Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

From my notion template – good reads link here

What the book is about

A new race “Homo Superior” much like mutants in X-men, emerges – this is their story

How I Discovered It

From Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Thoughts

Pretty weird and brilliant

What I Liked About It

It was a big story, lots of weird detail – insightful in lots of ways – particularly with the “only part he had to play was to be an ugly hateful trap (paraphrase)” and the part about the wise old man letting the kids do their thing, while he did important work like contemplating God.

What I Didn’t Like About It

Kind of short – no clear resolution to several of the characters

Who Would Like It?

Science Fiction people – between wars fiction people

Related Books

Star Maker

Quotes

  • To this day I know little but the amazing facts of his career. I know that he never walked till he was six, that before he was ten he committed several burglaries and killed a policeman, that at eighteen, when he still looked a young boy, he founded his preposterous colony in the South Seas, and that at twenty-three, in appearance but little altered, he outwitted the six warships that six Great Powers had sent to seize him. I know also how John and all his followers died.
  • discovered, the great majority of these very rare supernormals, whom John sometimes called “wide-awakes,” are either so delicate physically or so unbalanced mentally that they leave no considerable mark on the world.
  • John’s birth had put the great maternal animal to a severe strain. She carried her burden for eleven months, till the doctors decided that at all costs she must be relieved.
  • On a certain Tuesday he was merely babbling as usual. On Wednesday he was exceptionally quiet, and seemed for the first time to understand something of his mother’s baby-talk. On Thursday morning he startled the family by remarking very slowly but very correctly, “I—want—milk.” That afternoon he said to a visitor who no longer interested him, “Go—away. I—do—not—like—you—much.”
  • The latter was for John the easier task. He set about studying our conduct and our motives, partly by questioning us, partly by observation. He soon discovered two important facts, first that we were often surprisingly ignorant of our own motives, and second that in many respects he differed from the rest of us. In later years he himself told me that this was the time when he first began to realize his uniqueness.
  • He was at this time plainly going through a phase of concentrated self-assertion.
  • “Philosophy,” he said, “is really very helpful to the growing mind, but it’s terribly disappointing too. At first I thought I’d found the mature human intelligence at work at last. Reading Plato, and Spinoza, and Kant, and some of the modern realists too, I almost felt I had come across people of my own kind. I walked in step with them. I played their game with a sense that it called out powers that I had never exercised before. Sometimes I couldn’t follow them. I seemed to miss some vital move. The exhilaration of puzzling over these critical points, and feeling one had met a real master mind at last! But as I went on from philosopher to philosopher and browsed around all over the place, I began to realize the shocking truth that these critical points were not what I thought they were, but just outrageous howlers. It had seemed incredible that these obviously well-developed minds could make simple mistakes; and so I had respectfully dismissed the possibility, and looked for some profound truth. But oh my God, I was wrong! Howler after howler! Sometimes a philosopher’s opponents spot his howlers, and are frightfully set up with their own cleverness. But most of them never get spotted at all, so far as I can discover. Philosophy is an amazing tissue of really fine thinking and incredible, puerile mistakes. It’s like one of those rubber ‘bones’ they give dogs to chew, damned good for the mind’s teeth, but as food—no bloody good at all.”
  • He wanted my affair with the Pax-like girl to go forward and complete itself not only because, as my friend, he espoused my need, but also because, if I were to give it up for his sake, I should become a vindictive rather than a willing slave. He preferred, I imagine, to be served by a free and roving hound rather than by a chained and hungry wolf.
  • But he regarded the whole commercial world with a contempt which suggested now the child, and now the philosopher. He was at once below it and above
  • Examining her racquet, she suddenly asked, “Do you blame me, about John?” While I was trying to reply, she added, “I expect you know what a power he has. He’s like—a god pretending to be a monkey. When you’ve been noticed by him, you can’t bother about ordinary people.”
  • “Well, they’re damned fine stuff, these fishermen, and Abe and Mark are two of the best. You see, when Homo sapiens is up against the sort of job and the sort of life that’s not really beyond him, he’s all right. It’s only when civilization gives him a job that’s too much for his intelligence or too much for his imagination that he fails. And then the failure poisons him through and through.”
  • “Ninety-nine per cent. slush and one per cent.—something else, but what?”
