Mutants, Supermen, New Soviet Men, and Homo Superior: Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John

Odd John

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon is a fascinating science-fictional artifact. Written in 1936, it anticipates much later science fiction and comics developments. The story traces the life of “Odd” John Wainwright, a genetically superior human specimen, a homo superior (Stapledon coined this term). We witness his growing pains as he develops his superhuman intellect and abilities. We also follow his journey worldwide as he tries to find others like him, and eventually, his demise, on a remote island where he sets up a utopian community. This post is not a full review of the book, but I want to note some interesting things.

Odd John. Cover art by Richard Powers


“They do their simple jobs with more style than man shows in his complicated job. Watch a gannet in flight, or a curlew probing the mud for food. Man, I suppose, is about as clever along his own line as the earliest birds were at flight. He’s a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.

Odd John (p.33)

Birds have evolved to be birds with style and maturity. Man has only begun on his evolutionary journey. “Odd” John is aware of his evolutionary superiority and already sees ordinary humans as living fossils. While John ordinarily is a kind and peace-loving being, he also contains a Nietzschean core. Maybe he does not quite live up to being an apex predator—a majestic raptor in flight-ready to devour its prey—but walks the tightrope between animal and superman.

Future Shock

“The have-nots with very good reason exercise their hate upon the haves, who have made the mess and can’t clean it up. The haves fear and therefore zestfully hate the have-nots. What people can’t realize is that if there were no deep-rooted need to hate in almost every mind, the social problem would be at least intelligently faced, perhaps solved. Then there’s the third factor, namely, the growing sense that there’s something all wrong with modern solely-scientific culture. I don’t mean that people are intellectually doubtful about science. It’s much deeper than that. They are simply finding that modern culture isn’t enough to live by. It just doesn’t work in practice. It has got a screw loose somewhere. Or some vital bit of it is dead. Now this horror against modern culture, against science and mechanization and standardization, is only just beginning to be a serious factor. It’s newer than Bolshevism. The Bolshies, and all socially left-wing people, are still content with modern culture. Or rather, they put all its faults down to capitalism, dear innocent theorists. But the essence of it they still accept. They are rationalistic, scientific, mechanistic, brass-tack-istic. But another crowd, scattered about all over the place, are having the hell of a deep revulsion against all this. They don’t know what’s the matter with it, but they are sure it’s not enough.”

Odd John (p.77)

The above quote is an interesting analysis of modern civilization. Communism is generally seen as the rational solution to Capitalism. In John’s view, Communism sits at the apex of the mechanized cultural movement. In other words, it is the logical end game of modern civilization. But, Stapledon (via John) detects a more profound revulsion against contemporary society. He doesn’t expound on this further, but one can leap to various similar diagnoses posited by thinkers like Marshall McLuhan or Alin Toffler. He identifies a civilizational shift that McLuhan would probably identify as a movement from a flat literary/visual culture (through electrified technology) back to an immersive oral/tactile culture.

As oral/tactile communication becomes dominant, the culture built on visual/literary communication becomes flat and inadequate. The people living in such a transitional phase become alienated. They instinctively seek new ways of being out of step with established norms. This transitional phase leads to Tofflers Future Schock, a period of social upheaval. Under this model, Communism and Capitalism are both civilizational technologies of the past. They were developed and brought into being under a literary/visual culture, which begins to feel strange and alienating to people immersed in aural/tactile film, radio, telephone, consumerism, etc. Political and cultural norms become unstable, outmoded, and inherently alienating.

The powers of “Odd” John are a kind of internalization of this new civilization’s technical capabilities. For example, he can communicate remotely (radio/telephone), he has prodigious memory (print/library), superior technical ability (modern science/technology), and can split the atom with his mind to power vehicles (electricity/fossil fuels). John’s abilities allow him to participate in the new alienating civilization as if it was natural. For John, modern society is almost as natural as a tropical forest to an apex predator. Eventually, John and his like will create the perfect superior un-alienated Communism.

