Scarlet Plague, The by London, Jack, 1912

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Other than London's three SF novels, Before Adam (1906), The Iron Heel (1907), and Star Rover (1915), this appears to me to be London's only other long genre work. Its a reminiscing piece, told from the perspective of perhaps the oldest man in the world. The typical London class struggle imagery is present throughout this book, but really is not in your face, the way I think London best liked it, until the very end. Two out of five stars.

This is an end of the world book. London kills just about the entire population of the world with a mysterious disease called "The Scarlet Death." The story is told by an old man in about the year 2073, roughly 60 years after the plague did its thing. Since virtually nothing remains of the world we built, and I found the setting of Stewart's Earth Abides very reminiscent of this book, particularly the end of Earth Abides as the Golden Gate Bridge began to fall into the San Francisco Bay. But then I remembered that when this story was written in 1912 not only was the Golden Gate Bridge 25 years away, but the very highway system it connected, US 101/Route 1 was still 14 years away from even being started. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and all the other cities described in this story were mere villages, probably with piles of clam shells on the outskirts like the former native villages.

The old man, Smith, tells his young grandchildren the story of the plague. The Scarlet Death had a 100% mortality rate, and the disease struck all but a few dozen people in Northern California. Nobody knew what happened in other parts of the world. Once the plague broke out in New York City and Chicago in one day, it was learned that authorities in England had been dealing with it quietly for two weeks. Plague victims would be dead within an hour of the onset of symptoms. Once dead, the victims body decayed right before one's eyes, spreading the plague quite quickly.

As the disease spread most of the working classes went on a rampage, raping, killing and burning everyone and everything they could catch.

In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us. And they destroyed themselves as well.

Told in Smith's elite-sounding voice, it was easy to see why the workers rioted, but I was slightly confused. London really was not up to the task of divorcing Smith's voice of his own, even though the sentiments voiced by Smith are obviously antithetical to just about every social position London ever took. In other words I can see how a novice London reader would read right over that story element and mistake it as a plot contrivance, and not a social statement.

Several years after the plague passed Smith found two other survivors. A brutal chauffeur had survived and had taken as a wife the widow of the richest man in the nation, and reduced her to a scullery slave. "Chauffeur," the only name he is given is full of pride and anger, and regularly beat and raped his wife, demeaning her in apparent retaliation for a lifetime of his own servitude. I think that this story really is about the proletariat taking advantage of a system whose power structures have equalized with the passage of certain men from the Earth, just as the environment has equalized with the passage of mankind. And in that sense London's point may have been that the class struggle, even in the face of the downfall of civilization, will drag us down even further.

But whatever it is London was really interested in saying, the message is certainly not as strong as in his other socialism-themed SF. The only really interesting thing about this book, other than its similarity to Earth Abides, is the way that London described the fall of civilization. London had a great sense for heroism, as well as the flash-bang that can really set genre works apart. His characters are brave if uncivilized, and within their own social classes they try to do the right thing. Smith himself never really loses this attribute, and seems most concerned with educating the boys so that civilization will go on. Stewart may have realized the futility of this is a much more interesting way, but that notion is not lost on London either. As an early disaster novel, this book was pretty important. In addition to Stewart I see shades of this story in The Stand, On the Beach, The Last Ship, and Alas Babylon and many others. Stewart's work may be closest to it thematically (as well as geographically), and this was not the first novel of its type, but I think it was important in its day. However, pick this one up only if it comes in the anthology with the rest of his short SF, or if you are a scholar. Two out of five stars.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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