  • What’s the group, anyhow, but just everybody lumped together, and nearly all fools or pimps or knaves? It’s not simply the group that fires him. It’s justice, righteousness, and the whole spiritual music that ought to be made by the group. Damned funny, that! Of course, I know all Communists are not religious, some are merely—well, like that bloody little man the other day. But this fellow is religious. And so was Lenin, I guess. It’s not enough to say his root motive was desire to avenge his brother. In a sense that’s true. But one can feel behind nearly everything he said a sense of being the chosen instrument of Fate, of the Dialectic, of what might almost as well be called God.”
  • Things haven’t got bad enough for that in England yet. At present all that can be done by blokes like this is to spout hate and give the other side a fine excuse for repressing Communism. Of course, hosts of well-off people and would-be-well-off people are just as ashamed of themselves subconsciously as that blighter, and just as full of hate, and in need of a scapegoat to exercise their hate upon. He and his like are a godsend to them.”
  • “You talk,” he said, “as if hate were rational, as if men only hated what they had reason to hate. If you want to understand modern Europe and the world, you have to keep in mind three things that are really quite distinct although they are all tangled up together. First there’s this almost universal need to hate something, rationally or irrationally, to find something to unload your own sins on to, and then smash it. In perfectly healthy minds (even of your species) this need to hate plays a small part. But nearly all minds are damnably unhealthy, and so they must have something to hate. Mostly, they just hate their neighbours or their wives or husbands or parents or children. But they get a much more exalted sort of excitement by hating foreigners. A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners, a sort of super-hate-club. The second thing to bear in mind is the obvious one of economic disorder. The people with economic power try to run the world for their own profit. Not long ago they succeeded, more or less, but now the job has got beyond them, and, as we all know, there’s the hell of a mess. This gives hate a new outlet. 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 the 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’re 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’re sure it’s not enough. Some of them, feeling that lack, just creep back into church, specially the Roman Church. But too much water has passed under the bridge since the churches were alive, so that’s no real use. The crowds who can’t swallow the Christian dope are terribly in need of something, though they don’t know what, or even know they’re in need at all. And this deep need gets mixed up with their hate-need; and, if they’re middle class, it gets mixed up also with their…
  • Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
  • Note the sin eater
  • what happened in Italy. That sort of thing will spread. I’d bet my boots that in a few years there’ll be a tremendous anti-left movement all over Europe, inspired partly by fear and hate, partly by that vague, fumbling suspicion that there’s something all wrong with scientific culture. It’s more than an intellectual suspicion. It’s a certainty of the bowels, call it a sort of brute-blind religious hunger. Didn’t you feel the beginnings of it in Germany last year when we…
  • so worthy and so easily twisted into something bloody. If Christianity could hold it in and discipline it, it might do wonders. But Christianity’s played out. So these folk will probably invent some ghastly religion of their own. Their God will be the God of the hate-club, the nation. That’s what’s coming. The new Messiahs (one for each tribe) won’t triumph by love and gentleness, but by hate and ruthlessness. Just because…
  • “The best minds!” he said. “One of the main troubles of your unhappy species is that the best minds can go even farther astray than the second best, much farther than the umpteenth best. That’s what has been happening during the last few centuries. Swarms of the best minds have been leading the populace down blind alley after blind alley, and doing it with tremendous courage and resource. Your trouble, as a species, is that you can’t keep hold of everything at once. Any one who is very wide awake toward one set of facts invariably loses sight of all the other equally important sets. And as you have practically no inner…
  • They also demanded aesthetic pleasure of a rather self-indulgent sort, and the thoroughly self-indulgent pleasure of tasting ideas, just for their spiciness or tang, so to speak. Bright young things! Yes, blowflies of a decaying civilization. Poor wretches! How they must hate themselves, really. But damn it, after all, they’re mostly good stuff gone wrong.”
  • You see they’re all very sensitive creatures, very susceptible to pleasure and pain; and early in their lives, whenever they bumped into anything like a fundamental experience, they found it terribly upsetting. And so they formed habits of avoiding that sort of thing. And they made up for this persistent avoidance by drenching themselves in all sorts of minor and superficial (though sensational) experiences; and also by talking big about Experience with a capital E, and buzzing intellectually.”