Homo Superior

“As I was saying, it’s much harder to get in touch with people one doesn’t know, and at first, I didn’t know any of the people I was looking for. On the other hand, I found that people of my sort [i.e., homo superior] make, so to speak, a much bigger ‘noise’ telepathically than the rest. At least they do when they want to, or when they don’t care. But when they want not to, they can shut themselves off completely. Well, at last I managed to single out from the general buzz of telepathic ‘noise,’ made by the normal species, a few outstanding streaks or themes that seemed to have about them something or other of the special quality that I was looking for.”

Odd John (p.107-108)
The Cerebro device. Art by Jack Kirby

Just a quick note that John’s ability to find others like him also describes X-Men’s Cerebro device. Professor X uses the Cerebro to enhance his mental abilities to detect other mutants worldwide. 

Shadow King

“Meanwhile, he continued to improve his supernormal powers, and would sometimes use them to practice psycho-therapy upon his fellow-proletarians. But his chief interest was exploration of the past. At this time, the knowledge of Ancient Egypt was extremely scanty, and Adlan’s passion was to gain direct experience of the great race long ago.”

Odd John (p.131)

There are so many similarities between the homo superior of Odd John and Marvel’s mutants (frequently referred to as homo superior) that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of the first mutants Professor X meets is Amahl Farouk (The Shadow King), a powerful Egyptian mutant similar to Adlan in Odd John. They both hide their true abilities by posing as a crime lord (Farouk) and a ferryman (Adlan). Has there ever been anything written on this similarity? Has any of the many X-Men creators talked about reading Odd John?

Amahl Farouk vs. Professor X. Art by John Byrne

New Men

“Indeed one of his favourite occupations, as he plied his oars, was to expound to John with prophetic enthusiasm the kind of world that “John’s New Men” would make, and how much more vital and more happy it would be than the world of Homo Sapiens.” p.133

Odd John (p.133)
New (X) Men. Art by Frank Quitely

Another X-Men similarity! John’s ragtag team is called “New Men.” The words form a kind of mirror palindrome. When Grant Morrison took over X-Men in (2001), he explicitly renamed the team “New X Men” and expressly visualized the palindromic nature of New/Men in the new logo. 

Kill the Unfit

“For to-day the chief lesson which your species has to learn is that it is far better to die, far better to sacrifice even the loftiest of all ‘sapient’ purposes, than to kill beings of one’s own mental order. But, just as you kill wolves and tigers so that the far brighter spirits of men may flourish, so we killed those unfortunate creatures that we had rescued. Innocent as they were, they were dangerous. Unwittingly they threatened the noblest practical venture that has yet occurred on this planet. Think! If you, and Bertha had found yourselves in a world of great apes, clever in their own way, lovable too, but blind, brutish, and violent, would you have refused to kill? Would you have sacrificed the founding of a human world? To refuse would be cowardly, not physically, but spiritually. Well, if we could wipe out your whole species, frankly, we would. For if your species discovers us, and realizes at all what we are, it will certainly destroy us. And we know, you must remember, that Homo sapiens has little more to contribute to the music of this planet, nothing in fact but vain repetition. It is time for finer instruments to take up the theme.”

Odd John (p.147-8)

You can detect shades of so many things to come—the conflicts of the Planet of the Apes, the human-mutant conflict, etc. Of course, Stapledon is playing with ideas already present in his time: Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, genetic ideas about race, advanced technology, etc. The way Odd John embodies these often contradictory ideas will prove very influential. John is Professor X (hero) and Magneto (villain) in one. It makes sense that as a species, homo superior (which internalized all the powers of the civilized world) would feel no moral obligation to the inferior homo sapiens. John represents the highest ideals and abilities of technological civilization, and at the same time, he contains all the unspoken terrifying consequences. 


“After many weeks of cruising, a suitable though minute island was discovered somewhere in the angle between the routes from New Zealand to Panama and New Zealand to Cape Horn, and well away from both courses.”

Odd John (p.150)
Map from the Marvel Atlas

Yet another parallel with X-Men. A faction of separatist mutants, led by Magneto, found Genosha, an island where they can live apart from regular humans. The specter of the fundamental incompatibility between the two species haunts Odd John and Marvel’s mutants. 

