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.


23 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

  9. I hope this review does not dissuade people who have not read Sirius to pass it by. If you enjoy H. G. Wells’ style, I think you will appreciate Sirius. It was one of Freeman Dyson’s favorite novels. Doris Lessing was a fan as well. The reviewer’s Frankenstein analogy is far off the mark. Sirius is cast as a story of intellect struggling with its animal roots, as well as racism and bigotry–which should be clear to the reader. The jabs at sex between human and dog are quite absurd, and remind me of phobias of miscegenation (still extant, as Orban and many reactionary Trump followers demonstrate). So, try Sirius. I have many friends who have read it, and not one has been disappointed.


    • Thanks for your perspective. In the end, it is a matter of taste, and maybe of different generations as well. I’ve tried to outline why it isn’t to my taste, and part of that is philosophical: I don’t like his idea that civilization is veneer.
      viz. Frankenstein: the analogy is obviously not perfect, but it is there, on multiple fronts: “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.”
      The additional things you mention (intellect struggling with its animal roots, racism, bigotry) are there, but they weren’t enough for me, and as I said, not worked out enough for my taste.
      I’m also the kind of reader who absolutely dislikes impossibilities in a book that otherwise has seriousness as its default mode, and doesn´t adhere to its own speculative premises: so a dog physically writing, folding and posting a letter is hard for me to swallow. Again, a matter of taste.
      As for your remark on my possible phobia of miscegenation, well, I’ve called the bestiality passages strange, because – iirc – Stapledon doesn’t go the full mile and keeps it off page, maybe because of the mores of his time. The passage also felt strange, because for me – again, iirc – it contrasted with the philosophical pomp and seriousness of the rest of the novel. There is nothing absurd about trying to point that out in a review. I maybe should have explained it better, but either way your remark feels like an attempt to undermine my moral credibility.
      I’m glad you and your friends liked it – but if everybody liked every book, reviews would be superfluous. So I still hope that people whose tastes align more with mine are indeed dissuaded to read this: aside from the prose problems, for me this book came across as a dated attempt at depth. It didn’t quench my “thirst (…) for intelligent companionship”.
      For me the interesting meta-question is what it is exactly in books like these, with outdated & superficial philosophy, that speaks to something “still extant” in certain contemporary readers? And, additionally, what is that something exactly?


      • Jack L. Cargill

        Yes, tastes vary, and I accept that you dislike the book on its merits. It seems to me unnecessary, however, to convince potential readers to not bother with the book. When I dislike a book, I let people know why, and suggest that they may have a different reaction.
        My remarks about phobias of miscegenation was prompted by the reaction one of your readers had ” Beastiality? No thank you…” You simply made fun of it in your review, but I thought it was a weak criticism, especially because Stapledon was taking a substantial risk to include those passages in the book. I think it was unwarranted for me to extend my comments in a way that called into question your or other commenters’ moral and philosophical values. I apologize for that.
        Which brings me to your meta question about dated literature and its appeal to modern audiences. I find the cultural history embodied in older works one of the enjoyable and edifying characteristics they have. Again, H. G. Wells’ and Jules Verne’s writings are similarly dated, and it is true that any depth and novelty they present are quaint from today’s perspectives. Yet, many people find them very enjoyable and even thought provoking.
        Finally, as for your claim of “outdated & superficial philosophy”, I think your remark is unwarranted, specifically and generally.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Your first paragraph has a fair point, but I guess it’s a matter of style: for me it’s implied that potential readers are smart & experienced enough to not trust just one review, and read up on a book some more. That’s also part of the reason why I provided a lengthy quote at the end: if you don’t have trouble with it, maybe this book could be for you. I must admit that over the last 5 years I’ve become a bit more explicit about taste in my reviews, but at the same time, when a book really bugs me, writing a snarky review is also a cathartic experience – I write these reviews mainly for myself.

          Thanks for your apology, appreciated – it speaks to your moral character. You are 100% right that it is weak criticism of my part, and now that you mention it, Stapledon took substantial risk to include it indeed. That’s another reason why I like writing reviews: the conversation it sometimes generates can provide new insights.

          I understand your remarks about enjoying cultural history and being edified by older works, it’s partly why I read older books too. But this one didn’t resonate with me – aside maybe on a purely intellectual level as a data point about history. The reason why it didn’t resonate was precisely because I thought all the pompous talk about “spirit” imo was worked out superficially, and I think the essentialist ideas behind it are outdated. But as with all philosophical ideas, I agree that part of judging that is also taste. That’s why I referred to contemporary scientific insights on animals in my review, because I feel some (or part) of these philosophical debates can be approached (and maybe even settled) scientifically as well.

          Again, thanks for taking the time to write out a substantial reply.


          • And thank you for your thoughtful reply. You have done a good job of dialing down my anger.

            I love Sirius, and Odd John, and Flames, as well as Last and First Men, and Star Maker. Many of his illustrious contemporaires did as well. Not intending any condescension, please allow me to provide a link to this piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum, which identifies many of them:

            Why do I love Stapledon? I identify with his elegaic view of the human species. His views were grounded by his experiences in WWI through WWII, as mine are by a declining civilization which probably is headed for collapse. I feel a kinship. I think many readers will too.

            I read your reviews of the Three Body Problem trilogy, and I share your enthusiasm for this work. We are not always at odds. I find that reassuring and comforting.

            Best wishes, Jack

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks for that link! As for collapse: that seems a near certainty indeed.

              Taste is such a mystery. A few months ago I did a post with three books I´d been recommended by reviewers whose tastes normally align, but alas. Glad you liked Cixin Lui´s trilogy. I hope you´ll find other reviews on here that´ll be of worth to you.


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