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.
“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.
“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.
“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)
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.
“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?
“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.133Odd John (p.133)
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)
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.
“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.
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.
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