Individualistic Communism

“Comrades, you have the wrong approach. Like you, we are Communists, but we are other things also. For you, Communism is the goal, but for us it is the beginning. For you the group is sacred, but for us it is only the pattern made up of individuals. Though we are Communists, we have reached beyond Communism to a new individualism. Our Communism is individualistic.”

Odd John (p.183)

Interestingly, when he finally creates his perfect community, John calls it Communist. There are some correspondences between John and the Communist ideal man, also often called a “new man” or “Soviet Man.” The Communist man will be a “new man” with a better consciousness (not false consciousness). This new man can finally experience Communism as liberation (as opposed to oppression) and become a new kind of Communist individual. The idea that Communism can’t be realized with ordinary (read regressive or reactionary) humans is implicit. In Odd John and real-world Communist societies, this fundamental incompatibility ended in tragedy. 

Marx/Nietzsche Complex

As I read Odd John, I started Čeika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle. It’s an interesting book that attempts to find common ground between Marx and Nietzsche—two thinkers usually seen as incompatible. Without going too deep into it, Čeika finds a lot of similarities between the two. Finding the Nietzschean superman inside Marx’s Communism is perhaps not a work of theory but one of archaeology. With Odd John in the mix, I had a kind of synesthetic experience. The two books rhymed with each other across time and space. Together they were dark mirror reflections of each other. By trying to incept Nietsche into Marx (and vice versa), we might be exhuming the undead mummified corpse of Soviet Man. I will try to illustrate this more in a future post.

Communism Undead

karl marx undead

My post on capitalism sparked a few comments from my friend Francis, and eventually a fuller response on his blog. If you’re interested, take a look there first, then come back here for my (hopefully not too rambling) response below.
The first thing that struck me about Francis’ post was how much it resembled… The Communist Manifesto(!), especially the first part. Here’s Francis:

“[ … ] my tenuous theory might go something like this: In the U.S., we’re slowly taking every other sort of prejudice and replacing it with one based on money. For example, I remember reading (in The Nation, I think), that the Sears Roebuck catalog gave a generation of black working class families the ability to buy household goods that they couldn’t buy in the local department store.”

This is precisely what Karl Marx likes about capitalism! The first half of the Communist Manifesto is essentially Marx’s love letter to the Bourgeois and the destructive/creative dynamics of capitalism. The Manifesto isn’t very long and is worth a read. Here are just a couple of quotes related to the conversation:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom, Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

[ … ]

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Marx is pretty impressed by capitalist dynamics! Of course, Marx saw capitalism as a transitional phase that would culminate in communism. Communism has been interpreted by many different people to mean a lot of different things. Anything from Stalinist dictatorship to Bakunin’s anarchist collectivism. But, they’re all linked by Marx’s awe of the capitalist sublime, and it’s potential to release – through it’s contradictions – the enormous creative energies of the masses.

But, the Capitalist destruction of all old hierarchies and prejudices doesn’t solve them. It merely exchanges them, as Francis himself says, for ones based on money. Racism may become less acceptable socially, but not so economically. Many minority groups (and women) still earn a fraction of white male salaries. A comment to Francis’ post added that capitalism has been compatible with racism in the past. Slavery is only the most obvious example. Take a look at contemporary Dubai. It’s frequently cited as a model of capitalist development, and yet it employs a huge emigrant underclass not allowed to integrate into the indigenous culture. This doesn’t even get at the vast global pro(to)letariat (mostly non-white) that lives in cities of slums.

But, I don’t want to get sidetracked into identity politics. In my original post I wanted to point out that part of the problem in solving many of these issues is in the way we talk about them. For example Francis says: “Sure, I can complain about how Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard and make okay money.” That simple phrase “I can still work hard and make okay money” contains so much hidden history behind it. It assumes that capitalism makes it possible to for us to “work hard and make okay money”, where in fact it was the struggle of socialists and communists that created those conditions. Historically “working hard and making ok money” wasn’t always possible under capitalism. Working hard (for far more than 8 hours a day) guaranteed basic subsistence at best. It was only after a long (and often violent) struggle that the right to “make ok money” was wrested from capitalists. Social Security, Minimum Wage, Universal Health Care, etc., these are all socialist and communist ideas. We generally accept the premise of capitalist meritocracy under the guise of ‘equal opportunity’. But in ‘actually existing capitalism’ it was only the creation of (socialist) Public Schools and Universities that really began to level the playing field for large portions of the population… and Public Schools have been under a capitalist siege for decades now. And, as Paris Hilton demonstrates, we still have a ways to go. So next time lets say “Sure, I can complain how the capitalist scion Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard, and thanks to the long international communist struggle, make okay money.” 😉

