The Scarlet Plague by Jack London is one of those futuristic stories whose expiration date has passed. Sure, it takes place in the 2070s, but the plague that sets the scene for this particular post-apocalyptic scenario hits in 2013. Last year, as of this writing. When it happens, I giggle. Giggling isn’t a great way to start off reading a story meant to be scary and serious. A note to authors: Beware the date! It may come back to bite you in the ass. Of course, at that point, your work will have become a classic, so fuck it let’s drink some champagne.
Ahem. Where was I?
The story in The Scarlet Plague is simple and quite a bit shorter than I had expected. Here I had always thought The Scarlet Plague was a novel, and there it was, 45 pages on my telephone, written in 1910, first published in The London Magazine in 1912. We enter the story in the 2070s as an old man and his grandson walk along overgrown railway tracks in California. They meet some friends. We hear the story of the Scarlet Plague from the old man (people turn red, go numb, then die, sometimes in 15 minutes). The new generation can barely understand what the frack he’s talking about. They return to tending their goats. The end.
And did I like it? I’m not sure. It wasn’t particularly interesting, as far as these things go, the ideas not particularly new—but, hey, context. The Scarlet Plague is among the first post-apocalyptic (PA) stories ever published (though at least a dozen came before it, and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was published almost 100 years before, in 1826), and it has since become a well-sowed genre. I, having a mild (ok, large and all-encompassing) obsession with this genre, have read quite a bit of PA lit. So even though The Scarlet Plague isn’t showing me anything new, it was saying something new(ish) when it was published. Jack London’s reputation shouldn’t suffer because of the timing of his book’s entrance into my life. It was a stepping stone for many stories that came after it, and for that I am glad. But also, for that, I am not enamored. And hey, strong prose throughout, huzzah.
The civilized versus the primitive
Primitive equals bad, savages are horrid cruel people, mankind will always “revert” to this state without the force of civilization, blah blah blah. I am tired of this portrayal of the “primitive,” tired of hearing it used as a synonym for “lesser,” “violent,” “stupid,” and “cruel.” James Howard Smith, the main character, main narrator, and a former professor of English literature, rides these stereotypes into the ground. It was annoying.
However, London created a story nuanced enough to include (within the words of James Howard himself) information that would make the reader think twice about whether this was an appropriate way to look at and divide the world, about whether civilization was really so great:
Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food.
That sounds about right. Then, now, probably another hundred years in the future.
Through James Howard’s narration and the comments of the kids listening, we are made to look at both sides of this issue, as well as several others. Academics couldn’t do anything besides talk, say the kids, what a bunch of useless dolts. But as James tells us, it was a lot of fun and he always had wonderful food, soft clothes, and clean hands.
“What is education?” Edwin asked.
“Calling red scarlet,” Hare-Lip sneered.
That bit made me chortle. I have a very love-hate relationship with academia. By the time I finished my BA I was ready to burn down the ivory tower and farm peanuts and never read or write another word ever ever ever again. At the same time, I love reading and writing, and academia is a damn good place to do both. I could sympathize with both sides, oh yes.
Meanwhile, our narrator (James) has some strange things to say about class, about how poor people are a monster created by the rich, a monster that destroyed them and, at last, themselves. So the poor are just monsters? With no agency? No intelligence? Pawns of the rich? Yeah, this guy was an asshat intellectual alright.
That idea we can chalk up to James Howard’s voice, but it is the outside narrator who keeps informing the reader that he is translating all this “uncouth” language that these dirty, dirty savages now speak (how much would language change in just 60 years? Another interesting question I found myself asking while reading this). Is that voice London’s? I can’t say for sure, but I did wish he had woven as much nuance into the topic of language development post-plague as he did into the loss of academia and civilization.
The nuance is really what makes The Scarlet Plague worth reading, and the thesis of the story in regards to civilization and its cycles of climax and fall was interesting and complex. This quote about sums it up:
The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state.
Two out of five milking goats.
Where I got it: The Gutenberg Project (Free ebook! Go download that shit if you can use epubs or Kindle files!)