You remember for Throwback Thursday when I did Voltaire’s Micromegas, one of the oldest science fiction short stories we’ve ever had? Well, I’m about to go almost as far back in our Throwback Thursday time machine with a little known novel published in 1907 called “The Iron Heel” by Jack London.
Now, for those of you who are versed in American literature, I imagine you’re taking a bit of a double take. Jack London? The dude who wrote all those books about dogs and wolves? Well, to be fair, he wrote a whole lot more than ‘Call of the Wild’ and ‘White Fang’, though they will definitely remain to be his most well-loved works.
Known as one of America’s greatest naturalist writers, Jack London also dabbled in science fiction and produced a piece that is one of the earliest known speculative fictions about a dystopian future.
It’s for that fact alone that I bring it up for Throwback Thursday, because I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but dystopian futures are in, the two that come most readily to mind being ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, and ‘Divergent‘ movies.
Full disclaimer, though. This is not my favorite science fiction novel, nor is it my favorite Jack London piece. I do, however, find it exceedingly interest in terms of when it was produced and how it compares to its successors. It also has a creative narrative style that I would not think possible for how early this novel fits in the timeline of science fiction.
First, if you’re not particularly fond of having socialist rhetoric tossed at you, this may not be the novel for you (though, I think reading about 1900 socialism is incredibly fun, but that I can accept is probably just me). Like a lot of science fiction, this book is less about science and technological changes, but rather about what the politics of the future will be like. It therefore, though I don’t think this is necessarily indicative of the genre, can be exceedingly pedantic. The first chapter, in sheer breadth of rhetoric, feels like it belongs in an Ayn Rand novel (though the politics are incompatible, the need to express his point over and over is certainly reminiscent of the other). If not Ayn Rand, it does feel a lot like Plato’s ‘The Republic’ from time to time.
But let’s get down to the plot.
Essentially, ‘The Iron Heel’ is made up of two narratives. The first being an old manuscript that is found hundreds of years later, and is the primary source. The second narrative is that of a historian who rather condescendingly corrects the “errors” of the manuscript, and also gives an air of tragic absolution to the plot being told.
Set from 1912 to 1932, the background of the novel is in a world taken over by Oligarchies, an obvious commentary on the Robber Barons that were squeezing the American public during that time. It tells the tale of the Everhards, a man and wife who lead the first and second revolts that are doomed to fail, though there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel seeing as the historian that is correcting the manuscript no longer lives under the rule of the American oligarchy, the eponymous Iron Heel, as it had been toppled previously.
It centers on the writer of the manuscript, Avis Everhard, who is born into privilege, but later ends up fighting in an underground resistance movement after marrying her rebel husband.
The novel, though not particularly well-known today, influenced one of the most famous dystopian futures ever written: George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Not too shabby, eh? Totally worthy of being a throwback.
Though, as I mentioned, it is not my favorite piece of science fiction (largely for the prose style, not the plot), I hope that some ambitious screen writer will pick it up and create an amazing alternate history film. Maybe that’s being too hopeful, but I don’t think it hurts to dream. The battles for skyscrapers which treated like fortresses in the battles of yore at the end of the book alone evoke the most spectacular imagery. It also has a lot of steampunk elements (the warships in particular bring that to mind), so it seems to me it would make a fantastic movie. Clean up the narrative a bit, make the characters a bit more interesting, and boom. Awesome movie.
If you’re at all interested in this little gem of a science fiction piece, it is easy to obtain. Through the glories of public domain you can download it for free for your kindle here, or listen to this free audio book below.