Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 16


JOHN continued his search. I accompanied him. I shall not at this stage describe the few suitable supernormal youngsters whom he discovered and persuaded to prepare themselves for the great adventure. There was a young girl in Marseilles, an older girl in Moscow, a boy in Finland, a girl in Sweden, another in Hungary, and a young man in Turkey. Save for these, John found nothing but lunatics, cripples, invalids, and inveterate old vagabonds in whom the superior mentality had been hopelessly distorted by contact with the normal species.

But in Egypt John actually met his superior. This incident was so strange that I hesitate to record it, or even to believe it myself.

John had for long been convinced that a very remarkable mind was secreted somewhere in the Levant or the Nile Delta. From Turkey we took ship to Alexandria. Thence, after further investigation, we moved to Port Saïd. Here we spent some weeks. As far as I was concerned, they were weeks of idleness. There was nothing for me to do but to play tennis, bathe and indulge in mild flirtations. John himself seemed to be idling. He bathed, rowed in the harbour, wandered about the town. He was unusually absent-minded, and sometimes almost irritable.

When Port Saïd was beginning to bore me excessively, I suggested that we should try Cairo. “Go yourself,” said John, “if you want to, but I’m staying here. I’m busy.” I therefore took him at his word, and crossed the Delta by train. Long before we reached Cairo the Great Pyramids came into view, overtopping the palm trees and the unseen city. I shall not forget that first glimpse of them, for later it seemed to symbolize the experience that John himself was passing through in Port Saïd. They were grey-blue, in the blue sky. They were curiously simple, remote, secure.

I took a room at Shepheard’s Hotel, and gave myself over to sightseeing. One day, about three weeks after I left Port Saïd, a telegram came from John. It said merely, “Home, John.” Nothing loath, I packed my traps and took the next train for Port Saïd.

As soon as I arrived, John made me book accommodation for three to Toulon by an Orient boat that was due to pass through the Canal a few days later. The new member of the party, he said, was on his way from Upper Egypt, and would join us as soon as he could. Before giving details of our future fellow passenger I must try to report what John told me of the very different being with whom he was in contact during my absence in Cairo.

“You see,” he said, “the fellow I was after (Adlan, by name) turned out to have died thirty-five years ago. He was trying to get me from his place in the past, and at first I didn’t realize. When at last we effected some sort of communication, he managed to show me what he was seeing, and I noticed that the steamers in the harbour were all little low old things with yards on their masts. Also there wasn’t any Canal Company’s Building where it ought to have been. (You know, the green-domed thing.) You can imagine how exciting this was. It took me a long time to get myself into the past instead of his coming to me in the present.”

John’s story must be condensed. In order to secure a less precarious footing in the past, John, under Adlan’s direction, made the acquaintance of a middle-aged Englishman, a ship-chandler, who had spent much of his childhood in Port Saïd in Adlan’s time. This Anglo–Egyptian, Harry Robinson, was easily persuaded to talk about his early experiences, and to describe Adlan, whom he used at one time to meet almost daily. John soon made himself familiar with Robinson’s mind to such an extent that he was able to reach back and establish himself quite firmly in the child Harry and in the Port Saïd that had long since vanished.

Seen through Harry’s eyes, Adlan turned out to be an aged and poverty-stricken native boatman. His face, John said, was like a mummy’s, black and pinched and drawn, but very much alive, with a frequent and rather grim smile. His gigantic head bore upon its summit a fez which was ridiculously small for it. When, as occasionally happened, this covering fell off, his cranium was seen to be perfectly bald. John said it reminded him of a dark and polished and curiously moulded lump of wood. He had the typical great eyes, one of which was bloodshot, and running with yellow mucus. Like so many natives, he had suffered from ophthalmia. His bare brown legs and feet were covered with scars. Several toe-nails had been lost.

Adlan made his living by ferrying passengers between the liners and the shore, and by transporting European residents to and from the “bath houses”— wooden erections built out over the sea on angle-irons. The Robinson family hired Adlan and his boat several times a week to row them across the harbour to their “bath house.” He had to wait while they bathed and lunched. Then he would row them back to the town. It was while Adlan was tugging at the oars in his long-prowed and gaily painted boat, and while Harry was prattling to his parents or his sister or even to Adlan himself, that John, regarding the scene through Harry’s eyes, carried on his telepathic conversations with the unique Egyptian.

