Wednesday, August 31, 2011
book review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
Apart from the references to airships which gives away the limits of London's knowledge of just how far technology could go this book could be an apocalyptic vision of any future.
The idea is of a plague spreading across the globe taking man back to a primitive society where the survivors are divided into a hierarchy based on muscle rather than class. There are hardly any people left from the time of the plague but one of the few tells his story to a trio of boys dressed in cave men like skins. His tale charts the first signs of the disease which struck down its victims and killed them in hours. A scarlet appearance was followed by numbness of the feet then up through the body until it reached the heart and killed its victim.
There was no way to fight the spread of the disease because those trying to fight it were killed before they could come up with an antidote. As society fell apart the cities burned and brute force took over. Those that did survive did so because of luck, their genetic make-up, rather than because of modern medicine.
As the narrator retells his story you get the feeling of a world imploding and the impact of the destruction of cities and learned people is to drag things back to a primitive state where language and books are in danger of being forgotten.
Considering the age it was written this is the work of a powerful imagination which was working right at the boundary of what London thought would sound plausible. He pulls it off in the main although of course now the idea of airships makes it all seem a bit Phileas Fogg.
But as an illustration of how science fiction can make you think and ponder on your own reality this is bang on the mark raising interesting questions about class, knowledge and human cruelty.