Odd John was first published in 1935 and was one of the very first novels to explore the theme of the super human, coining the term homo superior. It's being reviewed here as part of Gollancz excellent SF Masterworks series.
Written from a narrator's perspective, Odd John is a pretty unique piece of fiction. Apart from the super human subject matter there are no other tropes of the genre present and this helps to re-enforce just how different John is. From birth to death we follow this extraordinary freak "John Wainwright", born to ordinary parents and so much more advanced than homo sapiens that they are little more than play things to him. Upon finding a few others who are a little like him, john develops a plan - to create a new order on Earth, a new supernormal species, is the world ready for such a change?
This vision of the super human is far from the vision of a "super hero", instead the novel explores how someone with such an evolutionary leap forward in intelligence and cognitive ability would view the human race and may consider themselves to exist outside of it. As with Stapledon's other "super intelligence" novel Sirius, the perspective of the narrator is used to provide a detached viewpoint from which to witness John's life.
At times this does feel a little clinical in it's analysis but non-the-less proves very effective overall. It's also important to remember that this book was written almost 80 years ago and apart from the occasionally quirky dialogue has aged remarkably well. At the time it must have caused quite a stir with allusions to sexual acts that even today are quite a taboo subject. At times it reminded me of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and does contain a few similar themes such as using someone placed outside of humanity to explore the race.
The author manages to really encapsulate the thoughts and feelings that such a being would likely go through and at times it's a somewhat bitter-sweet journey, compounded by the thought that 80 years in the future and I can't really imagine such a person being treated a great deal better (we've come leaps and bounds technically but only really a small hop socially).
This new edition features an introduction by the ever so eloquent author Adam Roberts and provides an effective summary of the ideas behind the story. It is as Roberts says Odd but at the same time quite brilliant in it's oddness.
Odd John is one of those books that really make you think, encouraging you to examine the world and the people around you, classic science fiction.
Written on Wednesday 4th April 2012 by Antony.
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