THE IRON HEEL by Jack London

by JF

The tone of Jack London’s futuristic-dystopian novel, written way back in 1906, reflects the strident marxism of its author. Back then even typically well-meaning writers like London zealously adhered to such garbage, believing it offered a positive hope for the betterment of mankind.

As a practical and dire prophecy, in many ways The Iron Heel was very prophetic indeed; but in its ultimate optimistim it was far from the mark. For example, London was prescient when he anticipated the ominous formation of the FBI in America, a national ID system, false flag operations, and most perhaps prescient of all, London was strikingly accurate in his prediction that 20th century oligarchs would inevitably seek to, and be successful in, “buying off” select American labor leaders to disrupt the political unity of the labor class en toto; however, unlike George Orwell, London grossly overestimated the collective political awareness of the labor class throughout.

Moreover, London’s technological “props” to provide backdrop for the story–the kinds of things an author who’s writing a futuristic novel must have in order to achieve quality realism–are not all that clever, in terms of both nomenclature and technology. For example, on the technological end of things, in London’s “futuristic world” people are still riding around in balloons instead of flying around in airplanes, and on the nomenclature end, groups of fighting mercenaries are simply called the “Fighting Groups.” Clearly had he taken more time to do so, London could have coined a catchier phrase than this and some of the others he uses.

This is a weakness in some of Jack London’s writing. He was extremely prolific in his abbreviated lifetime, but one of the problems with such radical proliferation is that some of his works appear to have been hurried, and such is the case here as, in addition to the faults already mentioned, the The Iron Heel contains precious little concrete detail throughout: cities and buildings and streets are simply not described; the characters come and go from scene to scene and have dialogue, but the reader never gets the sense that the characters are grounded in a real physical world, at least not until the climactic conflagration scenes at the end of the book. So the novel lacks depth, and for that reason more than anything else The Iron Heel is an inferior piece of literature than other better-known 20th century dystopian novels.

One more fault is the narration style: London chose to write the book in the first person, and from the point of view of a female character. As probably most London afficianados will admit, portraying female characters was never London’s strong suit.

Still, London’s keen intellect is here, even if it is rushed. Those prognostications which London got right in this book (and there are many more) make it a worthwhile and interesting–if ephemeral–read. His predictions of a dystopian world of the future were definitely more in line with George Orwell’s 1984 than with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
6/2008

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