SIRIUS – Olaf Stapledon (1944)

SiriusI wrote a 10-page analysis of Last And First Men, Stapledon’s 1930 cult fiction debut. I wasn’t fully convinced by it, but I understood its historical relevance. I didn’t really plan to read another Stapledon title, but I came across Sirius in a second-hand store for 5 euros, and both the cover and the subject appealed to me, so I took my chances.

No 10-page review this time – I’ll try to make it snappy. Unlike Stapledon, who manages to make a mere 188-page novel drag and drag and drag. Not that he doesn’t set a bar for himself – the narrator of the book calls himself a “novelist” trying to “penetrate” into the “essential spirit”.

After all, though a Civil Servant (until the Air Force absorbed me) I am also a novelist; and I am convinced that with imagination and self-criticism one can often penetrate into the essential spirit of events even when the data are superficial.

That “essential spirit” is a bit of a recurring theme. Sirius, the dog with a human intelligence that is our protagonist, likes musing about it. Reading is believing – and I guess this book’s defenders will claim the fact that a dog utters the next quote excuses it.

‘Who judged between Christ and the High Priest? Not the people. They said “Crucify him.” The real judge was Christ’s master, the spirit, speaking in Christ’s own mind; and in the High Priest’s, if only he would listen. The point is, if you serve the spirit you can’t serve any other master. But what the spirit demands always is love and intelligence and strong creative action in its service, love of the sheep as individuals to be made the most of, not merely as mutton or as coral insects in a lovely coral pattern, but as individual vessels of the spirit. That spirit – love, intelligence, and creating – is precisely what “the spirit” is.’

Aside from writing speculative fiction, W. Olaf Stapledon had a career as a philosopher – none that is remembered in the philosophical community, let alone one that helped advance the discipline. That’s a problem for a book that tries to convey stuff about the nature of humanity or the nature of the spirit. Stapledon doesn’t have anything original to say, and often dabbles in a muddy mysticism. Lots of philosophical themes fly by, but none are worked out properly. Stapledon comes across as a try-hard who fails at depth.

I have to admit I was charmed by the fact Stapledon chose to stress the corporeal nature of the dog, and writes about a bodily intelligence – not some detached soullike mind. But it quickly contrasts with all the talk about the spirit, and ultimately the novel is not about a human mind in a dog’s body, but about an ultra-smart dog with language capacity raised partly as a human, not fitting in human society.

The book’s theme might seem original, but on closer inspection isn’t at all. The main conflicts in the protagonist’s mind are simply those of Frankenstein‘s monster. What might be called homage by some actually amounts to theft. Like the monster, Sirius ponders why he was created. Like the monster, Sirius seems unintelligent & illiterate. Like the monster, Sirius wants a mate that is like him. Like the monster, Sirius feels lonely in the world of humans. Like the monster, Sirius feels unacknowledged. And like the monster, he kills in a rage of self-defense.

While Frankenstein‘s monster is tragic and believable, the dog not only manages to write a letter, but folds it in an envelop, puts on a stamp and posts it. All by himself. The epistolary effort is not portrayed as easy – Stapledon goes to some lengths to describe the practical inconveniences of having no hands – but still, Sirius is a “super-super-sheep-dog”, so there you have it. He also gets the girl – spoiler, oops – and at the end there’s some strange passages in which the girl’s husband – that narrator novelist – discusses the dog having sex with her, I’m sure the essential, quintessential “spirit” of this novel.

Sirius: A Fantasy Of Love And Discord has aged terribly. Not only the writing feels wooden, dated and stale, but also the content pales in the light of contemporary insights on animal psychology and animal empathy. Stapledon is still stuck in the refuted paradigm that sees civilization as just veneer.

On top of all that, Stapledon is no stylist: structurally the book is a rather boring stream of anecdotes and episodes from Sirius’ life. Tension is non-existent. I can appreciate spectacle & tension wasn’t Stapledon’s intention – he aimed for existential emotions and intellectual stimuli, but there’s not a lot of those to have for the 21st century reader.

