It was amazing, astounding, this loss of communication with the world. It was exactly as if the world had ceased, been blotted out. …With the coming of the Scarlet Death the world fell apart, absolutely, irretrievably.
– The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London
Just a handful of years after the novella quoted above came out, the world was plunged into a global pandemic that claimed over 50 million lives. Jack London didn’t live to see it, but he had recently witnessed the ominous return of the Black Death, a startling outbreak of bubonic plague in turn-of-the-century San Francisco that is recounted in David Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate. What’s more, he had the foresight to know that worse – much worse – was to come:
Now this is the strange thing about these germs. There were always new ones coming to live in men’s bodies. …the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth, the more new kinds of germs became diseases. There were warnings. Soldervetzsky, as early as 1929, told the bacteriologists that they had no guaranty against some new disease, a thousand times more deadly than any they knew, arising and killing by the hundreds of millions and even by the billion.
While not all of the predictions in London’s vision of America circa 2013 ring true – personal dirigibles, anyone? – his pandemic prophecies have only gained force. In H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, humankind is saved by micro-organisms; in London’s The Scarlet Plague, these same germs turn on us, and almost win. Looking back from the year 2073 on the devastation, an old man attempts to teach his grandsons how to relight the torch of civilization, with the aid of that most precious tool: books!
Podcast and audiobook fans can enjoy London’s story in its entirety as part of the Thrilling Tales Podcast, our weekly virtual edition of the library’s popular storytime for grownups. There you’ll also find South of the Slot, London’s tale of a mild-mannered man who must decide whether to take to the streets in solidarity and protest, as well as vintage thrillers, espionage, westerns, pulp science fiction, and more. Subscribe to the Library’s podcasts to enjoy weekly Thrilling Tales episodes during this time without large gatherings, and monthly tales thereafter. Travel through time to realms of wonder and the edge of adventure, all without leaving your home or donning a mask.
~ Posted by David W.