Friday, October 1, 2010

Stimulating the SF Core of the Brain

After a long stint reading 1920’s fantasy, returning to Olaf Stapledon was a breath of fresh air. I had previously read Last and First Men and Star Maker, and found them fascinating. Stapledon tosses off scenarios in a paragraph that other sf writers would build a novel out of. His vision of the very far future, both for humanity and the universe, was neither utopian nor dystopian but utterly captivating. In Star Maker he explored many different kinds of aliens, including sentient stars, which diversity was pretty rare for the 30’s. Most other stories of the time either didn’t have aliens or regarded them as objects of horror and killed them on sight.

Odd John and Sirius are more intimate stories on smaller canvas. They both involve super-beings in contemporary times. Much like Gladiator by Philip Wylie, also written in the mid-1930’s, these supermen do not end well. Odd John is a human, but of a more advanced strain. He has a prolonged physical youth, but is mentally far advanced compared to those around him. He stays out of the limelight, using adult proxies for many of his activities. Eventually he is able to make telepathic contact with others like himself, and they form a colony on a remote island. Unfortunately they are eventually discovered by the British Navy. When the real world finally intrudes on their home, the super-beings decide to end themselves. There is consolation in the fact that none of them die alone, but it is a cold comfort.

Sirius frankly has an even harder time of it. He is a super-dog with human intelligence, the only one of his kind. The scientist who made him, while breeding other sheep dogs that were very smart, was never able able to replicate Sirius’ success. He is raised with the scientist’s family in Wales, again staying out of the limelight. He forms a close bond with the youngest daughter of the family, named Plaxy. He goes through many life stages: growing up and learning about the world, working as a sheep dog, going into a laboratory and learning about the larger world, and eventually running a farm more-or-less on his own. However, he loses many close friends and family in the WWII bombings of England. Finally the war-time tensions in his small town in Wales rise up against him, and he is hunted down. While he doesn’t die alone, his one small death feels more tragic and heart-breaking than that of Odd John’s colonists. They had foreknowledge and embraced their fate; Sirius still wanted to live. [By the way, I am a big ol’ softy dog person, so you can guess which narrative left me in tears.]

Stapledon thinks through these scenarios just as much as he did his far-flung futures. Odd John also goes through many stages as he progresses, systematically tackling and conquering one aspect of humanity after another. Sirius suffers constantly from his dog-like nature: his lack of hands, his lack of clear speech (only the scientist’s family can understand him easily), and his occasional return to a wolf-like nature in the Welsh hills. Stapledon also doesn’t blink when it comes to the sexuality of these isolated individuals. While leaving everything off-stage he makes it clear that incest and bestiality taboos are broken by these characters, and the out-of-wedlock sex hardly worth mentioning.

How do these stories hold up? Rather better than most sf of the time. While each covers two decades, and are firmly grounded in the world of the 1920’s-1940’s, their themes are universal. The characters remain interesting and sympathetic; their outsider perspective on the world gives us a chance to take a different look at things. I reserve the right to change my mind over time, but for now I’m willing to say that Stapledon is right up at the top of my list of favorite sf authors of all time. His stories have a density of ideas that reward re-reading and have in no way aged out. By focusing more on human universal questions he is timeless in a way that Hal Clements (to pick an author focused on science that may become dated) can’t be. While these stories are not known for their novelistic virtues (plotting and character aren’t the point here), there are moments of poetry in Stapledon’s work that accompany the sense of wonder of it all. And they are genuinely moving on an emotional level.

He writes straight to the core of what makes sf my favorite branch of literature, with its way of changing the way I perceive the world. While I am glad that the genre has progressed in the matter of those aforementioned novelistic values, Stapledon’s work still wends its electrodes into the sf-pleasure center of the brain--skipping elaborate preparations and getting straight to the Wonder.

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