This book is set in 2072, sixty years after the scarlet plague has ravaged the world's population. The remnant survivors struggle to live and increase their numbers. James Howard Smith is the last plague survivor. Through the course of this story he tries to impress upon his grandchildren and other listeners, that it is important that they learn about and remember the past. That they need to know more about their world than the basic skills of survival.
I really enjoyed this story, though at the beginning I found it a bit difficult to figure out what was going on. Will definitely be looking for a paper copy of this one.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
The Way We WereDec 12 2000
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Sixty years after a plague killed billions of people, an old man tries to convey to his three grandchildren what the world was once like so long ago. The cultured, civilized world of mass communication and technology abruptly gave way to a primitive, savage world of cruelty and barbarism. The survivors and their descendents now live like their stone-age forebears: wearing animal skins, hunting with bows and arrows and believing in superstition. In describing the plague's onslaught, the old man tells his grandchildren of the chaos and degradation that wiped out civilization. Money became worthless, the streets of burning cities were littered with corpses, animals grew wild as mankind lost his supremacy over nature. The three boys have a lot of trouble understanding the words "Granser" uses, due to their lack of education. (Even the word "education" is something the boys have never heard of.) Nevertheless, the old man does the best he can, in spite of the children's limited vocabulary. It's interesting to compare "The Scarlet Plague", which was written in 1912, to the more widely-known "Earth Abides". Both books are set in the same place. They both contain that sense of nostalgia, where old men, left over from the "lost world" yearn for a past that was more attractive. This could well be the blueprint for life-after-the-apocalypse stories. If this story hadn't been written, their would probably never have been such books as "Earth Abides", "The Day of the Triffids", "Empty World" or "The Stand."
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
a child's great first science fiction story.Oct. 30 1997
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I found this book among my ninth birthay presents and loved it from the first page. what got to me was the description of a way in which everything we know could be destroyed in a few weeks. Also my boyish imagination and dark side were thrilled about the possibility of being left alone in a city, free to do anything i wanted. As the book advanced in explaining the effects of solitude and the need for information about what had happened I found myself questioning my readiness to face such a situation. I highly recommend this book as a way to introduce science fiction to new readers. You must be aware of several objectionable premises set by the author in terms of a racist future society but also a few "wish it were like that" plots which place as the highest paid occupations those like the ones performed by a junior poetry proffesor. My short review has to end by saying that this book has been a dear memory of mine for the past 29 years and writing about it and recommending it to others it's a way to say thank you to Mr. Jack London a great writer and a reason why today I rather read than almost anything else in my spare time. Thank you, and please forgive my primitive english. Milton Roussel, firstname.lastname@example.org
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Ancestor of "Earth Abides" Somehow Even Bleaker Than "On the Beach"Aug. 9 2007
Christian E. Senftleben
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The content of the book may seem to be a re-tread, but it is in fact one of the very first post-apocalyptic plague stories. It set the mold for later versions, such as George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides," Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon," Nevil Shute's "On the Beach," and of course, Stephen King's "The Stand," amongst others.
First off in this book, the world as we know it is already gone. Out of billions, there are now only a few *hundred* people left on the planet - all scattered, all isolated ...all neo-lithic. There were not enough people left with the know-how to restart society and at the story's opening, there is only one man alive that even remembers the old world.
Furthermore, this book is not the product of an "All are created equal" mentality. No, this is a book that reflects the thinking of a society that sharply divided between nobles and peasants: the former were as unto the gods, while the latter were barely rabble, just mangy curs that needed stay in their cages ...or, be mercifully put out of their misery altogether. It is to the utter horror of the narrator that the debased, pig-like lowborn eventually take rule over the corpse of high society and make it as fetid as themselves.
Most of the book reflects the narrator's callous, maliciously aristocratic view of the world, both past and present. Every low-born in this book is detestable; every high-born is beautiful, desirable and ultimately, profaned and desecrated. The book's characterizations are the stark, black-and-white depictions of a deeply autocratic mindset.
The narrator is disturbingly aghast at the thought of "the servants taking over" the world with their "grubby little hands." Every depiction of a non-noble seems to include words like "savage," "stupid," and "animal" in them. For a wearied, forlorn teller of ended glory, there is a frightening amount of venom streaking through his glorious recall of things past. The narrator's narrow-minded adoration of the high-born (and their lofty pursuits) contrasts with his horror and overwhelming disgust over "the great unwashed." Disturbing is not quite the word for the narrator's view of things.
While far from PC myself, some years ago I took Stewart to task for his dehumanizing descriptions of the mentally challenged; London's book here makes Stewart seem a gleaming saint by contrast. I realize both are products of their times; I do not so much decry that such thoughts were common - only that they were unnecessary, even in a world such as that.
