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The Scarlet Plague

Jack London

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    The more of Jack London's works I read, the less surprised I am that he was one of the highest paid writers of his time. He is perhaps best known for his adventure/travel stories, particularly the ones in the cold north, but also in the hot South Pacific. But he also traveled in time—way into the past, and this one is way into the future. And it is alarming because it's beginning sets us right in the close present—2013 in fact. It was written in 1915. It is a very short novel—a novelette, really, but packs a punch despite its brevity. It is classified as "post-apocalyptic" fiction.
    We meet old Granser (Grandsire) and his grandson Edwin, filthy and barely clad in tattered skins. They are wandering in a wilderness of what was once San Francisco, and reach the place where the other grandsons are. They have caught some shellfish and are roasting them. They are savages and barely speak English, the result of devolution, or rather the early stages of evolution after the human race was all but wiped off the planet from the Scarlet Plague. It hit in 2013, and the setting of the story is now about 60 years later, approximately 2073, so then Granser must be in his late 80s. The only one who treats him with anything resembling respect is Edwin. The others are cruel and when he speaks of what life was during civilization, they think it the utterance of a senile old man. Yet they sit him down and ask to hear the story of the Scarlet Plague. He lapses into cultivated English, which they think is gibberish, for he was a wealthy Professor of English, James Howard Smith, at the University of California.
    He tells of the world population in 2010—8 billion—which I find disturbingly accurate. He speaks of the privileged few, of which he was one, while the rest of the population were basically slaves who labored to supply the rich with all they desired. They were called "Freemen"—kind of like calling us free today when we are nothing but slaves to the government, banks, corporations, and wealthy. Prophetic and ironic.
    In some respects, though, London was comically way off. He speaks of the phones still being manned by "operators," and of the wealthy flying in dirigibles—OK, so there's the Goodyear Blimp that covers the games, but is hardly luxurious transportation.
    He talks about the unimaginably wondrous foods they had on which to feast. Ha! Could he have imagined MacDonald's, processed food(ish), "frankenfoods"? OMG! London had a great imagination, but the state of the current eating materials on which the general public now partakes was beyond his creative comprehension. It's beyond mine, too.
    He tells the boys, the others who are named Hoo-Hoo, and Hare-Lip, much more savage than Edwin, about the discovery of germs and how tiny they were. Of course, they think he's mumbling senile nonsense, even when he attempts to explain how people were able to see the germs. He tells them of other plagues that wiped out many people because the population was growing too fast and people were packed in too closely. He mentions the Black Death, and the Bubonic Plague, and a couple more that London made up, like the "Pantoblast Plague" in 1984. Interesting he chose that Orwellian year. . .
    Does any of this sound apropos?
    But it is his description of the Scarlet Plague that makes the impact. The victims barely suffered. They began by getting very red, then numbness set in, starting with the feet and moving up. When it hit the heart, the person was dead. Most people were dead in less than two hours after the first sign of the symptoms. Some died in ten minutes. There was no known cure, and no one who got it survived.
    He told how the lower class people went into a fury after it struck California, going around looting and starting everything on fire in fits of drunken frenzy. The ones at the University who were not sick took shelter in the Chemistry Building, but eventually, death made its way in, and as people dropped dead, the others had to get farther away. Sounds kind of Poe-like, doesn't it? Finally they left the building and found a Shetland pony that was emaciated, and one car. But along the way, they all dropped dead—all but James Howard Smith, who was alone. But he found fields of food, and two dogs and a horse, and, along with the pony, they all survived well and traveled together.
    But eventually he does find other people, who have unfortunately already reverted back to savagery, as did the domestic animals in a very short time.
    And, now, as a very old man, he wonders how long it will take before humans become civilized again, and if anyone will ever be able to read the books he has hidden away in a cave.
    This book is a quick and interesting read, and leaves much to be pondered. The version I downloaded also includes illustrations by Gordon Grant that are able to be enlarged if your reader has expansion capabilities.

Edwin and Granser

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