John’s projection of his mind into the past took him back to the year 1896. At this time Adlan claimed that he was three hundred and eighty-four years old. John would have been less inclined to believe this before he met Jacqueline, but by now he was ready to accept it. Adlan, then, was born in 1512, somewhere in the Soudan. Most of his first century was spent as the wise man of his tribe, but in the end he resolved to exchange his primitive environment for something more civilized. He travelled down the Nile, and settled in Cairo, where in time he gained a reputation as a sorcerer. During the seventeenth century he played an active part in the turbulent political life of Egypt, and was at one time the power behind the throne. But political activities could not satisfy him. He was drawn into them much as an intelligent spectator might be drawn into a game of chess played by blockheads. He could not help seeing how the game might be played most effectively, and presently he found himself playing it. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, he became more and more absorbed in the development of his “occult” powers, and chiefly his most recent art, that of projecting himself into the past.

A few years before Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition Adlan broke with his political life entirely by faking a suicide. For some years he continued to live in Cairo, but in complete obscurity and very humble circumstances. He made his living as a water-carrier, driving his ass, laden with swollen and dripping skins, along the dusty streets. Meanwhile he continued to improve his supernormal powers, and would sometimes use them to practise psychotherapy upon his fellow-proletarians. But his chief interest was exploration of the past. At this time the knowledge of Ancient Egypt was extremely scanty, and Adlan’s passion was to gain direct experience of the great race of long ago. Hitherto his powers had only enabled him to reach a few years back, to events which occurred in an environment similar to his own. But presently he determined to bury himself in some obscure village and till the soil of the Delta, entering into the life of the primitive agriculturalists whose customs and culture had probably changed little since the days of the Pharaohs. For many decades he wielded the hoe and the shadoof; and in due course he learned to be almost as familiar with ancient Memphis as with modern Cairo.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, however, when he was still in appearance no more than middle-aged, he conceived the need to explore other cultures. For this purpose he settled in Alexandria, and took up his old profession of water-carrier. Here, with less ease and less success than in his study of Ancient Egypt, he made his entry into Ancient Greece, learning to project himself into the era of the great Library, and even into Greece itself of the age of Plato.

Not till the last quarter of the nineteenth century did Adlan ride his donkey along the strip of sand between Lake Menzaleh and the sea, and settle in Port Saïd, once more as a water-carrier. He did not practise his old profession exclusively. Sometimes he would hire out his donkey to a European passenger, ashore for the day. Then he would run barefoot behind the tall white ass, affectionately whacking its hind-quarters, and crying “Haa! Haa!” Once, when his beast, which he called “Two Lovely Black Eyes,” was stolen, he ran thirty miles in chase of it, following its footprints on the moist shore. When at last he overtook the thief, he battered him, and returned in triumph on the ass. Sometimes he would board the liners and amuse the passengers with conjuring tricks with rings and balls and restless little yellow chicks. Sometimes he would sell them silk or jewellery.

Adlan’s object in moving to Port Saïd had been to put himself into touch with contemporary European life and thought, and if possible to make some kind of contact with India and China. The Canal was by now the most cosmopolitan spot in all the world. Levantines, Greeks, Russians, Lascars, Chinese firemen, Europeans on their way to the East, Asiatics on their way to London and Paris, Moslem pilgrims on their way to Mecca — all passed through Port Saïd. Scores of races, scores of languages, scores of religions and cultures jostled one another in that most flagrantly mongrel town.

Adlan soon learned how to get the best out of his new environment. His methods were diverse, but all depended chiefly on telepathy and extreme intelligence. He constructed little by little in his own mind a very clear picture of European, and even Indian and Chinese culture. He did not, indeed, find any culture ready to hand in the minds of the beings with whom he made contact in Port Saïd, for they, residents and passengers alike, were nearly all quite philistine. But by a brilliant process of inference from the meagre and incoherent traces of thought in these migrants he was able to reconstruct the cultural matrix in which they had developed. This method he supplemented by reading books lent him by a shipping agent who had a liking for literature. He learned also to extend his telepathic reach to such an extent that, by conjuring up all that he knew of John Ruskin (let us say), he could make contact with that didactic sage in his remote home by Coniston Water.

Presently it became evident to Adlan that the really interesting period of European thought lay in the future. Could he, then, explore the future as he had explored the past? This proved a far more difficult task, and one which he could never have performed at all effectively had he not, by great good luck, discovered John, a mind of somewhat the same calibre as his own. He conceived the idea of teaching that fellow-supernormal to reach back into the past to him, so that he himself might learn about the future without the precarious and dangerous labour of projecting himself into it.

