Today, more than a century after Jack London’s passing in 1916, most people probably remember the San Francisco-born author for his books of rugged adventure, such as his third novel, The Call of the Wild (1903), his fifth, The Sea-Wolf (1904), and his seventh, White Fang (1906). Fewer will recall that amongst London’s 23 novels, 21 short story collections, three memoirs, three plays, 22 books of nonfiction and 45 poems – all written during a life span of only 40 years – this most superhumanly prolific of authors also produced four books that must be classified as either fantasy or sci-fi. I have already written here of London’s 13th novel, The Scarlet Plague (1912), a marvelous postapocalyptic meditation, but also out there are his ninth novel, The Iron Heel (1907), a dystopian affair, and his 18th, The Star Rover (1915), a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid. And then there is the novel in question, London’s eighth, Before Adam, which was released several months after White Fang, and eight months after London’s hometown was largely destroyed by a certain seismic event that you’ve probably heard of before. (London, fortunately, was by that time living on his 1,000-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, north of the city.)
In 1906, London was 30 years old and his life was already ¾ over. But what a lot of living he’d already put under his belt! By the time he was 20, the author had worked in a cannery, become an oyster pirate, served aboard a sealing schooner, worked in a jute mill and a power plant, and lived the life of a hobo. During his next decade, he participated in the Klondike Gold Rush and soon became a writer, gotten married, had two kids, gotten divorced, covered the Russo-Japanese War as a correspondent, worked as a sports reporter, and married again. (The 1943 film Jack London does a very poor job in telling the story of his remarkable life.) All of London’s myriad experiences, of course, made for the perfect grist for his fictive mill, although Before Adam must be deemed solely a product of the imagination … aided a bit by what was known then in the field of evolutionary science. The novel originally appeared as a serial from 1906 – ’07 in the pages of Everybody’s Magazine, and as a 215-page Macmillan Company hardcover shortly thereafter, featuring extensive interior artwork by Charles Livingston Bull. The edition that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire was the one from Bison Books, from 2000. This was the book’s 10th incarnation, at least, with a good 10 more to follow, not counting electronic versions; the book, thus, should be a breeze to purchase today. But I do recommend this Bison edition, as it features not only Loren Eiseley’s scholarly epilogue from Macmillan’s 1962 edition, but also a most pleasant introduction by Dennis L. McKiernan, a detailed listing of the book’s characters, original reviews from The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times, and one of the most helpful maps that I’ve even been pleased to peruse in a fantasy work … not to mention the 50 small pieces of art and eight large pieces by Bull that had graced the 1907 hardcover! A beautiful volume, really, with easy-to-read large type wrapping around those charming illustrations. But as to London’s wonderful eighth novel itself:
It is told to us by a nameless, middle-aged narrator and details the dream experiences he has had since his youth. But perhaps “dream” is not the correct choice of word, because, as our narrator has only recently learned himself, these nighttime visions constitute, in actuality, a freakish ability that this one man possesses: to tap into the racial memory and witness the life of one of his distant forebears. Thus, from a series of nonconsecutive “dreams,” which our narrator has arranged for us in a neat chronological format, we learn all about the protoman who our 20th century guide calls Big-Tooth, and who lived in the Mid-Pleistocene epoch of some 100,000 years ago. During the time of Big-Tooth, three very different types of primate predominated in his area (which, by internal evidence and the presence of rhinos, lions and elephants, the reader assumes to be what is now known as Western Africa). There were the Tree People, or what we would today call the gorillas, monkeys and apes; Big-Tooth’s people, the Folk, bipedal men with apelike features who live in both trees and caves, possess the most rudimentary of tools, and are capable of making perhaps 40 sounds (the Folk have no names assigned to their individuals; “Big-Tooth” and all the other character names are inventions of our narrator); and the Fire People, the most advanced of the three races, who know not only how to use fire, but also bows and arrows and dugout canoes.
