Science Fiction of Jack London, The by London, Jack, 1901
Although most people do not think of Jack London as a science fiction writer, he in fact did pen a body of genre work. None of what he wrote was particularly strong, but he did do three important things for the genre. First, he was one of the first American novelists to make a living exclusively from writing. This may not sound like much, but most scholars would probably agree with me that those writers who have the luxury of writing full time not only produce better quality work, but more of it in their lifetimes. This idea is especially important in SF circles as our genre depends not only on scientific and philosophical discovery, but rests heavily on the backs of authors of the past in a way, I think, that no other genre does. That is to say, the stronger the present, the stronger the future.
Second, London made a pretty good living from selling to the pulps, and along with other important authors of his day, contributed greatly to their early success. It is true that the first all-SF magazine did not hit the stands until 1926, ten years after London's death, but by then the SF pulp business was thriving. If not for the pulps the genre would certainly be a hallow shell of what it is today, as genre hardback production did not really get started at all until after 1950, with most of the longer works published before that date consisting of fix-ups or anthologies of pulp work. Third, London contributed a great deal to Utopic/Dystopic literature, as well as laid some of the groundwork that later matured into Huxley, Orwell and Golding. Certainly London's predecessors, contemporaries and successors contributed much to that subgenre as well, but London's focus was primarily on revolutionary themes, which makes him stand out in the early body of literature. This book presents almost the entire body of London's genre work, with three exceptions. In it you will find everything except for three novels. They are Before Adam (1906), and Star Rover (1915), both evolutionary Darwinism tales, and The Iron Heel (1907) a revolutionary socialism tale. Reviews of those last three works are forthcoming.
As Richard Powers notes correctly in the introduction to this volume, most of London's SF can be divided into two groups. On one hand there are the tales that are concerned with evolutionary speculation and racial conflict, and on the other those that depict some aspect of revolutionary socialism. Powers did however miss London's tertiary (and much weaker) focus on the environment. In a large number of his stories, especially where revolution of some sort has eliminated large swaths of the population, London seems to revel in the recuperative abilities of the ecology, and even once or twice puts it forward as a reason for having the revolution in the first place. London put some of his most radical thinking into his genre work, though notions and shades of socialism depicted mostly though individualism and self sufficiency turn up in most of his non-genre works. I personally don't really like any of his evolutionary tales, but that is a personal matter of taste. To me they reek of social racism and are quite distasteful. As a window to the past they may be quite useful, but I personally do not see much value in them otherwise. However the socialist stories are another matter entirely. Most of those stories are SF in the way that Palahniuk's Fight Club is SF: They posit a proletariat revolution that either brings ruin or a utopia, though in one story (Goliah, which I think is somewhat autobiographical) it is the upper echelons that bring about the revolution on behalf of exploited workers, and in another (The Dream of Debs) a more moderate Marxian approach is used to propose more of a balance between workers and capitalists.
A story-by-story review is presented here for you. London has some strong stuff, some weak stuff, and some stuff that is just outright laughable. Three out of five stars, though there are some stories here I will likely never consider again.
A Relic of the Pliocene (1901): A settler in far northern Canada is met by a traveler who the settler takes for a novice in the wilds. The traveler then tells a story of being attacked by the last of the wholly mammoths in Sitka, Alaska. His gun destroyed in the attack the traveler successfully traps the pachyderm in a small canyon with a boulder dropped from a height, and wears the beast down gradually after months of a brutal hunt. A good story but weak on the evolutionary themes that seem important to London. More of an adventure tale.
The Minions of Midas (1901): A very rich Chicago businessman receives a letter from a terrorist group called the Minions of Midas who demand payment of $20M by a certain date or an innocent person will be selected at random and murdered. Many people of means get these letters, and are told that the Minions of Midas is a proletariat intelligentsia that wishes to fund ever larger projects. All of the letters are ignored, and all of the intended victims are murdered. Months go by and letters are sent more and more frequently, and more and more unwitting innocents are murdered. The rich Chicago business man dies as the caper progresses. Out of a tremendous guilt for the innocent bloodshed that he could have ended, he leaves all of his assets to his business partner as he had been told that should he die the M of M would begin an extortion program against his family heirs. As a result the assets of the business men pass each time the holder passes away, sometimes from suicide, to a non-family beneficiary. A smartly written and exciting piece that shines a light on the extent to which property ownership causes violence, the extent to which the rich will go to preserve their respective financial positions, and the extent to which social radicals will go to redistribute wealth fairly. It also could have gone into the extent to which that other men will go to increase their own worth, but the M of M was never examined that closely, and the only stated goal of the extortion was to pay for expensive programs in the larger class struggle.
The Shadow and the Flash (1903) Poorly written story about a trio of boys, two of whom compete in ever increasingly insane ways for whatever it is one boy or the other wants. After college Paul decides to perfect the process for invisibility by inventing a "perfectly black" paint. Lloyd, the other boy, seeing that Paul cannot get around casting shadows attempts to achieve a way to make a physical body transparent. In the end they both perfect their methods and then kill each other. Messy science, poor writing, a confusing plot and dull characters make this one to miss.
