The Scarlet Plague: Jack London’s Post-Apocalyptic Vision

What happens to people after civilization ends has long been a standard trope in science-fiction works and has only increased in recent years, increasingly frequently by the means of a zombie apocalypse. One of the earliest novels with a legitimately post-apocalyptic setting was written by Jack London, one America’s great authors, without a lumbering undead corpse to be seen. The Scarlet Plague is a short novel originally published in 1912 set in a future where the population was decimated by an obscure disease that left only a few hundred alive.

The Scarlet Plague is story of an elderly man, quite possibly the last person left alive who had been born before the titular plague hit the earth, telling the story of how the world’s population was decimated to his three barbaric grandsons. James Howard Smith, known as “Granser” to his grandsons Edwin, Hoo-Hoo, and Hare-Lip, was a professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley before the plague. The disease killed swiftly, taking at most a few hours to kill its victims (with no survivors), and Smith was one of the lucky(?) few left alive. Language has devolved into a simplistic, guttural bastardization of the English language, and Smith and his grandsons adorn themselves with goatskins for clothing.

London’s novel is intriguing in that it simultaneously imagines two potential futures for the human race. The setting is a future where mankind is all but wiped out and mankind is returning to a more barbaric state of thought. The other is the world Smith describes to his grandsons, the world in which he watched civilization die. The latter world is set a century and a year after after London published his novel in 1912 (do the math, then imagine ominous music), and is an interesting look to the future if an strangely restrained one. Unlike most novels set in the future, the technological advances that London posits are, well, slight. His America is fairly close to his own, just with airships. Also there is an implied fascistic oligarchy where America is ruled by a council of business magnates.

This is the edition I own (and is the most recent printing).

This is the edition I own (and is the most recent printing).

The Scarlet Plague is a rather short novel, my edition is only 128 pages long with rather large type, but it provides plenty of food for thought in its limited amount of pages. London’s protagonist, Smith, seems like a nice enough guy, he’s intelligent, relatively thoughtful, able to survive into his eighties in a desolate wasteland, etc., but the overall impression of this young (and then old) intellectual gleaned from the text is not necessarily a positive one. London, well-known for his socialist views, uses Smith as a way to (somewhat subtly) display his disgust at societal stratification. Smith may be the most intelligent man left alive even before the sixty year gap occurs (granted, that is not saying much given who we see), but his mindset is thoroughly entrenched in the society he lived in.

In Smith’s lengthy story to his grandchildren, there is a scene describing his first meeting with other survivors after a few years of wandering alone. There is the chauffeur (taking his name from his previous profession) and his wife. His wife was formerly at the crux of society, married to one of the magnates, the daughter of another, she was the height of breeding in that hopefully-never-to-be America. Before everyone died, that is. In this post-apocalyptic world she is married to Chaffeur, a brutish, cruel, drunken man using the new world order to vent his frustrations of the past on his newly humbled wife. He beats her. He rapes her. He laughs at both of these things. Smith, upon realizing what he is, and who she was and what he does to her is disgusted. What disgusts him more, however, is that a woman of such high-breeding has been reduced to doing menial tasks for herself. Smith, a university intellectual, had been trained enough by his society to think that physical abuse is less demeaning for a wealthy woman than taking care of herself. And that is truly frightening.

Look at all of those papers, he must be important (hint: it's Jack London).

Look at all of those papers, he must be important (hint: it’s Jack London).

The Scarlet Plague reads, in several ways, as two separate works overlapping each other. The story set in the post-apocalyptic world seem like a treatise likening civilization to a phoenix: for civilization to be reborn, it must burn itself out first. London’s choice of an intellectual protagonist for this tale is intriguing given his (London’s) profession. Smith, for all his good intentions, is essentially useless. Smith is there to watch society regress to the point where it must begin anew. For all his warnings and advice regarding things as varied as witch-doctors, gun-powder, and the written word, his grandsons shrug it off and dismiss it as the ramblings of an old fool. In the story set as humanity is just starting to burn itself out, Smith isn’t very useful either. He reflects that he isn’t a fighter, a builder, a chemist or a physicist, but a thinker. London seems to take the view that intellectual thought and pursuits become irrelevant when society has crumbled when being practical becomes the key. Chauffeur, for example, is a brute, but a useful brute: he can smelt iron, therefore he ends up in a position of power (there is a Chauffeur tribe).

The duality in the novel may make The Scarlet Plague a bit disjointed, but the short-length dampens any major impact that it would have on the works impact and entertainment value. London’s short novel is a quick and enjoyable read, I was able to read it in one sitting and am quite glad I did. As something of a science-fiction connoisseur (wow is that pretentious…and sarcastic, completely sarcastic) The Scarlet Plague is an interesting read largely because of the era in which it was released. The early twentieth century is regarded as something of a dark age for science-fiction, being sandwiched between H.G. Wells and his peers, and the golden age during the middle of the century. The Scarlet Plague is a work that was well ahead of its time in terms of subject matter (though London’s The Iron Heel fit right in with all of the dystopian novels released around that time). If I were to pick a work most similar to The Scarlet Plague it would be, in fact, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road from 2006, published almost a century after (and also worth reading).

An intriguing, if minor, work, The Scarlet Plague is an interesting footnote in the histories of both the bibliography of Jack London and the genre of science-fiction. In addition, it is a clear precursor to the post-apocalyptic genre that has become increasingly prevalent more recent fiction (but lacking zombies or nuclear war). London’s layering of two possible futures also separates this work from many others in the field and  is worth setting aside a couple of hours to read.

The Scarlet Plague is available for (legal) free download at Project Gutenberg (yay public domain!).

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