  • Homo sapiens is a spider trying to crawl out of a basin. The higher he crawls, the steeper the hill. Sooner or later, down he goes. So long as he’s on the bottom, he can get along quite nicely, but as soon as he starts climbing, he begins to slip. And the higher he climbs the farther he falls. It doesn’t matter which direction he tries. He can make civilization after civilization, but every
  • with bleeding blisters. But the deed was accomplished. The hunters of all the ages saluted him, for he had done what none of them could have done. A child, he had gone naked into the wilderness and conquered it. And the angels of heaven smiled at him, and beckoned him to a higher adventure.
  • It began to dawn on me that the discovery of his own kind, even in a lunatic asylum, must have been for John a deeply moving experience. I began to realize that, having lived for nearly eighteen years with mere animals, he had at last discovered a human being.
  • In fact he’s the sort any decent society would drown at birth. But the mother loves him like a tigress; though she’s scared stiff of him too, and loathes him. Neither parent has any idea he’s—what he is. They think he’s just an ordinary little cripple. And because he’s a cripple, and because they treat him all wrong, he’s brewing the most murderous hate imaginable.
  • Presently I began to ask myself what sort of a devil this baby Satan really was. Was he one of ‘us,’ or something quite different? But there was very little doubt in my mind, actually. Of course he was one of us, and probably a much mightier one than either J. J. or myself. But everything had gone wrong with him, from conception onwards. His body had failed him, and was tormenting him, and his mind was as crippled as his body, and his parents were quite unable to give him a fair chance. So the only self-expression possible to him was hate. And he had specialized in hate pretty thoroughly. But the oddest thing about it all was this. The further I got away from the experience, the more clearly it was borne in on me that his ecstasy of hate was really quite self-detached. He wasn’t hating for himself. He hated himself as much as me. He hated everything, including hate.
  • And why? Because, as I begin to discover, there’s a sort of minute, blazing star of worship right down in the pit of his hell. He sees everything from the side of eternity just as clearly as I do, perhaps more clearly; but—how shall I put it?—he conceives his part in the picture to be the devil’s part, and he’s playing it with a combination of passion and detachment like a great artist, and for the glory of God, if you understand what I mean. And he’s right. It’s the only thing he can do, and he does it with style. I take off my hat to him, in spite of everything. But it’s pretty ghastly, really. Think of the life he’s living; just like an infant’s, and with his powers! I dare say he’ll manage to find some trick for blowing up the whole planet some day, if he lives much longer. And there’s another thing. I’ve got to keep a sharp look-out or he’ll catch me again. He can reach me anywhere, in Australia or Patagonia. God! I can feel him now!
  • I asked what language they had been talking. “English,” he said. “She wanted to tell me a lot about herself, and didn’t want the old one to know about it, so she started in on English-back-to-front. I’ve never tried that before, but it’s quite easy, for us.” There was a faint stress on the “us.”
  • For some years she lived upon him, latterly giving him nothing in return but the terrible charm of her society once a week at dinner.
  • Save for these, John found nothing but lunatics, cripples, invalids, and inveterate old vagabonds in whom the superior mentality had been hopelessly distorted by contact with the normal species.
  • But Adlan’s brilliance made his way of life seem all the more perplexing. With some complacency John assured himself that if he were to live as long as Adlan he would not have to spend his old age toiling for a pittance from Homo sapiens. But before he parted from Adlan he began to take a humbler view of himself and a more respectful attitude to Adlan.
  • “My son, my dear son,” he said, “Allah wills of his creatures two kinds of service. One is that they should toil to fulfil his active purpose in the world, and that is the service which you have most at heart. The other is that they should observe with understanding and praise with discriminate delight the excellent form of his handiwork. And this is my service, to lay at Allah’s feet such a life of praise that no man, not even you, my very dear son, can give him. He has fashioned you in such a manner that you may serve him best in action, though in action inspired always by deep-searching contemplation. But me he has fashioned such that I must serve him directly through contemplation and praise, though for this end I had first to pass through the school of action.”
  • One morning she came down to breakfast as though nothing had happened, but looking, so John said, “like a corpse animated by a soul out of Hell.”
  • Distance, apparently, made no difference to the ease with which he could pick up the psychic processes of other supernormals. Success depended entirely on his ability to “tune in” to their mental “setting” or mode of experience, and this depended on the degree of similarity of their mode to his own.
  • 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.”
  • One bit of hypnotic technique (or magic, if you like) I felt sure I could now perform successfully on normal minds in which there were strong religious convictions. This we decided to use. The natives had welcomed us to their island and arranged a feast for us. After the feast there were ritual dances and religious rites. When the excitement was at a climax, I made Lo dance for them. And when she had done, I said to them, in their own language, that we were gods, that we needed their island, that they must therefore make a great funeral pyre for themselves, mount it together, lie down together, and gladly die. This they did, most gladly, men, women and children. When they had all died we set fire to the faggots and their bodies were burnt.”
  • Her general appearance was that of a cretin; yet she had supernormal intelligence and temperament, and also hyper-sensitive vision. Not only did she distinguish two primary colours within the spectrum-band that we call blue, but also she could see well down into the infra-red. In addition to this colour-discrimination, she had a sense of form that was, so to speak, much finer-grained than ours. Probably there were more nerve-endings in her retinae than in normal eyes, for she could read a newspaper at twenty yards’ distance, and she could see at a glance that a penny was not accurately circular.
  • Seeing all these supernormals together, I was struck by a pervading Chinese or Mongolian expression about them. They had come from many lands, but they had a family likeness. John might well be right in guessing that all had sprung from a single “sporting point” centuries ago, probably in Central Asia. From that original mutation, or perhaps from a number of similar mutations, successive generations of offspring had spread over Asia, Europe, Africa, interbreeding with the normal kind, but producing occasionally a true supernormal individual.
  • One of the most disconcerting features of life on the island was that much of the conversation of the colonists was carried on telepathically. So far as I could judge, vocal speech was in process of atrophy. The younger members still used it as the normal means of communication, and even among the elders it was often indulged in for its own sake, much as we may prefer to walk rather than take a bus. The spoken language was prized chiefly for its aesthetic value. Not only did the islanders make formal poems for one another as frequently as the cultured Japanese; they also delighted sometimes to converse with one another in subtle metre, assonance and rhyme. Vocal speech was used also for sheer emotional expression, both deliberately and inadvertently. Our civilization had left its mark on the island in such ejaculations as “damn” and “blast” and several which we do not yet tolerate in print. In all reactions to the personality of others, too, speech played an important part. It was often a vehicle for the expression of rivalry, friendship and love. But even in this field all finer intercourse, I was told, depended on telepathy. Speech was but an obbligato to the real theme.
  • “helped greatly by Shên Kuo, whose genius moves in that sphere. We attained also a kind of astronomical consciousness. Some of us at least glimpsed the myriads of peopled worlds, and even the minds of stars and of nebulae. We saw also very clearly that we must soon die. And there were other things which I must not tell you.”
  • The true purpose of the awakened spirit, they reminded me, is twofold, namely to help in the practical talk of world-building, and to employ itself to the best of its capacity in intelligent worship. Under the first head they had at least created something glorious though ephemeral, a microcosm, a world in little. But the more ambitious part of their practical purpose, the founding of a new species, they were destined never to fulfil. Therefore they were concentrating all their strength upon the second aim. They must apprehend existence as precisely and zestfully as they could, and salute That in the universe which was of supreme excellence.
  • The Commander was one of those exceptional seamen who spend a good deal of their time in reading. His mind had a background of ideas which rendered him susceptible to the technique.
  • Note:That is deep. the more ideas the more convincible you are or susceptible to bad ideas maybe
  • But at this point, apparently, Shên Kuo interposed, and urged that the project should be abandoned. He pointed out that it would absorb the whole energy of the colony, and that the great spiritual task would have to be shelved, at any rate for a very long time. “Any resistance on our part,” he said, “would bring the whole force of the inferior species against us, and there would be no peace till we had conquered the world. That would take a long time. We are young, and we should have to spend the most critical years of our lives in warfare. When we had finished the great slaughter, should we be any longer fit mentally for our real work, for the founding of a finer species, and for worship? No! We should be ruined, hopelessly distorted in spirit. Violent practical undertakings would have blotted out for ever such insight as we have now gained into the true purpose of life. Perhaps if we were all thirty years older we should be sufficiently mature to pass through a decade of warfare without becoming too impoverished, spiritually, for our real work. But as things are, surely the wise course is to forego the weapon, and make up our minds to fulfil as much as possible of our accepted spiritual task of worship before we are destroyed.”

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