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The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1915, read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a short story told by the survivor of a great plague that destroyed mankind. The plague happened in 2013 (making it a speculative fiction/science-fiction tale in 1915) and the tale is told sixty years later by Granser—a former professor of English—to his grandsons—unutterably crude savages who are, to be fair, much better-suited to the world in which they all find themselves than Granser with his university education.

The disease was called the Scarlet Plague because of its distinguishing initial symptom—a reddening of the face that foretold a death within hours. After that, sufferers first lost all feeling in their feet, a numbness that crept upward over the next few hours until it seized and stopped their hearts. Death was unavoidable. The only survivors were immune from the start—and those numbered fewer than one in a million. The disease incubated for several days before manifesting itself and killing its victim, allowing a ferocious spread with a shockingly high R-value.

The disease did not discriminate based on skill or knowledge—it tore an irreparable swath through mankind until the entire population of the western and former United States numbered only a few hundred people 3 generations later. Granser speculates that there are no other people left on Earth, but he has no way of knowing. Without technology, without electricity…the world is once again much, much larger than it was.

The grandsons are a mixed bag: Edwin seems the most willing to listen to and try to learn from Granser while Hoo-hoo and especially Hare-Lip are nearly demented idiots bent only on dominating their mean and small environs. Even when they seem to listen to and take Granser’s advice, they pervert it through the lens of the here-and-now and lose his message entirely.

London discusses the so-called impedance mismatch between his culture and theirs—separated by only a few decades but yielding an already hopelessly unbridgeable gulf. They understand little of what he says unless he breaks it down to their guttural and severely limited patois that comprises only the concepts necessary for survival. This is understandable on their part, but bespeaks the doom of any plan to retain the knowledge that mankind once had.

Granser: You must tell them that when water is made hot by fire, there resides in it a wonderful thing called steam, which is stronger than ten thousand men and which can do all man’s work for him.”

The story briefly describes the state of mankind and the world after the plague, but it primarily tells of the coming of the plague and the ensuing fall of all of man’s works. With a plague so deadly, there was no gradual loss of knowledge or services, no time to prepare backup plans or storehouses of either supplies or knowledge.

Granser tells of his travels and long loneliness before he discovered his first people—a couple composed of Chauffeur and Vesta Van Warden. He is a large, mean, and terrible man who has her as a house drudge, brood sow, and chattel. She is the descendant of the former rulers of the world. In the post-plague world, their roles are reversed. His physical brutishness grants him power over here, where once the brutishness of societal convention conferred upon her a power inordinate to her physical or intellectual capability. It is unclear to what degree London shares Granser’s adulation of this former nobility/royalty—I can’t tell if he’s being ironic.

At any rate, mankind bred itself to about 400 crude and fallen people 60 years after the onset of the plague, with little to no hope that they would at any point be able to make use of the storehouse of books and knowledge that Granser had set aside for them in a cave. It is his life’s work, but, being in his late 80s, his life is coming to an end, with no hope in sight that anyone will be able to retain anything of what he would have been able to impart from his knowledge of a world that once was.

“All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam. He domesticated the serviceable animals, destroyed the hostile ones, and cleared the land of its wild vegetation. And then he passed, and the flood of primordial life rolled back again, sweeping his handiwork away”

Instead, the tribes listen to medicine men who send around “death sticks” and other superstitious tripe. Mankind will leave the Earth in a sort of peace and will need dozens of thousands of millennia to re-learn what it once knew, step by painful step.

Or maybe mankind won’t be so lucky and will instead be eaten by the mountain lions that are making their way down, closer and closer to the ocean, as intimated right at the end by Edwin’s observation that the wild horses had come down out of the mountains to escape their predators.

Here London leaves us with a 50/50: is Edwin’s observation about the horses combined with a greater willingness to learn from Granser a sign that he is sharp enough to quantum-leap his tribe back to a semblance of civilization? Or are the mountain lions a metaphor for the inexorable voracity of an unpitying nature that will finish the job that the Scarlet Plague started?

London’s vision is somewhat limited by his having written in 1915: He writes of the rich in their dirigibles and advanced motorcars and mansions; he doesn’t envision anything fancier than canned goods for foodstuffs. He is also unavoidably a man of his eugenic times. He writes of the “laborers”,

“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.”

In 2020, that’s on its face quite shockingly racist, but it’s perhaps only more overt than the castes we retain today. Though we purport to have eliminated them, they survive in the sinews and veins of our society, more dangerous and powerful because they are so internalized that too few even question them. The argument today is the same, though delivered with perhaps more subtle casuistry. So-called American civilization today bases largely on the notion that the rich are rich because they deserve it; the poor as well.

Also, as noted above, it’s not clear how London personally felt about that line of argument (or whether he’s promoting anything at all). In an earlier passage, he wrote the following, which seems quite a bit more critical of the way his world worked (and, quite honestly, how ours still does),

“Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food […]”

I was impressed by London’s mastery. It was a damned good story—I had no idea he counted among the best of the fantasy writers. The plague of 1917/1918 followed on the heels of his having published this story, which makes him eerily prescient, to boot.

