24. ‘Sirius’ by Olaf Stapledon

I was talking to a friend recently about my newly discovered love of sci-fi, and a few days later he handed over Sirius by Olaf Stapledon and said I should see what I think. I’d never heard of Stapledon before, but I’ve found out since that he was quite prolific from the 1930s to the 1950s, when he died, and Sirius was his seventh novel.

sirius olaf stapledon

Sirius is part-Alsatian, part-Collie and the creation of Thomas Trelone, a scientist obsessed with breeding animals of superior intelligence. In Sirius, Trelone has managed to make a dog with a longer than normal lifespan and near-human intelligence, whom he raises alongside his young daughter, Plaxy, until the two become inseparable. Sirius is able to talk (although he is only understood by the people closest to him), write (with the aid of a special glove) and contemplate his own existence. He is also able to give insights into the nature of humanity, as an outside observer.

“In making me you made something that sees man from clean outside man, and can tell him what he looks like.”

Sirius was published in 1944, and it certainly has an old-fashioned style. The language is often quite formal, and the whole book is narrated by a character several stages removed from our protagonist, Sirius. Richard is the lover (now husband) of Plaxy, Sirius’ sort-of-sister, and he is narrating everything secondhand, from what he has heard from Plaxy or, very occasionally, from Sirius himself. Of course, this raises certain questions about the reliability of his narration: for most of Sirius’ life Richard was not around, and he admits to filling in details by using his imagination. He also has a vested interest in portraying Sirius favourably because of his connection to Plaxy. In the end, this potential unreliability reflects the true ‘unknowability’ of Sirius.

This whole novel is something of a philosophical experiment. Trelone is really only interested in the physical creation of his intelligent animals, and at one point the narrator tells us that the psychological side of things interests him far less. But of course, what is going on in Sirius’ head is the most fascinating part, and so the book takes on the abandoned part of Trelone’s experiment and lets us delve into the depths of Sirius’ mind.

Stapledon touches upon some really intriguing ideas in this book. There’s the question of human superiority, in terms of intelligence, handiness and philosophy, but also human darkness, as Sirius is exposed to cruelty, violence and war. At times Sirius ponders religion and ultimately decides that his purpose in life is to be a creature of ‘spirit’, and he also frequently considers love, particularly his deep and unbreakable bond with Plaxy. On top of this, there’s the difficulty of Sirius’ dual nature: on the one hand his human-like desire for knowledge, and on the other his more animalistic urges to run wild and kill. But at the heart of it all is Sirius’ struggle with being not-quite-human and not-quite-dog. He is stuck between two worlds, neither of which can accept him, and at times he rails against Trelone, his creator, for putting him here: “Why did you make me without making a world for me to live in?”

I found this book really interesting. Although it is quite old-fashioned in style and sometimes seems more like a vehicle for a philosophical or political treatise than a story, if you want your mind bent and your thoughts well and truly provoked, Sirius is excellent.

“We are bound to hurt one another so much, again and again, we are so terribly different.”

“Yes,” he said. “But the more different, the more lovely the loving.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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