In addition to the socialist institutions I mention above, capitalism also absorbed concepts like ‘democracy’ and ‘markets’. These concepts all blur together now. We can’t conceive of a democracy without capitalism (Chile). Markets have existed before capitalism and will exist after capitalism. Capitalism has been naturalized to the point of becoming the language of economics itself! This conceptual over-stuffing resulted in the disappearance of the very word ‘capitalism’ (over the last 30 years). This is the point I was trying to make in my original post. I think this naturalization of capitalism makes it more difficult to introduce new ideas (or even interesting old ideas) that have never been tried. The reappearance of the word in the midst of the current economic meltdown, is a reminder that capitalism IS a system, a concept, an idea, a choice; it’s debatable!

Is it possible to have a market based economy without private property? Is it possible to democritize private capital? I don’t know. Is it possible to have democracy under capitalism? Headlines like these: “Lobbyists Line Up to Torpedo [Obama’s] Speech Proposals” make me think that maybe the answer is no. This kind of thing always amuses me. Capitalists are asking for a bailout with one hand, and with the other they scuttle the proposals of a DEMOCRATICALLY elected figure. How is there always enough money to overturn the collective will of the people, but never any for better wages, benefits, etc.? They can’t have it both ways!
Now, I’m not convinced that communism is the way to go. I grew up in ‘communist’ Poland, and it’s not something I’d like to repeat (though I do have nostalgic fondness for that period – more on nostalgia soon). But the Marxist critique of capitalism is valid (though maybe it’s too successful) and should not be discarded, especially not during this crisis. So how do you turn a critique into an alternative? I don’t know, but that’s why I’m interested in utopian ideas. They contain kernels of something else, an alternative… Zizek said that the death of communism may have been the best thing to happen to communism. As long as capitalism exists it will be forever haunted by the specter of communism. It’s undead revenants will keep rising up to haunt the (privatized) houses of capitalism.

communist zombies

Popular Again

It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In In Defense of Lost Causes Slavoj Zizek wrote that the success of capitalism was marked by the disappearance of the word ‘capitalism’ from public discourse. Capitalism has become the status quo to such an extent that we no longer recognize it as an economic idea (something made-up, invented, artificial), we see it only as ‘the way things are’ (the reality, natural state of things). Needless to say, the book was published before the crisis of Capitalism we’re currently enjoying. Capitalism is being questioned publicly once again, and with good reason. Still, one has to do a double take when the word appears so frequently on the lips of the British Conservative politician David Cameron. Here’s a couple of choice quotes from his speech at Davos:

“A lot of people are angry with capitalism. Instead of representing hope for a better future, they think capitalism threatens it. This matters because in the future, social, economic and environmental progress will only come from the drive, energy and enterprise of individuals. So if we want capitalism to be a success again, we need to make capitalism popular again.”

“Today, the poorest half of the world’s population own less than one per cent of the world’s wealth. We’ve got a lot of capital but not many capitalists, and people rightly think that isn’t fair.”

“So we must shape capitalism to suit the needs of society; not shape society to suit the needs of capitalism.”

That’s quite a statement from the leader of the party of Margaret (“There’s no such thing as society.” – as Bruce Sterling deftly observes.) Thatcher! Red Tory indeed!
For all his bluster Cameron still clings to tired old Capitalist dogmas:

“Yes, as I’ve said many times, we must stand up for business, because it’s businesses, not governments or politicians, that create jobs, wealth and opportunity, it’s businesses that drive innovation, and choice, and help families achieve a higher standard of living for a lower cost.”

