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The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

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Outside the ruins of San Francisco, a former UC Berkeley professor recounts the chilling sequence of events – a gruesome pandemic which killed nearly every living soul on the planet, in a matter of days – which led to his current lowly state. Modern civilisation has fallen, and a new race of barbarians, descended from the world’s brutalised workers, has assumed power. Over the space of a few decades, all learning has been lost.

The catastrophe happens in 2013; 2012 marks the cetennial of the novel’s first publication.
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The Scarlet Plague is, in many ways, the precursor of post-apocalyptic novels like The Road, with a greater concern with the impact of apocalypse than its cause; and also of the modern terror of the pandemic, be it swine flu, bird flu, MRSA or any number of other diseases. I fear they could have wished for a better precursor.

The majority of the book is a first-person recounting by “Granser”, the former UC Berkeley professor, of the rapid, total collapse of civilisation as the scarlet plague struck and wiped out the population. Unfortunately, Granser’s narrative voice is indistinguishable except by its use of the first person from the narrative voice of the framing elements; London’s writing style, except in the clipped dialect of Granser’s audience of children, is plain and rather flat, even though Granser should be bringing an awful lot of emotion to this story.

Similarly, the only characterisation of Scarlet Plague is class-based; the savage working classes who are, essentially, brutes held in check only by civilisation versus the enlightened middle and upper classes, who band together and act in a totally civilised manner throughout. Every character in the book is white, and there are mentions but little more of female characters, who show no agency; even for a depiction of the class-ridden society that London is trying to show this seems… unrealistic.

In the end, Scarlet Plague may be one of the first apocalypse-by-plague novels, but it’s also one of the worst.


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