A final remark – for a book published in 1944 the war is hardly present. It is mentioned and affects the narrative, but at the same time it just seems a backdrop. I’m guessing Stapledon wasn’t that affected personally, or he would have published a different book.

update 02/15/2018:  Following a discussion on Gaping Blackbird, I have to admit the above paragraph is the result of the fact I didn’t read the final 4th of the book with the utmost care anymore, and what I wrote is actually faulty. The details are here, in a rather lengthy but interesting discussion with fredfitch, in the comments.

Let me end with a exemplary quote. If you think you might like 188 pages of this, but if you don’t want to spend 5 euro in your local second-hand store: Sirius is fully online for free here. Enjoy!

In fact her estrangement from him was partly a reaction against her deep-rooted entanglement with him. But he, who was far more conscious of her aloofness than she was herself, attributed it to the fact that she had outstripped him both in learning and in experience of human people, while he had stagnated at Caer Blai. Once or twice, however, when she had gently twitted him with being interested in nothing but learning, he wondered whether it was she that was stagnating. He had conceived a real passion for learning, for finding out about the great world, and understanding the miracle of human nature and the minor miracle of his own unique nature. The arid weeks behind him and the arid weeks to come filled him with a thirst not only for intelligent companionship but also for intellectual life. His proximity to the sub-human perhaps made him over-anxious to prove that even the loftier ranges of the human ranges were not beyond him.

16 responses to “SIRIUS – Olaf Stapledon (1944)

  1. Have not read this one

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Back to Hegel, Adorno, and Hans Jonas, I guess. Maybe finally crack Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. 😐

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beastiality? No thank you…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s actually one of the few things that makes the book more or less still interesting today, simply because it’s done in such a bizarre way. It’s all in between the lines, and at the same time it’s not, and fairly obvious. I wonder what a 1944 reader would have made of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Granted, the age of this book could show in its writing, which might not meet modern tastes anymore (I know, I tried re-reading Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and found myself bored beyond words by how much the pacing dragged…), but from your review it would seem that the story itself holds little interest, since it appears to be looking for some sort of direction, and finding little of it, if at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read Asimov’s trilogy a couple of years ago and liked it a lot, but dry indeed. They were among of the first SF books I read after years not reading fiction, so I didn’t have a lot of mileage. I plan a reread someday, I hope it’ll hold up, but I’m a bit afraid to do so.

      Maybe read the reviews I linked above too before you make up your mind on this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was quietly hopeful for Sirius given how creative but utterly disjointed the others were. I had hoped a singular focus might make him better, it appears it has made him worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure if that’s the problem: it’s not a disjointed book. I might be too critical, check out the other reviews too, some find worth here. In general I didn’t feel this as creative, since overall it’s Doggy Frankenstein, but again, maybe I’m too harsh.


  6. I can appreciate your criticisms, but I ended up enjoying Sirius and felt it supplied a lot of food for thought. I thought Stapledon’s view of what animals are capable of were well ahead of their time.

    The writing style isn’t what I’d like to see in every book I read, but maybe a steady diet of Wells novels over the years helped me get into this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should say, “well ahead of Stapledon’s time,” which was probably dominated by the likes of Pavlov and Thorndike. He poses the question: who knows animals better, the scientists or the pet owners? Or the sheepherds who can teach their dogs extraordinary things in the field? Probably option C in “Sirius.” The intellectuals don’t look very insightful in this one (and not in Odd John, either).

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think in the end I just can’t get over the prose – that’s the main issue for me.

      Mentioning Pavlov is interesting, as I’m ultimately a determinist/materialist, so a behaviorist too at heart, I guess. I don’t seen a fundamental contradiction with also acknowledging animal skills, emotions, intelligence, pro-social behavior, etc.


  7. Pingback: Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon (1944) | gaping blackbird

  8. Woof, human 🐶 We love Stapledon’s Sirius!

    Liked by 1 person

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