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.
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Well written and an interesting story to boot. This predates the X men and yet it features homo Superior! Olaf Stapledon is a consummate professional in writing good quality sci-fi that although it was written more than half a century ago still has themes and ideas that can captivate the reader. Great Book!
Olaf Stapledon's "Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest", published in 1935, is his third novel and it takes the idea of the evolution of homo sapiens into a new race, an idea which he touched on briefly at the end of his second novel "Last Men in London", and this time he devotes the entire work into looking at the interaction between homo sapiens and the new race homo superior. The idea of Supermen was not new, Philip Wylie's "Gladiator" from 1930 is one example which predates "Odd John" and "Last Men in London" for that matter, though Wylie's superman was man-made and not a product of evolution.
What makes Stapledon unique is not the subject matter, but the way he deals with it. The story is told through the eyes of the narrator, an adult human, who is a friend of the Wainwrights. The narrator describes John Wainwright, i.e. Odd John, as a child and through his development growing up and the events that take place. Stapledon's works always have a strong philosophical approach to them, and "Odd John" is no different. He doesn't attempt to show the world through John's eyes, but rather the reaction of a "normal" human to a super-human, and the reaction of humanity to the realization that homo-superiors exist.
Stapledon looks at moral and ethical issues of the interaction between the two species. Man kills animals often enough, so if homo-superior considers homo-sapiens animals, would they have any ethical problem with killing them? Would homo-sapiens have any problem defending their existence by murdering off the homo-superiors before they become too strong? There are a couple aspects missing from the philosophical discussions which occur between the narrator and John, and those are the ideas of sentience and intelligence. Clearly John considers homo-sapiens as inferior, but he also recognizes they are sentient and intelligent beings, thus the comparison between the interaction between homo-superior and homo-sapiens, and that between homo-sapiens and animals, isn't really valid.
Despite the lack of such a discussion, this is still a very good book, and Stapledon's works are always worth reading, because they are very different from what any other author at the time or since has produced. Even though this novel has traditional characters and scope, unlike his "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker", "Odd John" is still essentially driven by ideas more than characters and plot.
Anyone familiar with the notion of Darwins theory of evolution, in that improvements to species depend on mutations, will enjoy this novel. Also, anyone familiar with the recent X-Men First Class film will find similarities. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this is the very first X-Men story and John can be seen as a prototype Professor Xavier. In this and his other books Stapleden is asking where man as a species is heading. How will he evlove? What will he achieve? This story attempts to focus on what would happen if evolution gave rise to a superior being and how that person(s) would regard the lesser specied of Homo Sapien. John sees us as we see the chimps in the zoo. He has a fondness for individuals but is unable to see himself as part of the race. This leads to acts of violence which we would see as morally wrong but he sees as justified in order to protect himself and his own kind. His own kind... yes, he does find more. This becomes his calling and after putting his incredible intelligence to work to build a nuclear powered yacht and plane (well, sort of nuclear) he travels the globe seeking beings with similar powers. Like Professor X he is a telepath and uses this to track them down - just like Prof X does in the film. I do think there is a bit of plagarism going on here but I have been entertained by both so I am not bothered. This is a good book to read if you are an X-Men fan or simply interested in mans next step along the path of evolution.
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