The Scarlet Plague

by Jack London
Illustrated by Gordon Grant

Jack London circa 1909
Jack London

The fiction of Jack London is not usually associated with the realms of speculative, or even science, fiction since his works are normally concerned with nature and adventure. Yet, even as early as 1908 with the novel, The Iron Heel, London created a work of speculative fiction that portrayed a possible future. The Star Rover, which appeared in the same year as The Scarlet Plague contains threads of both fantasy and science fiction in its prison setting and the posthumously published short story “The Red One” has a hint of science fiction at its core. Rather than being anomalies in the author’s output, these creations seem to show that London was in touch with what was going on in the work of other authors of his day and, possibly, suggests a direction he might have explored more fully had he lived longer.

By the late 1800s, the work of Jules Verne was making its way into English translations and the stories and novels of H. G. Wells was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic as well. The San Francisco area had a number of authors who were known for their speculative/science fiction works (Robert Duncan Milne among them) and their work appeared in Bay area newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Examiner. Fantasy and borderline science fiction works had even appeared in the Overland Monthly, the same magazine that accepted some of London’s early work. Ambrose Bierce was known for dabbling in the fantastic with stories like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and it was also during London’s lifetime that Edgar Rice Burroughs produced the seminal interplanetary science fantasy, A Princess of Mars (1912) (which can be found in its entirety here: A Princess of Mars).

The Scarlet Plague cover
The Scarlet Plague

Most likely The Scarlet Plague would have long ago been relegated to a shelf of author curiosities since London’s vision of future life and technology is not as far reaching as some of his contemporaries (hence, I don’t consider the work to be science fiction). Yet, as a work of speculative fiction, London’s novel is (was) eerily prophetic. Within 3 years of the 1915 publication of The Scarlet Plague, the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 began. The Flu killed quickly, though not as quickly as portrayed in London’s novel, and manifested itself in people in the prime of life, rather than the young and the old, the usual causalties of influenza. Although exact figures will never be truly known, it is estimated that 675,000 victims died in the US and that between 30-40 million people perished worldwide: nearly 2% of the entire world population. Obviously, London was onto something...

Many of the themes and ideas found in The Scarlet Plague also appear in the works of later authors. The end of civilization from disease is the starting point for Stephen King’s The Stand and many other stories and novels too numerous to mention. The desire of London’s narrator to rebuild civilization, while also a part of The Stand, is very much central to George Stewart’s Earth Abides. That society would descend to a more barbaric state is found in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and some of the socialist themes that London inserts into the work seem to be similar to those found in both the H. G. Wells screenplay for Things to Come and L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout.

Whether The Scarlet Plague is an insightful work of speculative fiction, an early attempt at science fiction, or simply a curiosity is ultimately up to you, and this is a decision you cannot make until you read the novel. We hope you enjoy it.

Bob Gay
March, 2018
Introduction © 2018 by Bob Gay

Famous (and forgotten) Fiction
is produced and edited by Bob Gay and Dan Neyer
All contents are © 2012 by Bob Gay and Dan Neyer
All Rights Reserved
Individual copyrights are as noted
For site questions, please contact us through the Editors' Corner.