Monday, July 19, 2010

Odd John & Sirius

by Olaf Stapledon

The idea of the super-being just isn’t what it used to be.

The super-being has, from its racial and Nietzschean roots, been popularized and repurposed as the modern day super-hero. While such a transformation was already underway throughout the early years of the pulps, it truly took shape in the late-sixties with the Marvel Comics of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Marvel revolutionized the super-hero, shifting the focus to that of the super-powered everyman. This is the image today popularized in movies like Iron Man II or Spider-Man – film productions, mind you, of Marvel Comics’ properties. But lets not forget the earlier image, investigated within the confines of fantastic fiction, of a super-being – a pinnacle of racial conditioning and cosmic coalescence. Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Odd John’ and ‘Sirius,’ here collected in a single volume from Dover Books, both posit a super-being with acute racial awareness and a sense of intelligence’s relation to the universe at large.

What are we driving at here? A super-being is the summation of a race; he is the contraction of linear history into a moment in time. We witness in the span of a life the conflict between historical immensity and the inconsequential. The super-being encapsulates a race, but stands apart from it. This is the alienation of superiority, especially as this in turn highlights the super-being’s insignificance in relation to the machinations of the greater universe.

First edition of Odd John.

John Wainwright stands at exactly such a juncture. ‘Odd John’ is his record; that of a sickly and deformed Scottish youth possessed of a disconcerting intelligent. ‘Sirius,’ on the other hand, chronicles the short, sad life of an Alsatian sheep dog artificially endowed with human intelligence. Both novels deal with the violent extermination of the individual by an unsympathetic and hostile alien race, that of Homo sapiens. John finds solidarity in the founding a colony, albeit a doomed one, of his super-intelligent ilk. Sirius is tormented by solitude, finding what compassion and understanding he can in the companionship of Plaxy, the daughter of the scientist who created him. But whatever else they endure, both John and Sirius must negotiate their inconsequentiality in the face of history. And that is what lies at the heart of Stapledon’s writing.

Stapledon’s novels oscillate between history, a dizzying Hegelian panoply of vast array, and the individual, tormented due to his detachment to this greater motion. Stapledon’s tragic heroic characters are beaten down by history’s indifference to their personal concern. Stapledon’s best-known works, ‘First and Last Men’ and ‘Star Maker,’ leave behind the specificity of the individual to detail the history of the human race and of the universe respectively. The individual, according to Stapledon, yearns for a greater connectivity to the universe itself. As the individual rises from the dregs of its own limited self-awareness, it registers the disconnect with its personal needs and those of the universe, or of history. It is only through sublimation into a greater cosmic mind or racial consciousness that the individual can then fulfill its desires. Stapledon writes of the cosmic mind – of the shape a diversity of minds form in collusion.

Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon studied history at Balliol College, Oxford and subsequently earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool. While his first published work of science fiction was the epochal ‘First and Last Men’ in 1930, this was actually preceded a year earlier by a book-length expansion of his doctoral thesis entitled ‘A Modern Theory of Ethics.’ He would continue to publish philosophy between his more fantastic fictions. His novels are, in addition to narratives, treatises on the conflict between spiritual yearning and the universe’s apathy towards such a striving. If ‘Odd John’ and ‘Sirius’ are ostentatiously less ambitious than a work like ‘Star-Maker,’ which purports to tell the history of an entire universe, then their scope is still expansive, as each charts the totality of a super-being’s life from birth to early demise.

‘Odd John’ was published in 1936, as tensions across Europe mounted and the issue of racial transcendence, and conversely racial extermination, raged. Stapledon addresses the concept of the super-human in great complexity, stripping it of the pomp and bombast that the National Socialists cloaked it in for their own political means. To the hyper-evolved John Wainwright, Homo sapiens are the sub-human race. It is man’s pettiness that ultimately destroys John and his colony. John himself is described in vivid detail by Stapledon, a writer with a gift not only for philosophical inquiry, but a gently grotesque physiology as well. Here is Stapledon’s description of John at twenty-three, “…far more like a boy than a man, though in some moods his face would assume a curiously experienced and even patriarchal expression. Slender, long-limbed, and with that unfinished coltish look characteristic of puberty… they called him spiderish… his eyes were indeed too big for his face, which thus acquired a very cat-like or falcon-like expression.” John does not enjoy the easy allure and Olympian physique of a super-hero; instead John and his super-human companions possess a mutant deformity. Stapledon also pinpoints a Mongoloid origin for all of his super-beings. Could this be a further affront to the Aryan superman?

