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27 April 2013

The Scarlet Plague (1912)

Jack London's 1912 story, The Scarlet Plague came to me as a recommendation by a gentleman on Google+ called Andrew Coffman. I've never read any Jack London before, but I must admit to being a fan of some of the films that have been adapted from his books. I can't recall the names, but I seem to remember stories involving huskies, snow, and men with beards. What a fantastic combination!

Talking of huskies, snow and men with beards...
do you remember Ukulele Russ? I think there might be
a musical collaboration in the wings! Watch this space...

First a little about the author...

Jack Griffith London (1876-1916) is famous for drinking, his love of the ladies, and of course his books. He made a fortune from his writing becoming a bit of a celebrity in the process. There is some speculation over his death. Some say he committed suicide, but the truth is probably more mundane; He'd been suffering from uremia due to kidney failure and was on a heavy medication of morphine.

Jack London Selfie
The significance of this photoshop will become clear soon...

London has a creditable back catalogue including outdoorsy adventures like "A Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" through to dystopian political novels including "The Iron Heel". London was a socialist at heart and free with his views. I don't know enough about Jack London to be sure, but I believe that "The Scarlet Plague" was his one and only foray into post apocalyptic writing. It tells a tale of life after a terrible pandemic has laid waste to mankind. You know that I simply love these types of stories! Ha ha!

Watch out you've got a bear behind!

The Scarlet Plague is a novella told from the point of view of an old man who remembers life before the Scarlet Plague. Through toothless gums he recounts his recollections of the disaster unfolding and life afterwards. Gripping stuff you would think...

2013 - Plague: Millions Dead

Something that I found interesting in this story is that the plague started in the "summer" of 2013. Yep... that's this year! Jack London is looking ahead and imagining what life might have been like a century into his future... our present day. He isn't too outrageous in his predictions and on the whole he has managed to craft a tale that has aged pretty well.

I can't say the same for some of the artwork in the book. There are a number of illustrations by Gordon Grant interspersed throughout the novel depicting scenes described in the prose. I haven't been able to find out any information on Gordon. As fantastic as his illustrations are, they haven't aged as well as London's story.

"Pouring out of the city by millions"

Gordon Grant's view on planes of the future are of relatively
small multi-winged vehicles. The ecopy of The Scarlet Plague
I have was produced by Project Gutenburg and made from
a 1915 publication by the Macmillan Company of New York.

I just happen to be watching the original Planet of the Apes TV series from 1974 this week when the thought struck me that the invention to most surprise and revolutionize the world has probably been the humble mobile phone. I remember thinking in the 80s that these cumbersome things would never take off. Even when the prices came down and they became more accessible in the 90s I resisted getting one. Today, I couldn't imagine life without a phone in my pocket. How things change! They've wheedled their way into everyone's lives and taken over everything! Apparently the most common use of a mobile phone today is to check the time! I personally haven't worn a watch in years. But I digress...

My thoughts on phones weren't an accident. See the following picture. On the left is an illustration from The Scarlet Plague. On the right is an image from the TV series of Planet of the Apes. Here are two very different views of telephones of the future, and both fail to predict what has come to pass.

Alternate telephone realities

While I'm on it I'm just going to point out that San Francisco is one of the major locations for the TV series of Planet of the Apes. It turns out that Jack London was born in San Francisco and the city features in the Scarlet Plague. Read into that what you will.

On the story: I'm going to report that I enjoyed it, but only so much. The beginning hooked be like a charm. I instantly fell in love the words and style of writing and I was hopeful that I was in for a treat. Unfortunately, though the groundwork had been laid, it is almost as if London simply decided to wrap things up before getting to the real meat. I do know that this story was originally published in London Magazine in 1912 (yep that's "London" magazine) so perhaps London was simply trying to keep his wordcount down? Whatever. I felt unfulfilled as I switching off my Kindle, like I'd only got half the facts. What a shame!

Shetland Pony - Prime Cuts

On the writing: There is no doubt that London was an accomplished wordsmith. His style is not overly elaborate or clever; It is simply accessible, even 100 years after being written. For me, that is the sign of a true craftsman. Check this out. I love the following passage. It's not from The Scarlet Plague, but I don't care. Unfortunately, though attributed to London there seems to be some suspicion that he didn't actually write all of it. Nonetheless, it is brilliant and I would happily have it as my eulogy when the time finally comes...
"I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time."


Talking of phones and being that this is the Ukulele Blog, it would be
remiss of me not to mention another use for mobile phones. Check out
the following video of Scully demoing his futulele ukulele build last year.
This video was first showcased on my "other" blog Electric Ukulele Land.
Ha ha! Brilliant!



Let's round this off before I go getting all emotional on you...

On the Triple-B I'm going to spend 6 years in the wilderness wondering if anyone else survived. Let's hope so - I can't eat this Shetland Pony all on my own...




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