Audiobook Review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

23 08 2013

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Read by Drew Ariana

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 2 Hrs 12 Min

Genre: Classic Post Apocalyptic

Quick Thoughts: The Scarlett Plague is a classic post apocalyptic tale of one man’s survival during a global pandemic, that is fascinating more because of it’s vision of our future, then any special aspects of the tale. If read as a satire on a possibly classist future America, it is actually full of some funny absurdist moments, I’m just not quite sure that is what the author intended.

Grade: B-

One of the reasons I like reading classic science fiction is I am always fascinated by people from another time’s view of the future. I think you can tell a lot about a person and their culture by seeing how they imagine the future to be. I first read Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague about 12 years ago, when I was obsessed with reading all the classic examples of Post Apocalyptic fiction I could get my hands on. Listening to it now, I paid more attention to its vision of out future. The Scarlett Plague was written just over 100 years ago, and Jack London’s titular plague struck humanity in 2013. So, I was quite interested in seeing how this man view our future to be, before 2 world wars, the rise of the US to being perhaps The Superpower and the technological leaps we have taken.  London’s take on 2013 America is, well, kind of weird. I was first impressed with his population tabulations, putting Earth’s 2013 population at around 8 Bullion. Yet, his sociology was simply strange to me. London imagines 2013 is a very class based society, with what seems like an almost American aristocracy, and a subjugated working class. Before you start going all political, yes, I do believe elitism and classism exist in America, but it’s much more subtle, and perhaps more insidious, than appears in The Scarlett Plague. I think if you walk up to an American, rich or poor and ask them directly whether or not someone is a better person based on their economic and social class, most people would scoff at you and answer no, despite what they may actually think. In London’s 2013 America, I think you would get the opposite reaction. What fascinates me is what aspects of 1912 culture caused London to believe this was were we were heading. I can understand why he believed we would travel by airships, but this social aristocracy aspect fascinates me.

Sixty years after over 99% of the world was wiped out by a fast acting disease called, The Red Death, and old man bemoans’ the survivor’s fall into savagery as he tells the story of his survival to a group of his tribes crude young adults.  The Scarlett Plague is a classic post apocalyptic tale of one man’s survival during a global pandemic that is fascinating more because of its vision of our future, then any special aspects of the tale. It was really strange to revisit this tale. When I first read it, I took it very seriously. London does a good job telling a tale of a society falling into ruins, then finding a way to reconnect. It, at times, reads like an outline to a novel like Earth Abides, with a barebones approach, telling mostly the bullet points. Yet, on my second run through, perhaps due to the performance of the narrator, it turned into an almost absurdist comedy. I’m not sure if London wrote this as a bit of satire, or if it just comes across this way due to how it has aged, but I found laughing. The main character was such an unlikable, cantankerous old bastard that he reminded me of a racist grandfather who makes ridiculously socially awkward statements that he seems more like a really bad caricature instead of a toxic bundle of hate. I found myself laughing as he described the brutishness of the working class that provided them with everything they need in an interesting style them resembled economic blackmail. His love lorn talk about the high society woman who was lowered to the status of a brutalized wife of a former "service industry" person was balanced by his absurd attempt to purchase her from this brutal man. The old geezer took every opportunity to degrade the boys he was talking to commenting on their lack of civility and their reliance on strange new superstitions.  It was all a bit disconcerting, but also interesting. It’s funny, because in many of the descriptions The Scarlet Plague is said to be about an older man sharing his wisdom to his grandsons. What isn’t revealed is how ridiculous his wisdom is, and how much utter contempt he has for his grandsons. One interesting aspect is the evolution of language. While not as drastic a change as you would see in Hoban’s Riddley Walker, London still gives his post apocalyptic survivors their own patois of mish-mashed words. It gives the story a little bit extra, and also adds for some interesting examinations of just how far society has regressed. Overall, this is a story that hardcore post apocalyptic fans should read, since is serves as a blueprint for a lot of classic and modern novels exploring pandemic survival, for anyone else, there are much better examples of the genre to check out. 

I really have mixed feelings Drew Ariana’s performance in The Scarlet Plague. My initial reaction was basic cringing at his voices, particularly those of the kids. I find that narrators voicing kids is very tough, and often they sound like cartoon characters instead of actually children. I also wasn’t a fan of his old man voice, which was too bad since the book was mostly an old man telling his tale. I though maybe a narrator with a gruffer voice would have been better suited for the narration. Then I began to think. My initial annoyance with his old man voice was based on my thought of the character as an old survivor of an apocalyptic pandemic. Yet, as I began to think of it as a satirical novel, and the old man as a former professor who was on the fringe levels of a modern aristocracy chagrined at his new station in life, I found the voicing a bit more appropriate. In fact, it made me laugh.  I really think that, despite his annoying kid voices, Drew Ariana’s is a pretty good narrator. I think his impression of the character probably ended up mirroring my own, and this was reflected in his performance. Other aspects, his pacing, and strength of voice were quite good. This is why I have a mixed feeling. I ended up enjoying listening to Ariana and he probably highlighted the satirical elements of this novel. I’m just not totally sure what London’s true intentions were.

Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.