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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

Jack London, bloody Socialist.


Book Review
Iron Heel (1908)
by Jack London

  A very clear trend in the 20th century portion of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list is the sheer proliferation of Novels.  For example, Iron Heel was published in 1908.  It joins five other books from the same year:  The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, The Inferno by Henri Barbusse and Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells:  All published in 1908.

  Compare the time span for six books on the same list from the 18th century.  You can start with The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox published in 1752 and get all the way to The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1765, for a span of 13 years.  If you take a similar approach in the 19th century, you are liable to go 5 years for the same number of titles.  In other words, a great many more "classics" were written in the 20th century.

  Fortunately the increase in the number of titles is matched by a corresponding decrease in the average length of each book.  Iron Heel is only 300 or so pages.  Like everyone else, I equate Jack London with stories about outdoor adventures, and before I started Iron Heel I assumed it was the name of a steam ship or a she wolf or something of that nature.  Instead, Iron Heel is a work of socialist/dystopian sci fiction/fantasy with a heavy emphasis on lengthy exposition.  In fact, Iron Heel is little BUT exposition, to the point where it reads more like a work of political science futurism than a novel.

  Iron Heel actually reminded me most of a Criterion Collection title, the Alexander Korda/H.G. Wells collabo Things To Come.  Both books work within the sci fi/socialist cross over that was itself firmly within the category of Utopian/Dystopian Fiction. In these works, the Author typically tries to describe the functioning of the alternate society.  Here, Wells leaves out the happy ending and focuses on a protracted civil war between the Oligarchic "Iron Heel" which is basically a term for the industrial/capitalist elite of the late 19th century in collaboration with the Government and the Judiciary and the Socialist, from whose perspective the "manuscript" is written.

  The purported author of the manuscript that is "discovered" in the distant future and whose transcription is the entire book itself is a kind of Sarah Connor figure- the wife of the leader of the Socialist Revolution, who is actually named "Ernest."  Although the prose could favorably- favorably- be described as "turgid,"  Iron Heel remains shocking in terms of the pessimistic and bloody future that London lays out half a decade before the First World War.

  It is clear from Iron Heel that were London alive today he would be saying "I told you so" about the Wikileaks/Snowden revelations about the National Security State apparatus. Before reading Iron Heel I knew that London was a leftist but I had no idea about the depth of his pessimism and his capacity to anticipate the totalitarianism of the 20th century.

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