The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Published in 1912, Jack London – of Call of the Wild & White Fang fame – penned this dystopian novella that is today in the company of a plethora of similar stories in the Biological Apocalypse sub-genre of science fiction. This work, although unavoidably dated in some aspects, is quite good, and amazingly in the realm of ‘possible’ still today.
What I found most enthralling was the historical dates involved. The main character is a man of 87 years. He is recalling the time of the Scarlet Plague that had taken place some 60 years before. That year, for him, was 2013, so the story takes place in the year 2073. That is exactly 100 years after I was born. I write this review in 2016, 104 years after Jack London wrote the story, which for him was set 100 years in the future. Literary Inception! Or is it Literary Temporal Paradox?
With all that juggling of time and date, I find I want to review, not so much the story itself, but the ‘guesses’ that were made. So, what did London get right, and what did he get wrong with his futuristic dystopian tale?
Well, his understanding of disease is quite good. His version of a plague is one with a medium length incubation with sudden onset of symptoms (the victims skin turns scarlet red) followed by astonishingly rapid death due to cardio paralysis (starting at the feet and moving upward). It’s possible. It’s similar to the rapid onset disease vector shown in the movie 28 Days Later, but without the crazy rage thing. Next, he gets fairly close to the correct population figures for the world at that time. I think it was 5 billion in his future 2013. In reality, it turned out to be more like 7.1 billion.
Some of the things he got wrong are things that about the state of culture in his time that he could not conceive of changing.
One was the rapid growth of technology. He could not see the modern cities of today, nor the ubiquitous use of autos, etc. His future is early 20th century San Francisco, with a mixture of horses, carts and the beginning of automobiles being used by the affluent of society.
The second is the culture change. He is very accepting of the class distinctions that were prevalent in the era he lived. Condescension toward the ‘lower class’ servants (what we call blue collar today) was considered normal, and thus it is a focus for the change of fate of some of the plagues survivors. I’m sure this would have been quite a shock to his readers in 1912. I just shook my head at the thought of the ‘uppity’ snobs that he obviously admires.
That brings us to another item that he does not have the ability to see; literacy rates. Today, almost everyone in the United States is literate (less than 1% adult illiteracy – I found this stat on the internet, so it must be true!). Whereas, in 1910 it was around 8%. So, 1 in 12 people couldn’t read in his day. This detail of societal change is a major contributor to a shift away form the culture of class segregation that is a major plot point in this work.
Lastly, no one could have predicted what we have today in the way of electronics. The main character mentions saving books in a cave to help society one day rebuild. He was a literature professor in a university, but his grandsons are illiterate. Well, I don’t believe that people would let their children and grand-children be completely uneducated and barbaric, even if society crumbled. Someone would teach them how to read, and what words meant, and how to count! The level of culture loss shown in this story is too much for me to accept.
Still, my overall take of this tale is good, and London is a wordsmith of exceptional caliber. This is a great story to pass the time, and is from a very unique perspective. I give it 4 stars and call it an excellent read.
And best of all, you can get it for free at Amazon!