Somehow ‘The Government’ never amounts to anything. It’s as if property laws & regulations, monetary systems, public education and transportation, trade treaties, research subsidies, etc. had nothing to do with the ‘success’ of business. Just as Capitalism disappears into ‘just the way things are’ so does the government. We forget that a lot of the great things Cameron attributes to business (wealth, opportunity, innovation, higher standards of living, etc.) had to be forcibly wrested away in a bloody struggle by several generations of workers and enforced by generations of politicians and lawmakers… yes… the government.

Ultimately, he’s simply a moralist. According to him, the system is fine, we just got too greedy. We just have to shape up:

“Markets without morality. Globalisation without competition. And wealth without fairness. It all adds up to capitalism without a conscience and we’ve got to put it right.”

This call for a new moral Capitalism isn’t as new as it seems. It’s been slowly bubbling up to the surface of politics for years. In fact Zizek already identified its ‘chocolate laxative’ center while discussing another global economic summit in… Davos… in 2001!

This sentiment is echoed in some recent statements from Obama:

“And when I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses ‚Äî the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004 – at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads – that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.”

There is an expectation of morally right behavior without creating any incentives that encourages that behavior. But, outside the tough rhetoric, there is little evidence that anything of consequence will happen. Instead the strategy seems to be this: wealthy capitalists need to hit the pause button on excess and selfishness until things are ‘fixed’… then we can return to regularly scheduled programming. At least Cameron, by using the word ‘Capitalism,’ is willing to acknowledge that this is an ideological battle. No such acknowledgment is forthcoming from the ‘post-partisan’ and ‘bipartisan’ Obama administration. This evasion of politics makes it harder to question major economic assumptions and blind-spots that we keep carrying on our backs like the proverbial monkey. Obama is even going to appoint a Republican as a Commerce Secretary. How post-partisan! It only reveals that Democrats and Republicans don’t differ all that much on the basic substance of economic policy. Jacques Monin, the French journalist, has it right [ again via Beyond the Beyond ]:

“You no longer imagine, it seems to me, that there might actually be such a thing as a “choice of society”. Along with New Labour, the very idea of anything resembling an ideology vanished. In France, on the other hand, politics still condition the life of the individual. Rightly or wrongly, my fellow countrymen still want to believe that a choice of society really remains possible. They might resist reform, as you like to point out, but they involve themselves – deeply – in politics.

“Here, however, the boundaries between the major parties have been all but eroded. This drift to the centre, combined with the weakness of the extremes, has anaesthetised British politics. So the British don’t vote very much. They don’t object very much. They don’t dream very much.”

Substitute ‘Americans’ for ‘British’ and that statement still rings true. Of course it doesn’t help when the Global Left is a chaotic mess.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind

This song has been in my head all day. I finally decided to find it online. Here it is:

It’s called ‘Солнечный круг’ (Solar Cycle). It’s better known to many as ‘Пусть всегда будет солнце!’ (May There Always Be Sunshine). It’s an anti-war song. If you grew up in Eastern Europe (or at least around Eastern European emigrants) you most likely have this song seared into your head. I posted the lyrics in English below the fold.

It’s probably been over 20 years since I heard this song… well, outside of my head that is… Hearing it again is like being hit with a ton of nostalgic bricks. But what really struck me were the visuals of the videos. The second one especially has all the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. And, yet… they are so… well… American. Besides some minor differences in clothing, and the like, the whole thing wouldn’t have been out of place in the US… at least in that timeless-Norman-Rockwell-eternally-50’s-LIFE-Magazine-innocent-Leave-It-To-Beaver U S of A that still grips the popular (and political) imagination.

I’m often struck by an uncanny sense of déjà vu whenever I watch American politics unfold on TV. The discourse is carefully circumscribed by what can or cannot be said in public about the economy, socialism, Islam, Israel, etc. The 2008 campaign was only the most recent example of that. As much as I like and support Obama, I’m still bothered by the slick visuals his campaign saturated the airwaves with. For all the soaring rhetoric (and yes rhetoric matters) and ‘straight talk’, everything is still directed at saving Capitalism (with a hefty dose of socialism if need be… but shhhh). Socialist Realism is the term used for art which furthered the goals of socialism and communism. Until the Soviet collapse, it was the officially approved style of art for decades. How long does Capitalist Realism have?
Obama Logo

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