Odd John (Beacon/Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #36, 1959). Cover by Robert Stanley
In 1963, in the early issues of X-Men, Stan Lee introduced the expression Homo superior into superhero comics. But the name had a history before then: It was coined in 1935 by Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher and science fiction writer, in Odd John, the fictional biography of a young superhuman.
The book that established Stapledon’s reputation, Last and First Men, published in 1930, was certainly science fiction but can’t be considered a novel in any normal sense; its two-billion-year history of humanity’s future is presented almost entirely as historical narrative, with only a few paragraphs of dialogue. But Odd John is definitely a novel, with a protagonist, John Wainwright, and a viewpoint character who is, by necessity, an unreliable narrator, as he himself points out on the first page of the story.
[Click the images for Odd versions.]
X-Men #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
(Marvel Comics, September 1963). Cover by Jack Kirby
Odd John is sometimes described as the first “superman” novel. In fact, Stapledon himself refers to an earlier one, J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder, published in 1911. But Beresford’s story is mostly light entertainment. Stapledon made a real effort to treat the idea of the superhuman seriously.
Stapledon relies on an actual biological theory, though one that’s no longer generally accepted: Hugo de Vries’s mutation theory, proposed in 1901, according to which new species originate all at once in genetic changes that produce radically different offspring. Later biologists jokingly called this the “let’s found a new species, dear” theory — but that’s actually Stapledon’s plot: his protagonist, John Wainwright, makes an effort to find other superhumans and bring them together in an isolated community.
What is Stapledon’s Homo superior like? They all have certain physical traits in common, which generally fit speculations about what “evolutionary advanced” human beings might look like: large skulls with scanty hair, big sinewy hands, and enormous eyes. They’re intellectually brilliant, able to achieve scientific advances such as atomic energy and ectogenesis in a few years.
Odd John (Berkley Medallion, August 1965). Cover by Richard Powers
But it’s perhaps most important that they have a distinctive spiritual quality, one perhaps best captured in John’s own distinctive laugh, a peculiar sound like the crackle that precedes a peal of thunder, one most likely to be heard when John confronts pain or failure, in which the human narrator can see no imaginable cause for laughter.
But perhaps Stapledon, more sophisticated than his narrator, is thinking of what Nietzsche, who coined the word “superman,” called amor fati, the triumphant acceptance of necessity. The unusual talents, the grotesquerie, and the inhuman viewpoint also might suggest folkloric ideas of “the fair folk” and especially of the unseelie; an earlier era might have taken John as a changeling.
Nietzsche’s superman comes from an older idea, not biological but ethical: the man whose greater destiny justifies him in denying any rights to common mortals — the position aspired to by Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. In Odd John, John himself, apprehended at 10 by a policeman while committing burglary, stabs the policeman to the heart to avoid coming to official attention. Later he and other superhumans kill the crew of a boat they started out to rescue, for the same reason, and still later they induce the population of a remote Pacific island to commit mass suicide so that they can establish a colony there. The narrator is troubled by these actions, but tells himself that these are beings of superior moral insight, and if they think they are justified, they must be right and he must be wrong.
Odd John (Methuen, 1935). Cover by Eric Fraser
This may be the hardest part of the novel to deal with. On one hand, it looks like a justification of murder and even genocide by a fantasy of superiority, along Raskolnikovian lines; and the narrator’s reluctant acceptance of it seems like a mark of submission to that fantasy. It’s telling that the narrator accepts John’s nickname for him, “Fido,” and never tells us his legal name. On the other hand, that reading itself could be taken as a rejection of the novel’s premise, which is that its characters genuinely are superhuman, not only intellectually but in moral insight; if we accepted that premise, and took it seriously, perhaps it would lead us to exactly the conclusion that Fido struggles to accept.
I’m also struck by a nuance of the narrative: At one point, Fido makes unmistakable hints of a sexual relationship between John and his mother, while refusing to describe it explicitly, saying he doesn’t want to destroy his respectable reputation. But he has no hesitation in describing John’s various homicides, which he knew about but didn’t report to any legal authorities; apparently he doesn’t fear that this will get him in legal trouble or even damage his reputation. Perhaps killing indigenous people on a remote island might be accepted — though Leopold’s policies in the Congo had long since been an international scandal — but killing a policeman to escape arrest, for example, doesn’t seem something that a reporter ought to condone or keep silent about.
Odd John and Sirius (Dover Publications, 1972; cover by
Lewis R. Wolberg), and cover page of the 1936 Dutton hardcover
It’s noteworthy that John’s first companions are an African boy, portrayed as hyperactive and focused on the physical side of things, and an Asiatic girl, shown as emotionally unexpressive — stereotypes common in Stapledon’s time. Stapledon also seems to embrace popular views of Tibet as a center of mystical insight or psychic powers, when he suggests that all the superhumans derive from a single original mutation somewhere in Central Asia: what Richard Goldschmidt would describe in his 1940 defense of macromutationist theories of evolution as a “hopeful monster.”
Many generations of science fiction fans have found this idea of superhumanity tempting; I certainly did when I first read Odd John. It has a natural appeal to bright adolescents who have started to think abstractly, especially if people around them are unsympathetic to their questions and speculations. But if we remember that we’re among the lesser human beings that Homo superior would regard as animals, to be domesticated or exterminated, it doesn’t seem so benign. And maybe it’s one of Stapledon’s merits that he makes that disturbing corollary of his hypothesis explicit.
William H. Stoddard is a professional copy editor specializing in scholarly and scientific publications. As a secondary career, he has written more than two dozen books for Steve Jackson Games, starting in 2000 with GURPS Steampunk. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, their cat (a ginger tabby), and a hundred shelf feet of books, including large amounts of science fiction, fantasy, and graphic novels. His last review for us was West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn.