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Odd John

Author: Olaf Stapledon

ISBN: 9780575072244
Pages: 209
Description: Not your run-of-the-mill superhero story, which may have had something to do with the fact that Stapledon wasn’t a typical person to be writing a superhero story in the first place; he was a Professor of Philosophy, and apparently a friend of both Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill. It has always surprised me that this book isn’t better known.

Most superhero scenarios, starting with Superman, take it for granted that the guy will spend most of his time acting as a kind of elite first responder service, cleaning up or preventing the more challenging train crashes, armed robberies, earthquakes and so on. Now, if we take the superhero idea seriously for even ten seconds, why ever should this godlike creature think that his top priority is to rescue beings who are, to him, about as significant as mice are to us? I mean, even though your average human could probably save a whole lot of mice if he put his mind to it, you find that that’s an unusual career choice. Stapledon, however, goes back to first principles, and asks what a superhero might find to do that wasn’t essentially just rescuing mice. The result is a book that’s interesting, even if not totally convincing. The obvious problem is that a mouse, even a very clever one, isn’t going to be able to write a good book about what it’s like to be human – but Stapledon at least tries, and we should give him credit for that.

One idea I liked, which occurs elsewhere in Stapledon’s writing, is that it isn’t primarily about winning (conquering the world, amassing a colossal fortune, etc), but rather about living your life absolutely to the full. He has a good shot at showing us how John tries to achieve that. He also has a much more interesting take on the battle between good and evil than is common in this genre. Evil people have just, as it were, been handed the Black pieces in the cosmic chess game; it’s a question of how artistically they handle their resources. I don’t know whether I agree with this, but at least it makes you think, which is more than you can say for variants on Clark Kent versus Lex Luthor.

It’s a shortish book and easy to read. If you want to check out some SF that doesn’t immediately fit one of the 12 standard SF plots, you could do worse than this.

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