Sunday, May 20, 2018

Odd John

Olaf Stapledon
Completed 5/20/2018, Reviewed 5/20/2018
4 stars

This book was first published in 1935.  It has aged remarkably well.  It reminded me somewhat of Theodore Sturgeon’s “More Than Human” which was written nearly twenty years later.  It’s about the next stage of human development, homo superior.  The “superman” concept has some similarities to the works of Nietzsche.  Though I’ve never read Nietzsche, I am a little familiar with his ideas.  It tackles the concept of the morality of the superman with respect to the normal homo sapiens.  I liked the book, finding it generally readable, although much of it is, like a lot of early science fiction, about ideas rather than a real plot.

The basic premise is that a superhuman is born to an average family in England.  Named John and nicknamed Odd John by his mother, he matures mentally faster than he does physically.  He’s disruptive at school of course so he learns at home.  He tackles subjects in fits and starts, growing tired of them after he’s read almost everything there is to read about them, then extrapolating the concepts in his own mind.  Eventually, he decides he must find others of his kind around the world and create a colony of superhumans.  The book mostly focuses on his growing up, rejecting human morality and creating his own. 

The character of Odd John is not very likeable.  He’s the ultimate precocious child.  He flaunts his superiority over his siblings and friends.  He learns to have complete control over his body and has little emotion.  He’s uber-rational and condescending.  He murders someone at the age of ten.  The narrator is a friend of the family and journalist who basically becomes a slave to John’s whims.  But he reacts with horror at John’s lack of human morality, so we at least can identify with the narrator.  Despite John’s deplorable behavior, I was still kind of rooting for him, even though in the first chapter you find out his story ends tragically. 

The book is short, an easy two day read.  The prose is very smooth, very readable, especially for an older novel.  The only part I had got kind of lost in was a middle chapter where John and the narrator get into a philosophical discussion of Christianity and Communism.  I was a little tired when I read that part and didn’t follow the arguments too well.  Doing a little research on the author, I discovered he was a Philosophy professor in England, and well, I never took philosophy in college.

I particularly liked a couple of chapters where John is finding other superhumans.  The narrator gives brief biographies of some of these people as well.  It’s interesting to see how these people grew up with their “gifts” and compare and contrast them to John’s youth. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  I was engrossed with what happens next.  Even though we know that it’s going to end tragically, the journey is quite good. 

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