Secondly, I've noticed this book's tone is quite a bit different than Stewart's "Earth Abides," (its closest, to me, subsequent corollary). London's book takes an extremely dim view of human beings in general, an attitude that gives even a dedicated cynic like me some pause.
This book is nothing like the noble, stoic (and *egalitarian*) characterizations of Shute's "On the Beach" or Frank's "Alas, Babylon." There is no final embrace of family in the defiance of looming death; no, here the children are cast into the gutters upon first sign of infection. Women are not prized and valued as mothers of a new Eden here (a limited view, but quite representative of its time); no, here they are subjugated, degraded, and beaten with vigorous, even joyful savagery... they are purely victims of brutish man-beasts.
Nobody dies peacefully here - there is no dignity or nobility or self-sacrifice at any point throughout; no, all persons here are frenzied, heartless carnivores sprinting about in a cyclone of cruelty and depredation... or, their helpless victims.
This is a far more frightful end to civilization than even Stephen King's (much) later interpretation. There's not one shred of beauty or kindness in it from start to finish. It's pure survivalism, dog-eat-dog, and the worst of the worst here live to spread their malignant existence to the rest of the world.
I mean, even in Shute's "On the Beach," where by the book's end every single person on earth is *dead*, even with Shute there was some beauty, some love, something hopeful ...even at the end. With this book, however, although humanity ultimately survives, it feels far darker, bleaker, and much more hopeless than even Shute's depiction of total nuclear armageddon.
As for the book itself, I was glad to finally read it after all these years of hearing about it. It's been out of print for almost a hundred years from what I can tell, and all I could ever find was its far briefer form as a magazine article.
Again, it is representative of its era and its culture and for this, I am quite glad to add it to my collection. While it may sound strange to say this, it is perhaps the bleakest post-apocalyptic tale I've ever read, and I've read dozens.
As for approach to the content itself, Stewart's "Earth Abides" decidedly ignores the fall of civilization itself, focusing instead upon its slow decay amidst a resurgent nature; in contrast, London focuses upon the days of society's fall, glances briefly upon the intervening years, and leaves an acrimonious bounty of reproach upon the depleted present.
Shute's "On the Beach" was compellingly lovely in its dark depiction of humanity's last, silent gasp amidst the void. Frank's "Alas, Babylon" was the defiant cry of life in the midst of great death. Stewart's "Earth Abides" was a beautiful dirge, eloquently mourning the passing of a once-glorious world amidst an ever-decaying and greatly-diminished present.
...but, "The Scarlet Plague" reads like a spit of contemptuous bile onto the ashen ground of civilization's humbled remains.
For me personally, it's a mixed read; it's likely that my years of anticipation for this book (and frequent study of its numerous descendants) have colored the experience for me, so I don't know how objective I can really be here. I suspect I will have to re-read this a few times before I can find its "voice." I suppose I'm just surprised to read a post-apocalyptic tale with such bile; maybe that's an odd thing to say, but it's how I feel about this book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A great novella in a beautiful formatMay 12 2012
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1) This is a novella, not a short story; if you are expecting a thick book, don't go for it, but it's just as long as many published books. 1b) I was shocked to discover that Jack London had written what we'd now call postapocalyptic fiction. The frisson was stronger to realize that the apocalypse was now! 1c) I'd highly, highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys postapocalyptic fiction. I don't know if it's the origin of some of the tropes we often see, but it's definitely an early instantiation of them, and it's kind of heartbreaking. 2) This edition in particular is a beautiful edition of a text that is available online, proofed and corrected. I would much rather read this than any of the free editions for that reason: I find errors distracting and this version has none. 2b) I'm looking forward to the rest of the Radium Age series!
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Here's what you're really gettingMay 12 2012
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First of all, "The Scarlet Plague" is, by any sensible measure, a novella -- a novel of the short form. It is not a short story, sketch, or anecdote. Second, this edition has a new introduction that I found entertaining and worthwhile for putting such an anomalous novel into historical context. Third, while it's true that earlier editions can be found free online, they are, as London scholars know, riddled with typos. This edition has been corrected against the first (London-approved) edition and freshly typeset. It is not a reprint of the crappy library-stamped volumes you get in black and white from Google Books. I have both, and whereas I never would have gotten around to reading the PDF reprint (let alone a plain-text transcription), I eagerly consumed this new edition once it was in my hands. If the look, feel, and aesthetics of books do not matter to you, go the cheap route with everything -- Austen, Dickens, Melville, Twain, Balzac, etc. can be gotten free, all the jewels of literature's public domain reduced to a black-and-white image clicking past on your computer screen. Fun. But if you want to feel the printed pages, bend the spine, write in the margins, and get the insights of contemporary critics, you can't do better than a lovingly imagined edition like this, which rediscovers a weird, out-of-time title and presents it in a way that makes sense today. This is the kind of publishing we need more of, not less.