Monday, September 3, 2012

Before Adam by Jack London

An australopithecine delight
Before Adam is a science fiction novel by Jack London, first published in 1907. It is based around Darwin’s theory of evolution and the idea of racial memory. The narrator is a self-described “freak of nature” who has the ability to consciously experience the ancestral memories of a distant progenitor. By day he’s a typical San Francisco gentleman living in the early twentieth century. By night, however, in his dreams, he becomes this prehistoric ancestor, whom he refers to as Big-Tooth. This bygone ancestor was an evolutionary link between ape and man, between tree dweller and ground dweller, who inhabited a primeval wilderness at times idyllic, at times harsh. Big-Tooth is a member of the Cave People, also known amongst themselves simply as the Folk. These creatures are more evolutionarily advanced than their neighbors, the simian Tree People, yet not as advanced as the Fire People, a more human-like species that wears animal skins, builds fires, and hunts with bow and arrow. Through the memories of Big-Tooth, the reader is introduced to other members of the Folk, including his best friend Lop-Ear, his nemesis Red-Eye, and the love of his life, the Swift One. These australopithecine humanoids spend most of their time gathering food and engaging in social play. On rare occasions they may make a ground-breaking discovery like gourds can be used to carry things or logs can be used to float down a river. Big-Tooth and his companions live in a dangerous world, however, and they must be ever vigilant against attacks by saber-toothed tigers, giant snakes, the mysterious Fire People, or each other.

London was fascinated by evolution, and his zealous enthusiasm for the subject really shines through in this novel which must have been a labor of love for him. He constructs a detailed, naturalistic recreation of the daily lives of these early hominids, based upon the latest science of his time, which doesn’t seem to be too far off from what we now know a century later. London also manages to create distinct, memorable characters of these creatures, each with an individual personality, much as he had done previously with dogs in his Klondike novels. From the simple lives of these apemen London crafts an exciting and absorbing story loaded with drama and adventure. The commentary of the modern narrator also adds an interesting perspective to the book, as he uses biological science and evolutionary theory to speculate as to the reason for his bizarre ability to recall these prehistoric memories.

The world of Before Adam is founded on a mixture of sound science and sci-fi speculation. There’s nothing utterly profound about this novel, but it does provide a lively and enjoyable reading experience. The eighteen short chapters breeze by in a flash, and the ending comes all too soon. One really becomes engaged in the simple joys, fears, and loves of these subhuman characters. This novel is a shining example of how London used his prodigious skills as a writer and his vivid, audacious imagination to transcend the typical boundaries of the adventure fiction genre and create original, compelling work that stands the test of time.

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