The tricky thing about supermen is how do you
depict someone who is your mental and (allegedly) moral superior?
The typical way falls back on talking about immature supermen, so you
don't have to deal with the full-blown version. The other is to
rely on telepathy and similar powers, which are really just magic, but
can act as a convenient stand-in for intellectual prowess. The
superior morality, on the other hand, is nearly impossible, unless
you're relating the life of a saint, and so descriptions of the
moral superman are invariably found wanting.
Such is the case with Odd John, the title character
from Olaf Stapledon's 1936 novel, one of literature's more
successful attempts to depict a superman. John is a young
Homo Superior from the north of England in the 1930s with
strange eyes and a spidery build who matures so slowly that at the age
of twenty three he looks fourteen. Naturally, he is a mental
giant who looks upon our species as little better than dogs and at one
point in the book he considers conquering the world, but he rejects
this because even though he could bring peace and happiness to
mankind, it would ultimately be a waste of his time, which is better
spent setting up a colony of fellow supermen.
Over all, John comes across as a sort of socialist
version of the Nietzschean ideal with a couple of the rougher edges
rubbed off. In other words, human morality has no call on him,
but he occasionally feels mild guilt. This is supposed to
indicate his superior moral plane, but he comes across more as an odious, amoral
little tick. Stapledon assumes that human superiority over
lesser animals is quantitative rather than qualitative. In other
words, we enjoy our position over the animals because we have more of
some quantity called intelligence rather than some unique quality; be
it sentience, self-awareness, or an immortal soul.
Or to be blunt about it, morality is something
shared between the strong and denied to the weak.
Because of this, Stapledon's supermen are allowed
to rob from, seduce, exploit, manipulate, dispossess, and even murder "lesser" people when
they get in the way of the supermen's plans due to the higher moral
need to advance the interests of the master race. This sort of
an argument has an unfortunate track record and Stapledon could just
get away with this in the '30s. In less than ten years, however,
a certain group of would-be supermen put such ideas into practice and
the world is still trying to wash the taste out of its mouth.