I was surprised to hear from John, that, though only a few weeks had passed since our arrival in Egypt, he had in that period spent many months with Adlan. Or perhaps I should say that his interviews with Adlan (through the mind of Harry) were distributed over a period of many months in Adlan’s life. Day after day the old man would ferry the Robinsons to their bath house, pulling steadily at his battered oars, and prattling in kitchen Arabic to Harry about ships and camels. And at the same time he would be carrying on a most earnest and subtle telepathic conversation with John about relativity or the quantum theory or the economic determination of history. John was soon convinced that he had encountered a mind which either through native superiority or though prolonged meditation was far in advance of his own, even in ability to cope with Western European culture. But Adlan’s brilliance made his way of life seem all the more perplexing. With sonic complacency John assured himself that if he were to live as long as Adlan he would not have to spend his old age toiling for a pittance from Homo sapiens. But before he parted from Adlan he began to take a humbler view of himself and a more respectful attitude to Adlan.

The old man was greatly interested in John’s biological knowledge, and its bearing upon himself and John. “Yes,” he said, “we are very different from other men. I have known it since I was eight. Indeed these creatures that surround us are scarcely men at all. But perhaps, my son, you take that difference too seriously. No, I should not say that. What I mean is that though for you this project of founding the new species is the true way, for me there is another way. And each of us must serve Allah in the way that Allah demands of him.”

It was not, John explained, that Adlan threw cold water on his great adventure. On the contrary he entered into it with sympathy and made many helpful suggestions. Indeed one of his favourite occupations, as he plied his oars, was to expound to John with prophetic enthusiasm the kind of world that “John’s New Men” would make, and how much more vital and more happy it would be than the world of Homo sapiens. This enthusiasm was undoubtedly sincere, yet, said John, there was a delicate mockery behind it. It was not wholly unlike the zeal with which grown men enter into the games of children. One day John deliberately challenged him by referring to his project as the greatest adventure that man could ever face. Adlan was resting on his oars before crossing the harbour, for an Austrian Lloyd steamer was passing into the Canal. Harry was intent upon the liner, but John induced him to turn his eyes on the old boatman. Adlan was looking gravely at the lad. “My son, my dear son,” he said, “Allah wills of his creatures two kinds of service. One is that they should toil to fulfil his active purpose in the world, and that is the service which you have most at heart. The other is that they should observe with understanding and praise with discriminate delight the excellent form of his handiwork. And this is my service, to lay at Allah’s feet such a life of praise that no man, not even you, my very dear son, can give him. He has fashioned you in such a manner that you may serve him best in action, though in action inspired always by deep-searching contemplation. But me he has fashioned such that I must serve him directly through contemplation and praise, though for this end I had first to pass through the school of action.”

John protested that the end of praise would be far better served by a world of the New Men than by a few isolated lofty spirits in a world of subhuman creatures; and that, therefore, the most urgent of all tasks was to bring such a world into being.

But Adlan replied, “It seems so to you, because you are fashioned for action, and because you are young. And indeed it is so. Spirits of my kind know well that in due season spirits of your kind will in fact create the new world. But we know also that for us there is another task. It may even be that part of my task is actually to peer so far into the future that I may see and praise those great deeds which you, or some other, are destined to perform.”

When John had reported this speech to me he said, “Then the old man broke off his communication with me, and also ceased prattling to Harry. Presently he thought to me again. His mind embraced me with grave tenderness, and he said, ‘It is time for you to leave me, you very dear and godlike child. I have seen something of the future that lies before you. And though you could bear the foreknowledge without faltering from the way of praise, it is not for me to tell you.’ Next day I met him again, but he was uncommunicative. At the end of the trip, when the Robinsons were stepping out of the boat, he took Harry in his arms and set him on the land, saying in the lingo that passed as Arabic with European residents, ‘‘L hwaga swoia, quais ketir!’ (the little master, very nice). To me he said in his thoughts, ‘To-night, or perhaps tomorrow, I will die. For I have praised the past and the present, and the near future too, with all the insight that Allah has given me. And peering into the farther future, have been able to see nothing but obscure and terrible things which it is not in me to praise. Therefore it is certain that I have fulfilled my task, and may now rest.’”

Next day another boat took Harry and his parents to the bath houses.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00