Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

February 18, 2021

Another book about a plague wiping out humanity, one to add to many that I’ve already read. This is more of a novella than a novel, and shows some of the limitations of London’s writing, I think.

Set in 2073, it’s sixty years after the Scarlet Plague (also known as the Red Death) virtually eliminated the human race. The last man alive to remember it is wandering the territory of the old United States with three of his young grandsons; they are alternately quite affectionate towards the old man, then tease and play tricks on him, and are also irritated and confused by the way he speaks. This last point was one of the more interesting ideas, for the old man – in his previous existence a professor of English Literature – has a wide and varied vocabulary which contains many words the younger ones have no need for or understanding of, their entire post-apocalyptic world being far simpler than his used to be. And they have skills which he has not.

They are, however, interested in his stories of the old world and its wonders and marvels, and also how the change came about, which is the frame for the story, of course. A plague broke out; it caused a rapid death once the main symptom, a reddening of the complexion, was visible – one might last a couple of hours. Dead bodies decomposed very rapidly, aiding the spread of the germs, and it seems clear one could carry and pass on the disease before symptoms become evident. Obviously civilisation broke down very rapidly indeed in such circumstances. London was a socialist, and so he briefly has the oppressed of the world wreaking some revenge on their former masters, until they too succumb. The educated and well-off try to segregate themselves in order to survive, to no avail. It is also clear that at the time of the outbreak of the plague, the US was no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy or plutocracy.

Few survive, but enough to allow a simple tribal existence to emerge; there are perhaps a few hundred people in the whole of the former western US; nothing is known of the rest of the world. The old man is concerned for the preservation of knowledge and has buried a selection of books he thinks may be useful, but literacy has already died out… London is not very subtle; once the old man is in the flow of his narrative, the young boys fade out, no longer interrupting or mocking him.

Humanity wiped out by a plague is done far more interestingly by Mary Shelley in The Last Man, and by George Stewart in Earth Abides; it did strike me that Stewart may well have been inspired by London’s tale to write his far better novel…

The novella is available to download free from Project Gutenberg; an audiobook is available at librivox.org.

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