I first read it as part of my research for my own novel, The Honours, which is set in 1935. I wanted to find out what sort of SF people were reading that year, and I’d heard a lot about this strange, progressive, controversial story about a boy born with superhuman abilities who comes to herald a new, albeit abortive, dawn in human evolution.
What I hadn’t heard about was the weird, roiling contraflow of idealism and extremism from which the novel emerged, the secret societies and open revolutions, and the allegations of an international eugenicist conspiracy desiring nothing less than global enslavement which persist to this day. Odd John is a remarkable novel which perfectly encapsulates the strangeness, terror and optimism of an era, a work both prescient and chillingly retrograde, and one which – like all successful fiction – permits interpretations quite contrary to the author’s purported intent.
In 1928, Gollancz published H. G. Wells' book-length manifesto The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints For A World Revolution. In it, Wells argued against the dogmas of ancient religious institutions and antiquated divisive notions of patriotism, advocating a new order based around science and rationalism, brought about by informal groups of likeminded citizens coming together to move the world towards a free, equitable and unified utopia.
Wells argued that these groups should initially focus on education and propaganda, whilst making an explicit commitment to pacificism. Eventually, he envisioned these groups breaking away from mainstream society to form their own communities, with separate schools and social events. His ultimate vision for a utopian paradise was of world peace, welfare for all, globally-coordinated infrastructure and food production, and a benevolent world government to oversee the new global nation.
Two organisations were founded to try to kickstart this gradualist, gentlemanly revolution: the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, or FPSI, (later renamed the Progressive League) in 1932, and the H. G. Wells Society in 1934. Stapledon – who admired and corresponded with Wells – became a charter member of both and contributed to the Progressive League’s journal, Plan.
The FPSI’s 'Charter for Rationalists', published in 1932, sets out manifesto goals including the decriminalisation of homosexuality, birth control education, the decriminalisation of abortion, complete disarmament, the abolition of censorship of books, films and plays, divorce law reform, the creation of national parks, and the legalisation of Sunday trading. Pretty nice, humane stuff, right? Most of which – with the glaring exception of total, unilateral disarmament – has actually come to pass.
On the other hand, as well as the disbanding of the Church of England, the FPSI’s Charter called for compulsory 'sterilisation of the feeble-minded', in line with their belief in the use of eugenics as a means of controlling world population. Just who qualified for sterilisation would be decided by the benevolent, all-powerful global government, to which the subordinating of one’s personal life was, in the words of Wells, 'the supreme duty'.
Not surprisingly, British commentators on the Right and Left found the FPSI’s vision of the future worthy of a few tea-fuelled spit-takes – although, disappointingly and perhaps inevitably, accusations of immorality tended to focus on the whole 'let's treat gay people like human beings' part, rather than their proposed castration of the 'unfit'. The FPSI gained a reputation as a gaggle of politically naïve, oversexed intellectuals, and its open discussion of free love and nudism in an era of deep conservatism earned it the nickname 'the Federation for the Promotion of Sexual Intercourse'.
By 1934, Stapledon had doubts the Society would ever be 'an effective force'. The crumbling of his utopian dreams coupled with the rise of extremism across Europe (and indeed within the UK itself) inform the tragic-sardonic outlook of Odd John.
In Odd John, the eponymous wunderkind is born with bulbous eyes and a huge skull, proof positive of his unique genetic heritage. He quickly masters all fields of human endeavour, including language, mathematics, economics, philosophy and engineering. Having surpassed humanity’s greatest thinkers, he develops telepathic abilities and begins to seek out others of his kind: what he calls 'supernormals' or 'wide-awakes'.
Modern readers might expect John to be a benevolent guru figure, keen to shepherd the less genetically-fortunate towards a bright future of peaceful intellection, but he soon grows aloof from homo sapiens, considering them dull and beyond help. He believes himself the de facto leader of an emergent master race, homo superior, unconstrained by normal humans' petty, bestial morality. Early on in the story, he murders a policeman who discovers him burglarising a house, considering it an act of pragmatic self-interest, justified by genetic destiny. Later on, finding a remote island upon which to found his colony of supernormals, John exterminates the indigenous population, again motivated by a higher morality ostensibly incomprehensible to lesser races. Ultimately, the supernormal colony is cornered by the World Powers, and John and his followers commit suicide rather than submit.
The novel presents this, more or less, as a tragedy. Which is to say, all the events are filtered through a narrator, a human, who has known John since birth. To him, John and the other wide-awakes were too beautiful to live. I suspect that Stapledon saw the destruction of John’s colony as emblematic of the collapse of all the wild utopian schemes he and other artists, intellects and radicals had cooked up over the previous decade. The brutish world was not ready for such high ideals.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, if you would care to turn your eyes cornerward, may I introduce the elephant: a highly charismatic, arrogant leader who proclaims himself leader of a master race, exterminates all who gets in his way, then commits suicide when his plans fall through? As the polymath Jack Haldane put it, criticising Stapledon’s sentimental valorisation of 'the godlike activity of great men' as a motor for social change: 'It seems to me that your attitude is the kind which leads people to fascism.' Well, quite.
But of course, it’s easy to make this judgement with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, given the events of the decade following Odd John’s publication in 1935, the novel feels eerily, sickeningly timely – not a celebration of John’s feats, but a terrible warning against ambition unshackled from compassion. One of the key ambiguities of the novel is the narrator, who admits his unreliability right at the beginning: 'I fail to understand the essential John… In my spite of my incompetence, I must record all that I can…'
As the novel progresses, the narrator finds it harder and harder to justify John’s behaviour. He sounds like a cult member struggling with cognitive dissonance as his leader becomes increasingly irrational and violent. He’s enamoured by John’s cleverness (to the extent of a romantic infatuation), he’s flattered to be one of John’s inner circle, despite being a mere human, he believes John’s assertions that the supernormals are the future – and he ties himself in agonising knots trying to maintain that faith in the face of genocidal atrocity. The moment where our narrator, with the distance of years, tries to justify John’s slaying of an entire island of humans to the reader represents, for me, the novel’s thematic heart:
For my part, such is my faith in John, that though I cannot approve, I cannot condemn. There must surely be some aspect that I am too stupid or insensitive to grasp. John, I feel, must be right. Though he did what would have been utterly wrong if it had been done by any of us, I have an almost passionate faith that, done by John, and in John’s circumstances, the terrible deed was right.
Whether Stapledon intended it to be or not, Odd John is a brilliant, brutal, wry warning about the dangers of blindly following leaders. How easily the narrator sublets his morality, in exchange for a little glamour. It might sound like I’ve been dropping spoilers like a clumsy mechanic, but the synopsis I’ve provided is given on the novel’s first page – the story is not about the supernormals' fate, but the journey they take to get there.
I should say, for the record, my impression is that Stapledon was a very nice chap. He campaigned for equality all his life, despite being frightfully rich after an inheritance allowed him to live off dividends and write. I think the fascist undertones of Odd John are an unintended artefact of his sentimentality, and the richness and humanity of the novel provide a more than effective counterpoint.
The Wells-inspired FPSI remained largely ineffectual as an agent of political change, but the wonderful thing about conspiracy theories is how major humiliating public failures get rebranded by one’s enemies as cunning disinformation efforts designed to disguise a movement’s true strength. Vernon Porter, chairman of the H. G. Wells Society (which later changed its name to The Open Conspiracy before merging with the FPSI), believed, in 1934, that: 'The work of the Society would go on quietly, enthusiastically, continually, with ever-widening range, until one day mankind would wake up to find the World State no longer an inspiring vision but a living reality.'
This vision of a revolution by stealth is catnip to contemporary conspiracy theorists. Most modern commentators – quite wisely – hammer on the FPSI’s support for compulsory sterilisation as proof they were evil megalomaniacs, eugenics reliably inciting revulsion on both sides of the political spectrum. Then, when a country’s government introduces a policy which agrees with one of the FPSI’s other stated aims – like, for instance, allowing women control over their reproductive rights – or an international political body such as the UN exercises influence, the conspiracy theorists argue that these things are the work of that self-same clandestine cabal, now risen to prominence just as its members prophesied, and therefore any act of social justice is in fact a move in a grand chess game where checkmate means mass human culls and global enslavement.
The Honours stars a 13-year-old conspiracy theorist called Delphine who finds herself amongst members of a secret society called SPIM. Are they planning an invasion of England, or are they just a group of damaged, ineffectual dreamers? Whereas contemporary conspiracy theorists (they generally prefer the term 'civilian intelligence analysts') might make a YouTube video, Delphine arms herself with a sawn-off shotgun, a belt of homemade grenades, and resolves to tackle them head-on.
If Odd John ended up influencing The Honours, what I absorbed was that book’s unconscious warning of the seductions of fascism – deep bucolic sentimentality laced with an acute persecution complex. Delphine is an odd, isolated, precocious character too, traits that make her vulnerable – and dangerous.
The 1930s are relatively underexplored in fiction of all genres, authors concluding – not unreasonably – that the massive international conflict that kicked off at the end of decade is far more interesting than the years of hope, death and paranoia leading up to it. Still, 80 years from its first appearance, I think Odd John is more than worthy of its status as an SF classic. There are earlier stories that play around with the Nietzschean Übermensch (Vril, The Power Of The Coming Race is an enjoyable if plotless look at an underground race of superbeings whose magical super fuel, ‘vril’, later leant its name to that other magical super fuel, Bovril) but Odd John feels the most slippery and complete. If you want an introduction to this most neglected and rewarding of decades, it's a great place to start.
Tim Clare (@timclarepoet) is a performance poet based in the UK. As a stand-up poet, Tim has performed nationwide including at the Edinburgh Fringe and countless festivals. He has appeared on TV, Radio and has written for the Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Big Issue and Writing magazine, amongst others. His debut novel, The Honours, is out now from Canongate.