Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) by Olaf Stapledon

OddJohn1I warned visitors in my last monthly post that my prescribed TBR as of late has wandered into more modern, mainstream fare (in other words, blah). As we know, I am a stubborn sort of reader, and I stick to my list, but I found a little extra time this month to indulge a little craving for something even older than my usual comfort zone. A sudden desire to spend my evening strolls listening to a pulpy dramatized space opera motivated me to look for that Jack Williamson retro Hugo nominee from last year—but then I stumbled across Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.

I’ve had bad luck with the childish space dramas of the 1930s but I’ve been promised by several good authorities that Olaf Stapledon is a special kind of 1930’s SF writer. They weren’t kidding.

Narrated by the adult friend of his father, we learn of the short life of “Odd” John Wainwright, a child born with many physical anomalies, such as a big head, spidery limbs, and mobility constraints, but whose rapid intellectual development convinces the narrator that John is Homo superior. John spends his infancy mastering mathematics, his early childhood analyzing individuals, and the rest of his brief life seeking enlightenment, purpose, and other Homo superior beings. As his telepathy skills improve, he connects with people like himself, and they set out to establish a private island community, away from the dangerous, brutish Homo sapiens society.

OddJohn2A philosopher by trade, Stapledon’s tale is more thinkpiece than story of action, and he uses John’s unique position as an advanced outsider to examine everything from war to economics to human morality. Chapters often delve into John’s lengthy responses to the narrator’s questions about his observations of the world. John’s commentary is always clever, entertaining, and extremely self-aware and progressive, considering this commentary is actually coming from a White, male author of the 1930s. At the same time, Stapledon highlights many alarming aspects of the “superman” attitude.

John’s superiority is not only the name of his advanced species, but also his attitude toward the lowly sapiens, including the narrator, whom he often calls “Fido.” Whether it’s a question of his reluctance to act as caretaker of the human race (Chicken-farming is not worth such a sacrifice.” Ch. X), or casual regard toward murder for the advancement of his own species (“So we decided to destroy them.” Ch. XVIII), Stapledon’s positions the narrative as a critical examination of national superiority at a time when eugenicist attitudes rampaged throughout Europe and the United States– though it’s not nearly so heavy-handed to be the only ground covered. John is both a sympathetic and disturbing character.

Some food for thought:

OddJohn3On nationalism: “A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners, a sort of super-hate-club” (ch. X).

On birds: “They do their simple jobs with so much more style than man shows in his complicated job” (ch. V).

On philosophy: “It’s like one of those rubber ‘bones’ they give dogs to chew, damned good for the mind’s teeth, but as food—no bloody good at all” (ch. V).

Call it SFilosophy, but there’s plenty to chew on in this Inter-War contemplation of superiority and morality. And the audio version is highly recommended, just because there’s just something special about having Olaf Stapledon at your ear.

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29 thoughts on “Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) by Olaf Stapledon

  1. marzaat says:

    Always nice to see Stapledon reviewed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think he’s a new favorite author of mine! I’ve already moved on to Last and First Men, although I haven’t had a chance to make much progress. Will probably get back to it this weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Widdershins says:

        I was going to suggest First and Last Men, but you beat me to it. 🙂

        Like

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Good! I wasn’t sure which to pick next, but now I know it has the Widdershins seal of approval!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Widdershins says:

            I remember finding my first copy in a 2nd hand bookstore. I almost didn’t buy it ‘cos I was going through my bah-humbug-why-is-SF-all-about-men stage, but even then I was a sucker for eons-sweeping sagas. I read that book to death, and am on my third copy – which, now that I’m looking at it, is looking rather dog-eared and scruffy. 🙂

            Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            That’s high praise! I’ve only cracked the beginning, but I plan to finish it this weekend.

            Like

      • Ryan says:

        You will not be disappointed sir. Nice review and those quotes are some of my favorites – philosophy in particular. I echo the t-shirt idea too.

        And as for L&F Men -it’s a bit slow going in the beginning, but boy does it ramp up after that. Beyond OJ, L&F Men and StarMaker, Death into Life is also quite good. The sequences covering collective conscious minds are simply outstanding in their descriptiveness and clarity.

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        • Ryan says:

          Wow! I am so sorry!

          Please erase that sir from my comment in your mind (as i was not able to do so myself after taking a look around). It obviously speaks to some innate assumptions. My error.

          Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Oh no! I think I sat up about 2 inches taller because of that “sir.” I thought maybe we were playing Battlestar Galactica… or at least the Peanuts gang. I much prefer “sir” to “ma’am,” anyway. Why isn’t this a thing yet?

            Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I think that first part of L&F Men is the reason I haven’t blasted through it yet. It’s good, but dense. Takes more focus than I normally have on a weekday. I think my next Stapledon will be the popular Starmaker.

          Like

  2. Rabindranauth says:

    That cover’s creepy. But I like the sound of this. Will probably be making this my next SF read, to warm up for The Dark Forest!

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I hate that cover, but it’s the first edition and I always start with the first edition. I much prefer the second cover.

      Oooh, The Dark Forest. I was all up for reading it when I finished The Three-Body Problem, but the book had little staying power in my imagination. I feel no motivation to read the sequel. Maybe that will change as we get closer to end-of-year buzz lists.

      Like

  3. Oo hot dog, this and Last and First Men are getting pretty high on my digital to-read list right now, so all the more exciting to see you’ve just read and reviewed it.

    “On nationalism: “A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners, a sort of super-hate-club”” Love this. Going to quote that all over the place.

    And “SFilosophy” Ha. And perfect. And Imma also have to steal that phrase. SFilosophy tends to be right up my alley. Huzzah and etc.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yes! Read Stapledon!

      I think that nationalism quote should go on a T-shirt. I also find it interesting that he says something like, “super-hate-club” which sounds so modern. I thought the tendency to add “super” to everything was a super recent development.

      Like

  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    I have read First and Last Men, but haven’t got around to Odd John yet, as much as Stapledon’s tone worked for me.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think Odd John is an easier read than L&F Men, considering the first part of L&F Men reads a bit like a history book and Odd John reads like a memoir.

      Like

  5. wildbilbo says:

    Gotta say I hadn’t heard of Olaf – I’ll keep an eye out from now on 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jesse says:

    I dare say Stapledon’s Starmaker is top 5, if not the top sf book of all time. But I remain curious what you think of Last and First Men (as it may be top 10 ;).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Will Odd John (1935) make Olaf Stapledon a new favorite author of mine? (Yes.) […]

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  8. Stapledon is one of the best SF authors to come out of the 1930s that nobody reads. I had the feeling you’d like him, especially after your reaction to crap like “Doc” Smith. Zemyatin is from the same era and is also worth looking into.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Odd John (1935) by Olaf Stapledon, narrated by Nigel Carrington […]

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  10. […] Stapledon: Odd John (1935) for a tidier novel-like experience More speculative history: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) […]

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  11. […] John is a From Couch to Moon favorite, so I’ll give her the last word because her review of this one captures its essence […]

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  12. […] perspectives on Odd John: From Couch to Moon and […]

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