The Scarlet Plague

I really like world-destroyed-by-disease novels and I really like Jack London and I was really happy to learn that Jack London wrote a world-destroyed-by-disease novel, The Scarlet Plague, which you can buy here.  It’s a quick, really enjoyable read, but not without heft.

London is really interested in the tension between the cultivated and the uncultivated.  The narrator, a former professor of English literature at Berkeley, longs for the civilized life of the past, but recognizes that cultivation and refinement breed weakness, while the oppression visited on the impoverished masses of pre-plague America had generated a cruel strength.  Here’s the vegetal version:

“With my horse and dogs and pony, I set out. Again I crossed the San Joaquin Valley, the mountains beyond, and came down into Livermore Valley. The change in those three years was amazing. All the land had been splendidly tilled, and now I could scarcely recognize it, ‘such was the sea of rank vegetation that had overrun the agricultural handiwork of man. You see, the wheat, the vegetables, and orchard trees had always been cared for and nursed by man, so that they were soft and tender. The weeds and wild bushes and such things, on the contrary, had always been fought by man, so that they were tough and resistant. As a result, when the hand of man was removed, the wild vegetation smothered and destroyed practically all the domesticated vegetation.”

And the human version, which comes a little earlier in the book:

“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.”

But London complicates this story.  In a typical apocalypse book, the reader would be invited to reflect on the personal qualities of the narrator that led him to be among the few survivors.  London insists we do no such thing:

“In the morning I was alone in the world. Canfield and Parsons, my last companions, were dead of the plague. Of the four hundred that sought shelter in the Chemistry Building, and of the forty-seven that began the march, I alone remained—I and the Shetland pony. Why this should be so there is no explaining. I did not catch the plague, that is all. I was immune. I was merely the one lucky man in a million—just as every survivor was one in a million, or, rather, in several millions, for the proportion was at least that.”

I think this makes the book more interesting.  All the narrator’s learning and culture doesn’t help him — but it doesn’t hurt him either.  He is no braver, no cleverer, no wiser, and no stronger than his fallen companions.   London’s plague isn’t a cleansing flood that kills a sick society and reduces the species to its ablest core.  It’s a random sample.  And the civilization that humans will build after the plague won’t be any better than what came before.  Or worse.  It will be the same:

“The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state.”

We are the plague, and the plagued.

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8 thoughts on “The Scarlet Plague

  1. GrantOster says:

    Good stuff. I haven’t read this one, but it looks worthwhile. Keep up the good work.

  2. voloch says:

    No need to buy it from amazon. It’s out of copyright and you can get it here:

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    “We are the plague, and the plagued.” That’s an arresting expression! It could be an excellent opening sentence of a novel.

  4. JSE says:

    Sure, but HiLo Books has gone to the trouble of putting out a handsome new edition at a low price! I mean, you don’t NEED to pay for any book — you could always get it from the library….

  5. Rob H. says:

    Cool. I’ll give this a try. Since you mention old-school apocalyptic finction, there’s this book by Mary Shelley called The Last Man (I guess one of the earliest “world-destroyed-by-disease novels”) that I wasn’t actually able to finish (I think you’re supposed to be familiar with Shelley’s posse in order to pick up on similarities between the characters and her inner circle). Have you read it?

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