Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
In the year 2073, a feeble old man squats beside a campfire and imparts to his grandsons the oral history of their ancestors. They know him only as “Granser,” but in 2013 he was James Howard Smith, professor of literature at the University of California. That was the year the scarlet death swept through the world, nearly wiping humanity off the face of the planet. Only a few survivors remained to eke out a primitive existence and begin the construction of a new civilization.
Though best known for his wilderness adventure stories, Jack London was also one of America’s first great science fiction writers. The future of The Scarlet Plague bears some resemblance to the dystopian vision of London’s great novel The Iron Heel, a work far superior to this one. In both books, America is subjected to the iron rule of an oligarchy of wealthy capitalists. In The Scarlet Plague, disease is the great leveler of class. After the red death wipes away human civilization, what remains is a primeval world where strength triumphs over wealth, brutality over culture, and ignorance over education.
This is a rather short novel; it could have been much more compelling had it been fleshed out a little more. As it stands, the two narratives (2013 and 2073) compete with each other for space so that neither is fully developed. Despite touching on issues of class, the main purpose of The Scarlet Plague is entertainment, not education. Though it’s definitely not what you would call feel-good entertainment, it has the feeling of a modern-day post-apocalyptic sci-fi B-movie. There are evil characters that act in their self-interest, and noble characters that act for the good of humanity. Tearful goodbyes are said to perishing loved ones, and harsh conditions bring love to strange bedfellows. Regrettably, it’s impossible for a 21st century audience who has developed an immunity to such cinematic conventions to fully appreciate how truly shocking and ground breaking this novel must have been to the original audience of 1912. If you enjoy London’s sci-fi writings you’ll find much to like in The Scarlet Plague, but don’t read it unless you’ve already read The Iron Heel.
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