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London, Jack

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US author John Griffith London (1876-1916), known primarily for his work outside the sf field. After leaving school at the age of 14, London spent seven years of adventure and hardship as an oyster pirate, sailor, hobo, prisoner and Klondike gold-seeker. During this period, he gave himself an education steeped in the most influential scientific and philosophic theories of the late nineteenth century – Darwinism (see Evolution; Social Darwinism), Nietzscheism and Marxism (see Economics; Politics) – which he was to amalgamate in his voluminous writings. These writings – in all about 500 nonfiction pieces, 200 stories, nineteen novels – include adventure tales, socialist essays and fiction, autobiographical narratives, and about twenty works of sf, including four novels.

His first sf story, "A Thousand Deaths" (May 1899 Black Cat), combines some key themes of nineteenth-century sf: a cold-hearted lone Scientist uses his own son in revivification experiments and is then dematerialized by a super-Weapon invented by the son. "The Rejuvenation of Major Rathbone" (November 1899 Conkey's Home Journal) displays a "rejuvenator" extracted from a "lymph compound" (see Rejuvenation). "The Shadow and the Flash" (June 1903 The Bookman) has two competing scientific geniuses attaining Invisibility, one by perfecting a pigment that absorbs all light, the other by achieving pure transparency. In "The Enemy of All the World" (October 1908 Redbook) a lone genius invents a super-Weapon and terrorizes the world. Racism (see Race in SF) runs through much of London's sf, most shockingly in "Unparalleled Invasion" (July 1910 McClure's), a Yellow Peril tale: in the late twentieth century, after Chinese population growth and work ethic has threatened the rest of the world, the White nations commit successful genocide through an aerial germ-warfare assault, and fill an emptied China with White settlers; a joyous epoch of "splendid mechanical, intellectual, and art output" can now begin.

One major area of London's sf is the prehistoric world (see Anthropology; Origin of Man; Prehistoric SF), which is explored in Before Adam (October 1906-February 1907 Everybody's Magazine; 1906), his first sf novel – which uses a favourite theme, atavism, as a device to project a primitive consciousness from the past into the lucid dreams of the book's contemporary narrator (see Apes as Human) – as well as in "The Strength of the Strong" (March 1911 Hampton's). Atavism appears also in "When the World was Young" (10 September 1910 Saturday Evening Post), in which a "magnificent" and "yellow-haired" savage shares the body of a successful California businessman, and in The Jacket (14 February-10 October 1914 Los Angeles Examiner: American Sunday Monthly Magazine; 1915; vt The Star Rover 1915), a novel based partly on the reported revelations of one Darrell Standing (the narrator), who had experienced a dissociation of mind from body under Torture in San Quentin.

In The Scarlet Plague (June 1912 London Magazine; 1914), which is set in and around San Francisco (see California), human history is viewed as cyclical; after the eponymous Pandemic (see also Disaster) destroys civilization in 2013, the Ruined Earth culture which follows soon reverts to primitive tribal existence. In his nonfiction "Apologies to Ishi" (April 1998 Interzone), David Pringle plausibly argues that the aged protagonist's estranged attempts to describe pre-holocaust life to his indifferent descendants deliberately echoes the plight of Ishi (circa 1860-1916), last survivor of the Yana people, after he was thrust into public view in 1911 in San Francisco; London then lived in Sonoma County, just north of the city. The novella "The Red One" (October 1918 Cosmopolitan) describes a contemporary stone-age society that has turned the eponymous Spaceship into the centrepiece of a death cult; the white protagonist of the tale penetrates the jungle to meet his death in the aura of unbearable vastation (see Horror in SF) conveyed by the trapped visitor from the stars; in his A Spectrum of Worlds (anth 1972) Thomas D Clareson associates his fate with Kurtz's in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1899 Blackwood's; 1902).

Several of London's sf works deal with the struggle between the capitalist class, trying to establish a fascist oligarchy, and the proletariat, striving for socialism. "A Curious Fragment" (10 December 1908 Town Topics), set in the twenty-eighth century, shows one of the ruling oligarchs encountering a severed arm bearing a petition from his industrial slaves, though a more optimistic view appears in Goliah: A Utopian Essay (February 1910 The Bookman; 1973 chap), in which a "scientific superman" (see Superman) masters the ultimate energy source, Energon, becomes master of the world's fate, and inaugurates a millennium of international socialism; both stories are assembled in Curious Fragments: Jack London's Tales of Fantasy Fiction edited by Dale L Walker (coll 1975; vt Fantastic Tales 1998). In The Dream of Debs (January 1909 International Socialist Review; circa 1912 chap) a Near-Future general strike brings the capitalist class to its knees. London's finest achievement in sf, and perhaps his masterpiece, is the Dystopian The Iron Heel (1907), which predicts a twentieth-century fascist oligarchy in the USA and recounts, through documents discovered by scholars in the socialist twenty-seventh century (see Ruins and Futurity), the epic revolutionary struggle of the enslaved proletariat.

Many of London's shorter works can be found reprinted in The Science Fiction of Jack London (coll 1975) edited by Richard Gid Powers, which also has a good introduction. [HBF]

see also: History of SF; Medicine; Pulp; Reincarnation; Taboos.

John Griffith London

born San Francisco, California: 12 January 1876

died Glen Ellen, California: 22 November 1916

works (selected)

  • The Call of the Wild (New York: Macmillan, 1903) [Dogs: hb/]
  • Before Adam (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906) [first appeared October 1906-February 1907 Everybody's Magazine: hb/]
  • The Iron Heel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907) [hb/]
  • The Scarlet Plague (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915) [first appeared June 1912 London Magazine: hb/Gordon Grant]
  • The Jacket: (The Star Rover) (London: Mills and Boon, 1915) [first appeared 14 February-10 October 1914 Los Angeles Examiner: American Sunday Monthly Magazine as "The Star Rover": hb/]
  • Hearts of Three (London: Mills and Boon, 1918) [hb/]

collections and stories


The Collected Science Fiction and Fantasy of Jack London

individual titles

posthumous publications and collections (highly selected)


about the author

  • Charmian London. The Book of Jack London (New York: Century, 1921) [biography: published in two vols: hb/photographic]
  • H C Woodbridge. Jack London: A Bibliography (Georgetown, California: Talisman Press, 1966) [bibliography: rev 1973: hb/]
  • Gorman Beauchamp. Jack London (Mercer Island, Washington: Starmont House, 1984) [nonfiction: chap: hb/]


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