Big-Tooth’s life, it seems, had changed radically at an early age, when his, uh, stepfather (or, at least, his mother’s second mate, the Chatterer) had kicked him out of the family tree, causing the miserable youth to fend for himself. He had settled into the caves of the nearby Folk, where he’d befriended another youth, Lop-Ear, who remains his bosom buddy and cavemate throughout most of the tale. He’d also made an enemy of the fierce atavism called Red-Eye, a monstrous throwback who lives with the Folk despite terrorizing all the men and stealing and killing their women. During the course of the book, we witness the daily life of Big-Tooth, with all its sudden violence and easygoing days. We see him try to woo and win the affection of a shy and slightly more evolutionized woman dubbed the Swift One, defend himself against the hulking Red-Eye on several occasions, and fight off sabertooths, snakes and wild boars. In what is perhaps the book’s most fascinating section, he and Lop-Ear somehow make it across the river near their caves, and set off on a journey of exploration into the unknown land beyond. Here, they encounter fierce Tree People and vast tracts of mountainous waste. During their return trek, they are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the vicinity of the Fire People themselves, after having had two serious run-ins with them previously. In the book’s tragic conclusion, these Fire People, feeling the need to expand their turf, attack the Folk in their cave homes with smoke, fire and arrows, resulting in a months-long flight by the surviving Folk across a great swampland and a disastrous sojourn on the shore of a desolate, windswept beach. But this unfortunate diaspora is hardly the end of Big-Tooth and the Swift One’s time together…
In that 1907 review from the Times that I mentioned earlier, it is stated that “Jack London has performed a wonderful feat in so describing the lives and passions of these rudimentary beings,” and this reader could not agree more. Indeed, one of the great accomplishments of Before Adam is that it makes us feel for these man apes to the degree that it does. How touching it is when we see Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear curled up together, arms wrapped around one another, in sleep. The passions and desires of the Folk are already recognizable and identifiable: the loneliness and fright that Big-Tooth experiences when evicted from his tree home; his jealousy when Lop-Ear marries his stepsister and he is evicted from his cave; his fear of the night, of the man-eating wildlife, and especially of the Fire People; his nameless aching for the Swift One. Without a single line of actual dialogue, London enables us to fully understand many of the differentiated members of the Folk; a significant achievement.
His book is simply but beautifully written, not to mention strangely credible. The Folk are a people of only limited mentality, to put it mildly, and London realistically depicts their small accomplishments. Thus, we witness Lop-Ear pause in a retreat before the Fire Men, to help Big-Tooth remove an arrow from his leg, in an early instance of selflessness and charity. We see their great discovery of how gourds can be used to convey water and berries; how vines can be tied around bundles of ferns to make a bed; how it is possible to use one’s hands to paddle a log through water, and steer it; how, by locking legs, two men on two legs can effect a sort of catamaran. Midway through the book, Big-Tooth even captures a puppy and starts in on what might be man’s first attempt at canine domestication … a failed project, after Lop-Ear slays the dog and the friends decide to eat it! Other convincing accomplishments that London gives us are the rudimentary language of the Folk, the tribe’s discovery of ice, and, of course, the wonderful scene in which Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear discover fire by imitating the actions of the Fire Men, burning an entire district down in the process. Still, we see that the Folk are yet incapable of any real concerted cooperation or concentration. Even when forced with a grave crisis, the tribe is most likely to wind up having a “hee-hee council,” banging sticks and capering about in play. They are an easily distracted lot, to say the least. But still, it is obvious to the reader where London’s sympathies lie. Even though the Fire People have much more in common with 20th century man, London – as he did in The Call of the Wild and other stories – seems to indicate that he favors the more natural and primitive. Thus, the decimation of the Folk at the book’s conclusion is felt to be a tragedy, and not a victory for Homo sapiens.
The author gives us any number of wonderful scenes in his novel, including the Folk’s battle against a ravenous sabertooth; the first run-in with an aged but canny Fire Man; Big-Tooth’s eventual victory over Red-Eye; that lengthy odyssey that Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear are compelled to undertake; an epic battle between Red-Eye, the Swift One, Big-Tooth, Folk member Big-Face … and another sabertooth; and that eventual, all-out attack by the Fire Men. London paces his tale marvelously, giving us a near flawless demonstration of storytelling skill. Actually, he makes only one misstep that I could detect: when he mentions, late in the book, that Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear had poked that first Fire Man with sticks, while remaining safely above him in the branches of a tree. In actuality, however, all they had done was chatter down at him. But this, of course, pales into insignificance when compared to the other wonderful accomplishments in this touching book. Around 40 years later, William Golding would pen a similar story in his 1955 novel The Inheritors, which tells of a Neanderthal tribe being superseded by a more manlike group. But I don’t recall being nearly as moved or as entertained by that later book, as compared to London’s. In his introduction to the Bison edition, McKiernan calls Before Adam “a truly splendid fantasy,” and again, I could not agree more. To quote somebody else, namely our narrator at the beginning of his tale, “Taking it all in all, a fairly coherent and interesting story that I am sure you will agree.” And I cannot imagine any reader gainsaying him. This really is a splendid book. As for me, I see that Dover has also put out a book of Jack London’s short stories dealing with the fantastic, entitled, uh, Fantastic Tales, and that is where this reader will be headed next. Stay tuned…