Sitting at my keyboard, isolated by the CoVid pandemic, I have just finished an account of a fictional pandemic crafted by one of America’s great storytellers, Jack London. I owe it to a recent article by Joe Mathews in the SF Chronicle that I even heard of this small volume, and I am grateful to him for guiding me in its direction. I’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but I do have a fondness for a particular 1949 novel by George R. Stewart called
THE EARTH ABIDES
I was enthralled by the tale itself, but found the setting in the familiar Berkeley hills of particular interest. The protagonist emerges from the mountains after an illness only to find that civilization has collapsed under the weight of a great pandemic of unknown origins. The story consists of an old man explaining the unimaginable past to youngsters who go forth to seek out other survivors.
After reading The Scarlet Plague,
I wondered if Stewart had drawn inspiration from London’s succinct novel. But no matter. Nothing like tapping into something that exactly fits the mood of the time. As well, the story is set in the Bay Area, which fits it not only into an era but into a most appropriate place. At least for me. And aren’t I the one who matters most here?
It’s 2073 (takes a while and a little math for a reader to arrive at the year), and an oldster named James Howard Smith, once a literature prof at University of California, is trying to explain to his grandsons what the world was like before the red death reduced a great and sophisticated civilization to a collection of illiterate and savage tribes. Sixty years in the past there were machines that flew through the air. People communicated through something called books and writing. No one had to hunt for food, it was easily available in stores. A store? What was that? Let me explain.
And so on. You get the idea.
London’s storytelling prowess is perhaps not on full display here, but the currents of plot and character are plenty strong enough to carry the reader from one end of the river to the other with seldom a moment of still water. Even without a Tony Fauci or a Deborah Birx, there’s enough suspense and speculation to keep our literary boats afloat every second. CoVid 19 is with us now, but who knows,
THE SCARLET PLAGUE MIGHT WELL BE NEXT