Scientific experiments gone awry, cosmic accidents, super aliens from Krypton or Valhalla - these seems to be the standard superhero formulae. But what about genetic or evolutionary mutation? "Yea, that's called 'The X-Men', you knuckle- head." OK fair enough. But still. Their superpowers remain for the most part of the garden-variety comic book type, since that's where they come from. It takes a novel to see further. A novel like this.
John Wainwright doesn't look like a superhero. He has bulging eyes, a big brow and the features of a foetus. People who look at him are both repulsed and fascinated. He uses his looks as a test of character, other people's character that is. He is beyond testing.
John Wainwright doesn't act like a superhero. He kills a policeman among others. He has affairs with both genders and with his own mother (probably). He bullies others to learn about them and himself, like a scientist conducting experiments with rats. He isn't weighed down with an overwhelming sense of responsibility because of his great gifts. His most usual response is to laugh.
John Wainwright doesn't think like a superhero. He is a maths prodigy, an inventor, he uses his brain. He philosophises; he cares about 'spirituality'. He does not care about homo sapiens, either to rule or destroy us. He is 'homo superior' and only cares about his own kind.
John Wainwright doesn't have powers like a superhero. Oh yes, there's the telepathy, the telekinesis, and assorted psi abilities. But before all this, he has total control over his own psychological and physiological responses. He reads books like other kids drink milkshakes. He can learn a foreign language in two weeks. He composes music that no-one else can appreciate...and isn't supposed to.
I don't want to spill the story. I'll only say that given the plot's fantastic premise - the next evolutionary step of humanity is in process - the rest makes internal sense. You read the details of the nature of the 'supernormals' and how the world responds to them and the picture is credible. I find this a refreshing break from the usual Superman plot where the hero has incredible powers but plebeian, all-too-human values and dreams. It is usually the villainous Lex Luthor types who dares to defy society's norms. Not here.
The novel's weakest parts are those where the author (and fictional biographer) tries to transcribe John's thoughts on politics, economics, society, philosophy and the rest. Stapledon was right to attempt this, but I feel the results were clumsy. This is not a 'novel of ideas' in that sense; there is action and adventure aplenty. However, the best ideas are shown through the action, like in any superior novel.
Perhaps the brightest idea that stuck with me was John's way of describing him and his fellow supernormals as "fully human" and even "fully awake". According to his perspective, superhumans aren't above and beyond the common herd, they are simply us as we are supposed to be. To use another of John's phrases, superhumans are people who have developed their own peculiar "style". They are all odd johns.
There's something in that that makes me ask, Who is really odd in this world? Maybe we too should develop our inner oddness. Appreciating this novel may be a place to start.