A Curious Fragment (1908): Dystopic tale of industrial servitude tempered with familial payment of blood karma. Historians a few thousand years in the future are examining documents of a industrial oligarchy that sprung from the rampant and uncontrolled capitalism of our era, 500 years in their past. During the oligarchy the central government outlawed education for the workers and hired a group of minstrels to wander the nation and spread the approved news. During their research the historians found a document of an illegal story that some of the bards spread before the government caught on and quashed it. In the story the descendants of a slave who worked his way up to a position as slave master by reporting and brutalizing his fellow slaves eventually came to own a loom that was run by slave labor. The overseers of the slaves that worked the loom were pilfering from a fund set up by the master to pay for the needs of slaves too injured to work so the slaves find one of their own who knows how to write and sent him to the master for help. This one was slightly depressing and really went nowhere in the end.
Goliah (1908): A wealthy businessman in San Francisco receives a letter from a crank calling himself Goliah ordering him and 9 other capitalists to report on a certain date to the harbor and board a ship for Goliah's island. Anyone who does not report will be killed. Only the one business man shows and the rest are killed by means unknown. After this same fact pattern is repeated with 10 important American politicians Goliah gets the full attention of the government, which sent the navy to the island. Goliah destroyed the ships with some unknown technology without a shot being fired. Thereafter Goliah destroyed the navy of Japan and killed the army commanders of France and Germany. After doing that the American government basically conceded victory to him. Goliah then orders the closing of all businesses and the complete divestiture of all private property in the nation. He then stands back and lets the government find jobs and roles for everyone to fulfill, which results in a worker's paradise where no employers exist and nobody takes economic advantage of the labor of another. The amount of work an individual must do to survive gradually gets lesser and lesser, and people have more time to engage in personal pursuits. Goliah eventually introduces a machine that generates infinite power from harmless radioactives, and people pretty much decide to stop working altogether. This is an interesting tale that shows the light at the end of the tunnel after a massive social revolution, but unfortunately the literary aspects of the tale do not match up with the idealism. London has really given us a highly improbable tale, and more importantly he has completely failed to explain how any of his results were achieved save to have Goliah say "I started the ball rolling, and you took care of the rest." He also completely ignores the notion that men forced into a situation not of their choosing tend to react in a bellicose manner. I also think that this tale is somewhat autobiographical in that Goliah is a smaller man with great ideas about proletariat reform who came into money later in his life and who laid the ground work for his revolution on the backs of slaves whom he later freed. I note that London was partly raised by an ex-slave who became a mother figure for him, and it is rumored that London himself was a slaver for a brief period in his early life in the South Pacific. His current biographers dispute this charge, though.
The Dream of Debs (1909): Eugene V. Debs greatest dream is realized when workers across the nation plan for and enter into a general strike. Everything shuts down, including electricity production. The workers say that they will remain on strike until management has suffered as much as they have, and all their demands for fair compensation and others are met. The workers have all stocked in months and months of supplies, and remain perfectly peaceful during the strike. The strike lasts for months and before it is done the rich are reduced to beggars and an all out civil war has started, with the unions raising their own well-provisioned and disciplined army. While this story is more sympathetic to the worker's plight it in graphic detail depicts a ruined nation. Since the ruination is caused by class warfare, it tacitly presents an argument for measured resistance and negotiation.
The Unparalleled Invasion (1910): After a successful campaign in Russia in 1904 Japan moved south to dominate China. After westernizing that nation China "woke up." Following the expulsion of Japanese emissaries, then the decimation of Japan's offensive capabilities, China becomes a major economic power that starts to exert its commercial influences and send out millions of settlers. By 1976, when this story took place, nothing at all could be done to do anything about China's expansion, until an American comes up with a plan to surround China by land and sea, then release genetically modified plagues, followed by extermination squads to clean up any survivors. London takes a laughable attempt at getting around the rabid Anti-Chinese sentiment by noting that the other races moved in to China's territory after all 1 billion of them had been successfully exterminated then mingled quite well. One of my two least favorite, not for the writing, but for the sentiment.
When the World was Young (1910): A burglar who is in the woods on his way to a mansion to rob comes across a caucasian savage that can run down coyotes. He goes the next day to warn the owner, and sees a resemblance. The owner has two personalities, both of which are aware of one another. By day he is a successful businessman. By night, literally,an early Teuton wild man whose soul has been trapped in time in the present. After a fight with an escaped carnival grizzly he sees the face of the businessman's love and the connection to the Teuton is broken. This one was very physical, and just OK.
The Strength of the Strong (1911): A ridiculously lame story about how a bunch of wife-raping savages learn that they can better stave off attacks from a group of cannibals by fighting together and assisting each other in defense when attacked. Its basically about how law developed through communities punishing individual bullies for causing harm. One step up from "Me, Ug! You Woman!" Social Darwinism at its silliest.
The Scarlet Plague (1912): An ancient man reminisces about the fall of civilization sixty years after a mysterious plague killed virtually everyone in 2013. This is almost a full length novel, so Ill review it elsewhere.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell