Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Veggie Books: The Scarlet Plague

I love the idea behind Hesperus Press; forgotten works by great writers, made accessible to a new audience. Titles from literary gods such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Graham Greene, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf have been published in these very smart books, with thick creamy pages and forewords. The Scarlet Plague is by Jack London.

I wouldn't say I'm a huge London fan to begin with. I'm not really converted by The Scarlet Plague, but I think that has to do with the amount of dystopian novels I've read. It's become a familiar genre, but I can imagine that when The Scarlet Plague was first published in 1912 it was a horrifying picture of a terrible future, where the few remaining humans in the year 2013 have regressed into ignorance and superstition, and the one survivor of the plague, 60 years earlier, can see all the advances of science being lost. He tells the savage children who ask him of tales of the past to remember that steam can be harnessed to do the work of a hundred men, but he knows nobody believes him.

The old man relates the story of his life after the plague. He describes travelling through a world that is returning to nature:

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 the 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.

I know, I'm grizzled when it comes to enormous disaster on the page. I do wish that wasn't the case, and that the ideas in The Scarlet Plague didn't feel familiar to me. But there we have it; this isn't 1912, and so many brilliant, terrible books came after this one. Still, this is a good one, and if you're a London fan I think you would enjoy this.

I am sick and tired of being so jaded, though.


Abi said...

I haven't read anything by Jack London but it sounds interesting.

It's a shame when a good book can make you feel a bit jaded but it's a problem with any dystopian fiction I suppose; it's not always a place that it's enjoyable to escape to.

Tim Stretton said...

There are only so many things you can do with dystopian fiction, and I suspect most of them have already been done.

These days I have a similar problem with Lord of the Rings: its tropes seem tired and unimaginative. But of course that's only because of the legions of inferior imitators. And then came a generation of better writers who took Tolkien's idea and added a novelistic sensibility. Some, like--JACK VANCE ALERT!--Lyonesse, far outstrip the original.