Citations

“The boy did not exactly utter these words, but something that remotely resembled them and that was more guttural and explosive and economical of qualifying phrases. His speech showed distant kinship with that of the old man, and the latter’s speech was approximately an English that had gone through a bath of corrupt usage. “What I want to know,” Edwin continued, “is why you call crab ‘toothsome delicacy’? Crab is crab, ain’t it? No one I never heard calls it such funny things.””
Page 7
“Four million people lived in San Francisco then. And now, in the whole city and county there aren’t forty all told. And out there on the sea were ships and ships always to be seen, going in for the Golden Gate or coming out. And airships in the air—dirigibles and flying machines. They could travel two hundred miles an hour.”
Page 10
“The old man babbled on, unheeded by the boys, who were long accustomed to his garrulousness, and whose vocabularies, besides, lacked the greater portion of the words he used.”
Page 10
“All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam. He domesticated the serviceable animals, destroyed the hostile ones, and cleared the land of its wild vegetation. And then he passed, and the flood of primordial life rolled back again, sweeping his handiwork away”
Page 11
“The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization. When we increase and feel the lack of room, we will proceed to kill one another.”
Page 13
“Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food […]”
Page 17
““To all of this I agreed, staying in my house and for the first time in my life attempting to cook. And the plague did not come out on me. By means of the telephone I could talk with whomsoever I pleased and get the news. Also, there were the newspapers, and I ordered all of them to be thrown up to my door so that I could know what was happening with the rest of the world.”
Page 27
“For sixty years that world has no longer existed for me. I know there must be such places as New York, Europe, Asia, and Africa; but not one word has been heard of them—not in sixty years. With the coming of the Scarlet Death the world fell apart, absolutely, irretrievably. Ten thousand years of culture and civilization passed in the twinkling of an eye, ‘lapsed like foam.’”
Page 29
“I saw one of the robbers break the windows of the adjoining store, a place where shoes were sold, and deliberately set fire to it. I did not go to the groceryman’s assistance. The time for such acts had already passed. Civilization was crumbling, and it was each for himself.””
Page 32
“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.”
Page 33

Jesus, that’s pretty racist, but perhaps only more overt than the castes we retain today. The argument today is the same, though delivered with perhaps more subtle casuistry.

““He was a violent, unjust man. Why the plague germs spared him I can never understand. It would seem, in spite of our old metaphysical notions about absolute justice, that there is no justice in the universe. Why did he live?—an iniquitous, moral monster, a blot on the face of nature, a cruel, relentless, bestial cheat as well. All he could talk about was motor cars, machinery, gasoline, and garages—and especially, and with huge delight, of his mean pilferings and sordid swindlings of the persons who had employed him in the days before the coming of the plague. And yet he was spared, while hundreds of millions, yea, billions, of better men were destroyed.”
Page 46
“She was a lord of life, both by birth and by marriage. The destinies of millions, such as he, she carried in the hollow of her pink-white hand. And, in the days before the plague, the slightest contact with such as he would have been pollution. Oh, I have seen it. Once, I remember, there was Mrs. Goldwin, wife of one of the great magnates. It was on a landing stage, just as she was embarking in her private dirigible, that she dropped her parasol. A servant picked it up and made the mistake of handing it to her—to her, one of the greatest royal ladies of the land! She shrank back, as though he were a leper, and indicated her secretary to receive it. Also, she ordered her secretary to ascertain the creature’s name and to see that he was immediately discharged from service. And such a woman was Vesta Van Warden. And her the Chauffeur beat and made his slave.”
Page 48

I honestly can’t tell if he’s for or against.

“In time, pressure of population will compel us to spread out, and a hundred generations from now we may expect our descendants to start across the Sierras, oozing slowly along, generation by generation, over the great continent to the colonization of the East—a new Aryan drift around the world. “But it will be slow, very slow; we have so far to climb. We fell so hopelessly far. If only one physicist or one chemist had survived! But it was not to be, and we have forgotten everything. The Chauffeur started working in iron. He made the forge which we use to this day. But he was a lazy man, and when he died he took with him all he knew of metals and machinery. What was I to know of such things? I was a classical scholar, not a chemist.. The other men who survived were not educated.”
Page 53
“But you, Hare-Lip, so deeply are you sunk in black superstition that did you awake this night and find the death-stick beside you, you would surely die. And you would die, not because of any virtues in the stick, but because you are a savage with the dark and clouded mind of a savage.”
Page 54
“I repeat unto you certain things which you must remember and tell to your children after you. You must tell them that when water is made hot by fire, there resides in it a wonderful thing called steam, which is stronger than ten thousand men and which can do all man’s work for him. There are other very useful things. In the lightning flash resides a similarly strong servant of man, which was of old his slave and which some day will be his slave again.”
Page 55