Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

JACK LONDON – The Scarlet Plague. HiLo Books, US, softcover, 2012. (The Radium Age Science Fiction Series 1.) Introduction by Matthew Battles. Originally published in London Magazine in 1912. This edition follows the text of the hardcover edition published by The Macmillan Company, also 1912.

JACK LONDON The Scarlet Plague

   Although perhaps best known for his 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild and his 1908 version of the short story, “To Build a Fire,” San Francisco native Jack London also wrote proto-science fiction and dystopian literature. London’s 1912 novella The Scarlet Plague, reprinted in paperback in 2012 — the first in HiLo Books’ The Radium Age Science Fiction Series—remains a lesser known, but still culturally significant, work of early science fiction.

   Set in the scenic Bay Area in 2073, The Scarlet Plague is best categorized a work of post-apocalyptic literature. Sixty years prior, a plague of unknown origin wiped out most of the population. Survivors are scant. Civilization has fallen. What’s left of mankind has been reduced to what London depicts as a state of barbarism and savagery.

   There is one man, however, who remembers — with great sadness it should be noted — the era before civilization’s fall. Enter Professor James Howard Smith, a professor of English literature at the University of California-Berkeley. The novella centers around the elderly Smith (known simply as “Granser”) recounting the emergence of the scarlet plague and its destructive impact on humanity. He tells his primitive grandsons what life was like before the plague and how the post-apocalyptic tribal society in which they now live was formed.

   London’s vision of civilization’s decline, illuminated by Granser’s story, is both intriguing and one that has been recast in myriad forms by different authors. Think Stephen King in The Stand. (Also, substitute zombies for the plague and the fundamentals of the story could still work.)

   That isn’t to say that London’s novella is simply an adventure or proto-zombie story. There is a definite philosophical meaning to be found within the work. As Matthew Battles aptly notes in his Introduction, London’s work resounds with echoes of the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s cyclical interpretation of History. Toward the end, Granser tells his grandsons that eventually, civilization will be reborn, but that it too shall fall.

   Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousands 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 the eternal types — the priest, the soldier, and the king. [Page 126]

   Strong stuff. It’s unfortunate, then, that London chose the weak narrative device of a character telling a tale to semi-eager listeners. Also, one wishes London showed why Granser was immune to the plague or at least potentially hinted at an explanation. But perhaps London’s point was that History’s path is an incredibly random one.

   The Scarlet Plague remains a worthwhile, albeit quick, read. That said, it’s difficult to imagine that a publisher would consider publishing such a work today. Nevertheless, the novella provides the contemporary reader with a greater understanding of London’s worldview and how he envisioned the class system in the United States might look in 2013.

   In conclusion, The Scarlet Plague is a chilling reminder that all that mankind has accomplished in the name of technology could one day disappear. A hundred years have elapsed since London’s work was published. Science fiction has not yet tired of contemplating civilization’s fall and asking the question: what then? Maybe it never will.