Thursday, October 6, 2011

Apocalyptic Jack London: The Scarlet Plague, a review

"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. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all 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."

Jack London's short novel The Scarlet Plague is a narrative of the last man alive who had lived prior to the apocalyptic plague that swept the earth in 2012, "Granser," who tells the young men the story of what life was like prior to the death and devastation. The 2012 setting was London's vision of 100 years later than the book originally was published.

And the three young men who take care of him--teasing Granser, feeding him lobster and oysters--hoot and disbelieve his story. Granser--the grandfather of the young men--continues to tell the story because he knows he is old and will die in the not-too-distant future.

Edwin, Hare-Lip, and Hoo-Hoo are those who will inherit the earth: king, soldier, and priest.

As a socialist during his life, Jack London wrote many books about the need and right of the common person to have the freedom to live life with dignity. See The Iron Heel, for instance, with its protagonist Ernest Everhard.

It's not clear to me what is London's angle for this story. The old man lists the virtues and wonders of the ancient technological world of 2012 (with London's estimated population of 8 billion). Granser tells of the breakdown of social structure during the plague's killing time. And London characterizes the three young men as ignorant, clever, and ambitious.

Perhaps London's message is "What goes around comes around." That seems to be the crux of the quotation that begins this review: the cosmic flux. Whatever was London's political agenda, the novel reads with humor, suspense, and pathos.

As always, in this novel, London is humanity's writer--a man who sees humanity and describes what he sees--warts, lice, and all.

I read this book in the free ebook edition:
The Scarlet Plague
Project Gutenberg


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