Transcendent super-being or bronzed rapist?

If John does not adhere to what we, as Homo sapiens, would consider extraordinary physical grace, neither does his intelligence operate in the manner human intelligence could predict. Mankind, that is, normal humanity, suffers from its crude suppositions about the world and of sentience. John ponders “Surely that is one of the penalties of being more than beast but less than fully human. Pterodactyls had a great advantage over the old-fashioned creepy crawly lizards, but they had their special dangers. Because they could fly a bit, they could crash. Finally, they were outclassed by birds. Well, I’m a bird.” Morality is a social issue and not an inalienable truth. John commits incest, murder, sexual flagrancy and other acts that would be deemed despicable by human morality. The only morality, John and his brethren conclude, is a racial one. John and the others eventually do discover an island in the South Seas appropriate for their colony – the only problem is that it is inhabited by a tribal society. John bluntly explains, “we might have kept them alive on the island as domestic animals, but this would have wrecked our plans. It would also have undermined the natives spiritually. So we decided to destroy them… I said to them, in their own language, that we were gods, that we needed the island, that they must therefore make a funeral pyre for themselves, mount it together, lie down together, and gladly die. This they did, most gladly, men, women, and children. When they had all died we set fire to the faggots and their bodies were burnt.” This is a troubling incident, but it is also one recurrent throughout history.

‘Sirius’ is altogether more somber novel, and ironically enough, its protagonist is also a more sympathetic one. The novel is from Stapledon’s late period, published in 1964. Sirius is a sheep dog bestowed a comparable to human intelligence through the experiments of Thomas Trelone, a Cambridge scientist. He is described a mighty beast, but “what distinguished Sirius from all other dogs was his huge cranium. It was not, as a matter of fact, quite as large as one would have expected in a creature of human intelligence… his cranium was far bigger than the Border Collie’s. The dome reached almost up to the tips of his large Alsatian ears. To hold up this weight of head, the muscles of his neck and shoulders were strongly developed.” Sirius struggles due to his physical discrepancies to Homo sapiens – though he is bright by human standards, his poor eyesight and lack of hands prevent him from reading easily, he is never able to attend school and is at best able to run a sheep farm. Despite the exceptional circumstances of his existence, Sirius’ life is defined by boundaries.

Sirius is torn between his nature and his reason. One day, while walking back from a series of laboratory tests at Cambridge, he “…felt an increasing impulse to run amok in the street. Life was no good to him. Why not throw it away, why not kill as many as he could of these ridiculously bedecked, swell-headed apes, until they destroy him?” Amidst this alienation and murderous torment, Sirius is overcome by a scent, “if it was a fragrance at all, it was the fragrance of love and wisdom and creating, of these for their own sake, fragrance of love and wisdom and creating, of these for their own sake, whether crowned with success and happiness or not. It was this fragrance, trailed across the universe, which somehow came to me with such a fresh poignancy that it was something entirely new to me. It was this fragrance, trailed across the universe, winding in and out of all its chasms and interstices, that had also so often enticed me…” Sirius pursues a spiritual truth in the face of the deficiencies and diminished returns of his own existence.

Penguin paperback edition of Sirius.

The short, idyllic time Sirius spends living with Plaxy at the small cabin of Tan-y-Voel stands as perhaps the most transcendental in the novel. The racial gulf between the Scottish woman and the Alsatian sheep dog is bridged as the two of them form some semblance of a life together. Of course, it is this idyll that leads to Sirius’ demise, as bigoted and small-minded locals, including members of the Church, persecute Sirius for their own means. His final words, after being hunted like a rabid beast, are “Plaxy-Sirius – worthwhile.” Both Sirius and John Wainwright face their deaths, and the tragic failures mandatory to existence, with a dignity and humor.

An awareness of the pathetic futility of it all.

A pleasure in this accumulation of small failures and victories before an inevitable defeat.

NEXT: Samuel R. Delany's Hogg.

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mary said...
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