Odd John Analysis
Evolution plays a major role in Olaf Stapledon’s work. His first novel, Last and First Men (1930), offers a future history of the universe and the sixteen species of humanity that evolve in it. In Star Maker (1937), Stapledon portrays a dizzying array of “strange mankinds” that have evolved throughout the cosmos. Odd John is less vast in scale but a more personal work.
Odd John operates simultaneously on three levels. On the surface, it is the story of John and his failed attempt to forge a home for himself and the other supernormals. On a second level, the novel serves as a vehicle for Stapledon’s commentary on the state of humanity in the first half of the twentieth century. The tenth chapter of the novel, ostensibly devoted to John Wainwright’s observations on the sad state of Homo sapiens, really offers Stapledon’s own opinions.
Finally, Odd John lures the reader into philosophical speculation on the nature of morality. A brilliant and troubling work, it raises numerous issues, in particular the obligation of an apparently higher form of life to less-intelligent beings. John and the supernormals commit numerous acts that are heinous by human standards, including the mass murder of the original inhabitants of the island that they choose for their colony. John breaks human taboos and kills humans with no feelings of guilt, in part because he regards Homo sapiens as a lower form of life.
Humans have long used the same argument to justify the subjugation not only of animals but also of other people. Stapledon calls attention to this comparison by having John always refer to humans as animals. He seduces a young woman called Europa, a name that invites interpretation of her as Europe and its culture, but cannot bring himself to make love to her because she reminds him of a dog or a monkey. He calls his biographer “Fido.” John’s attitude toward humans, which excuses in his mind violence against them, suggests an indictment of the excuses human beings have contrived to justify violence against lesser creatures and one another.
Although the theme of the superman forced to live among inferior beings had been explored before Odd John, Stapledon gave the subject its definitive expression. He apparently received the immediate inspiration for Odd John , the third of his twelve novels, from...
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