Towards the end of 2016, I spied a rack of books branded “Doomsday Classics” and, of course, I was drawn to it as surely as if it was a rack of free donuts. (Note to booksellers: promotional idea!) I am something of a student of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, and so I was fairly sure that I would have read at least a few of those presented in this series… but, no. Not a one. Happily for me, the books were part of a 3-for-2 sale, so I bought six of them for the price of four.
Bargain books are my weakness.
One such bargain was The Scarlet Plague by Jack London. “Jack London?” I remember wondering aloud. “Wrote science fiction? I have a copy of his Collected Works, but this isn’t in there.” (I should mention, here, that I was with a friend in that bookshop, and wasn’t just sharing this random thought with the air and/or my fellow patrons. Not that I wouldn’t…)
The book is indeed quite a departure from London’s usual style. True, its prose is stark and clean, as is true of London’s best-known tales, high adventure in the frozen north the likes of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But while he is usually to be found setting his scene in new frontiers, brutal but conquerable to the brave, here an old man details the end of the world as we know it — as he knew it — in a comfortable 2012, and the brutality is so extreme that no amount of courage could withstand it.
He talks of a fast-acting disease turning people against each other, the only survivors those with a) the correct immunity and b) enough callousness. He tells of civilization crumbling, of men turning on men and enslaving women, of cruelty and violence unleashed when the rule of law vanishes. He also talks of telephones and radios and aeroplanes being commonplace — and okay, sure, also dirigibles; pre-Hindenberg visionaries always saw a future full of dirigibles — and a world population of 8 billion by 2010, which is actually a pretty good guess, in a time before two world wars, before the Spanish Flu and the Holocaust among so much other unimaginable tragedy wiped so many out of the gene pool. In fact, not only does London presage our modern society in many ways, he also presages many tropes of post-apocalyptic tales that were to follow this one.
It’s not pleasant, of course. It’s kind of racist and classist, and the people who survive the outbreak are basically the worst. But it is visionary, and impressive, and utterly compelling throughout its short but action-packed length. It is a book that certainly belongs under the imprint of “Doomsday Classics.” Because it is a capital-C Classic indeed.
TBR DAY 27: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
TIME ON THE TBR: A little over 2 years.
PURCHASED FROM: The Book Grocer, Brunswick.