Jack London and Science Fiction

By Clarice Stasz, Ph.D.

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"Despite ample, indeed pervasive, evidence in his writings that Jack London had a naturally strong proclivity for fantasy fiction, he has no appreciable reutation today as a practitioner, much less as an examplar, of that for of expression. This fact is particularly odd in light of the proliferation of reprinted fiction works by obscurer literary figures...whose contributions to the genre are, in many instances, patently inferior to London's."

--Dale Walker, The Alien Worlds of Jack London

Jack London was a lifelong fantast. The first money he ever received as a professional writer was for the science fiction story "A Thousand Deaths" published by The Black Cat in 1899. Thirteen of his 188 published short stories and four of his twenty-two novels fall readily into the category, and other stories contain fantastic elements.

London explored numerous styles of science fiction: pre-history, apocalyptic catastrophe, future war, scientific dystopias, technocratic utopias. Running through most stories are the ideas of social evolution, racialism, and anti-capitalism. In some stories, London emphasizes "social science fiction," the problems of society, particularly the exploitation of workers and the materialism of capitalism. By positing extreme cases of social order or disorder, he hopes to convey how human suffering based in economic inequality may be eliminated. In other cases, his imaginary societies were meant to demonstrate the validity of Social Darwinism with its emphasis upon the rise of the superior Anglo-Saxon race.

London's science fiction shows the influence of such horror fantasy writers as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, and the popular science fiction writers of the late 19th century, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and Stanley Waterloo. Themes already familiar to turn-of-the-century readers reoccur in London's stories: invisibility, humans turned into beasts, worldwide pestilence, cataclysmic war, indefinable terrors, ghosts, time travel, extra sensory perception (this, before the term was even in the vocabulary).

Yet to be studied are the possible influences London's writings had upon later fatasts. The clearest connection is to George Orwell, who produced programs on London when he worked for the BBC, and acknowledged his debt to such books as Before Adam, The Iron Heel and The People of the Abyss upon his own writing. Did London's writings influence later creators of fictional alien worlds? Perhaps some readers of this page can do the research to answer that question!

Key Works

"The Rejuvenation of Major Rathbone," Conkey's Home Journal 6 (November 1899): 5-6ff. A youth serum facilitates an old love affair.

"The Man With the Gash," in The God of His Fathers (1901). A dream bandit who haunts a Yukon miser and cheat materializes to murder him.

"A Relic of the Pliocene," in The Faith of Men (1901). A Yukon gold prospector discovers a live mastadon.

"The Shadow and the Flash," in Moon Face (1906). Two men toy with invisibility to tragic results.

"Planchette," in Moon Face (1906). A ouija board sends ominous messages that come to fruition.

Before Adam (1907). A story of early human society that builds upon Social Darwinism and London's belief in the persistence of racial memories.

The Iron Heel (1908). A dystopian novel predicting the rise of fascism and the obstacles to an easy socialist revolution.

"A Curious Frament," in When God Laughs (1908). Another dystopian tale of socialist revolution.

"Goliah," in Revolution and Other Essays (1910). A machinist discovers Energon, a new form of energy that enables the ending of war and wage slavery.

The Scarlet Plague, (1912). A novella concerning the consequences of a worldwide pandemic as experienced in the San Francisco Bay area.

"When the World Was Young," in The Night-Born (1913). A young man is haunted by a "Teutonic barbarian" atavism that struggles to dominate his personality.

"The Unparalleled Invasion," in The Strength of the Strong (1914). A version of the
Yellow Peril theme infecting California thought at the time, which tells of invasion of the U.S. by China and combat by bacteriological warfare.

"The Strength of the Strong," in The Strength of the Strong (1914). A brilliant use of science fiction to educate the working class in the fundamentals of socialism; one of London's most popular stories in his day.

The Star Rover, 1914. The astral projection adventures of a prisoner in San Quentin whose experiences include life early Rome, the events leading to crucifixion of Christ, the Mormon meadow massacre, and being a castaway on a desert island.

"The Red One," in The Red One (1918). One of London's most accomplished stories, where he takes the familiar "lost race" formula popular in his day but denies any romanticism to the tribal culture.

Selected Critical Sources

This segment of London's writings has not attracted much critical response and deserves more study. This list provides a starting point, as well as examples of the variety of literrary analyses that have been applied to date.

Baskett, Sam. "Jack London's Heart of Darkness." American Quarterly 10 (Spring 1958): 66-77.

Berkove, Lawrence I. "A Parallax Connection in London's 'The Unparalleled Invasion'." American Literary Realism 24, 2 (Winter 1992): 33-39.

Campbell, Jeanne. "Falling Stars: Myth in The Red One." Jack London Newsletter, 11 (May-Dec. 1978): 86-96.

Gair, Christopher. "From Naturalism to Nature: Freedom and Constraint in The Star Rover." Jack London Journal 2 (1975): 118-132.

Gatti, Susan. "The Dark Laughter of Darell Standing: Comedy and the Absurd in Jack London's The Star Rover." Thalia XII (1992): 25-32.

Labor, Earle. "Jack London's 'Planchette': The Road Not Taken." The Pacific Historian 21 (Summer 1977): 138-46.

London, Jack. Selected Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, Introduction and annotations by Dick Weiderman. Lakemont, Georgia: Fictioneer Books, 1978.

London, Jack. The Science Fiction of Jack London: An Anthology. Edited with a New Introduction by Richard Gid Powers. Boston: Gregg Press, 1975.

Pankake, Jon. "Jack London's Wild Man: The Broken Myths of Before Adam." Modern Fiction Studies 22 (Spring, 1976): 37-50.

Teich, Nathaniel. "Marxist Dialectics in Content, Form, Point of View: Structures in Jack London's The Iron Heel." Modern Fiction Studies 22 (Spring, 1976): 85-99.

Travernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. "Jack London's Science Fiction." Jack London Newsletter 17 (Sept.-Dec. 1984): 71-78.

Walker, Dale L. The Alien Worlds of Jack London. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wolf House Books, 1973.

Ware, Elaine. "Jack London's Before Adam: Social Criticism in the Guise of Fantasy." Jack London Newsletter 19 (Sept.-Dec. 1986): 109-115; 21 (Jan.-Dec. 1988): 117-123.

Williams, James. "The Cell." Jack London Journal 2 (1995): 133-155.

Editor: Clarice Stasz, Professor of History, Sonoma State University.
Send suggestions, additions, or corrections to: stasz@sonoma.edu.
Mailing address: Department of History, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Pa rk CA 94928.

Copyright Clarice Stasz. All rights reserved.
Document maintained at http://london.sonoma.edu/Essays/scifi.html.
Last update 8/21/96.