Odd John, Ubermensch, and the Sci-Fi Tragedy: Part II

Book Keeper's Library Crew

In my last post, I tried to in some way show you, the reader, the connection between Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and John Wainwright, the “super-normal” human boy from Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John. If you still find yourself in the dark (as I often do) about what on earth Nietzsche is talking about, there is a moving picture segment found in the Youtube that is extremely helpful in briefly explaining this idea without losing your attention (because someone told me you can’t do quick cuts with writing).
Or can you?
                                                                           Who knows?
Was that one?

Anyways, the link to the video can be found at the end of this post or by clicking the hyperlink above. Now introducing … Part II!

When navigating my way down the rabbit hole of Odd John, I came across something else of interest. In the first few pages of the book, Stapledon refers to a boy named Victor Stott from Hampdenshire, England. Just a skim of the page with no knowledge of the allusion being made would lead one to believe that Victor was just a minor mention. This name however, holds more significance than meets the eye.

A well read person might know that the mention of the boy Victor Stott is a nod to a book written in 1911 by J.D. Beresford called The Hampdenshire Wonder. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this, I didn’t either until scanning the logs of the Wikipedia.

Like Odd John, the Hampdenshire Wonder explores the implications of the “supernormal” human on the world around them. However, Beresford’s account of Victor is less in the vein of the idea of the child as an Ubermensch. It focuses more on the relationships the child has with the people he comes in contact with, sans the almost extreme nature of events in Odd John.   

In Odd John, the comparisons between the two occur when John was a child, since Victor was also a child in The Hampdenshire Wonder. There are some similarities between the characters, both in their views on humanity and the attitude of the general public towards them. They are also, in a way, both tragic characters who meet their untimely demise due to the folly of inferior beings. If there are more similarities that I am missing … well, I’ll let the internet do what it does best.

Despite these similarities, I do not feel that Victor would qualify as an Ubermensch based off what I read of the novel (and I apologize to any fans of the book, but it was just grueling for me to get through). They are important enough to take note of though.

The biggest similarity between the boys is that Victor Stott and a very young John Wainwright could both be considered Wunderkind, or child prodigies. As per the definition of Wunderkind, they both display intellect and ability that has well surpassed what is normal for their age.

In Odd John, John’s stint as a Wunderkind seemed more like just a stepping stone to his eventual Ubermensch status. In The Hampdenshire Wonder, it was Victor’s entire existence. This is where the rabbit hole gets even deeper, and where we discover a young German child who might or might not have really existed.

This child of questionable existence was named Christian Heinrich Heineken. By all accounts we have access to, he could do a very large number of things before his death at age four, including speaking German, reading Latin, and writing/reciting entire history books. Unfortunately, the accounts that we do have of him are not numerous or reliable enough to verify his existence, since they date back hundreds of years. But, be the child fictional or real, it is still a very early example of a Wunderkind, and no doubt an inspiration for other similar stories that came after his.

In a way, because of his superior intellect and ability, this young German child was an inspiration for the boy Victor Stott in The Hampdenshire Wonder. Thus, in a secondary way, he was the inspiration for John Wainwright of Odd John  since Victor was one of the character’s inspirations. It might seem like a minor thing to point out, but it’s where the rabbit hole took me.

You still might be asking, “Where are you going with this?” So let’s bring it all back together.

An inspiration for John Wainwright was definitely Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. But we also need to recognize that Wunderkind were also inspirations for our “odd” John.

Throughout Odd John, even though he at times does some very adult things, he never stops being a child (or at the very least a “youthful”) in both appearance and mentality. It is this small inkling of a childhood innocence — of a boyish naivety, curiosity, and determination — that can make the ending of Odd John feel tragic (that is, if you can look past all of the bad things he did as a result of being an Ubermensch (more on this later — it is important)).

I could be wrong, but I think Stapledon had a reason for this. I do not feel like Stapledon wants you to dislike John, despite what he does at times throughout the book. In fact, the connections that he builds between the reader (from the perspective of the book’s narrator) and John allow for an understanding that might not be reached otherwise.

At times, I found myself being very sympathetic to the character. Even when the narrator describes John doing something we would view as wrong, he follows up with John explaining his thinking behind the action. When I looked at it from his perspective, I could see where it made sense to him. But whether or not it makes sense to us isn’t important. His reasons aren’t supposed to be within our realm of understanding, for we are not Ubermensch.

As I wrap things up for Part II, I want to leave you with a thought. Odd John is not the only story of a tragic Ubermensch. Anyone who has read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land knows Valentine Michael Smith was more than just human. He could easily be classified as an Ubermensch, and his story is just as tragic — a martyr and messiah for the eventual homo-superior.

(If you haven’t read Stranger in a Strange Land, I, along with the rest of the world, highly recommend that you do.)

In both stories, it is not that the authors are saying that humanity must usher itself into a new age. It’s not that they are condoning or justifying things like murder when something stands in your way. Rather, they pose questions. They make us think and ask us to scrutinize ourselves. Is this as far as it goes for us? Are we as intelligent as we can be? Is our current standard of right and wrong going to be that way forever? What is our full potential, and can we reach it? Does man really need detachable pockets? (Sorry, things were getting too serious. Read Odd John, it’ll make sense)

These can be dangerous questions. They can even be scary questions to answer. When we are juxtaposed to the Ubermensch, we are forced to examine ourselves. We might not like what we see. On the flip side, we might be so comfortable with the image that we are resistant to change, to an extreme. Maybe that’s why we, the “normals,” killed John Wainwright and Valentine Michael Smith. You see, as I said in Part I, the tale of an Ubermensch can make for a tragic story. But because of how they can scare us, they also make damn good villains.  

And that is where we will pick up in Part III. Until then, happy reading!


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— Ubermensch made easy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxiKqA-u8y4