t matter which direction he tries. He can make civilization after civilization, but every time, long before he begins to be really civilized, skid!”
If you liked reading this review of Odd John by Olaf Stapledon then you will probably enjoy browsing through Stranger Views’ classic science fiction section. I would particularly suggest checking out Gateway by Pohl. This novel also made our list of must-read science fiction novels.
- Odd John Rating