Sunday, August 17, 2008

Before Adam by Jack London

Once upon a time, fiction writers wrote fiction, and magazines published it. The walls between "mainstream" and "genre" hadn't been built yet. Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Jack London, among many others, wrote things that today look like science fiction or fantasy. Of course speculative fiction was different back then as well. Airplanes were high tech, steam power was normal and there was nothing punk about it, and there was a lot of genuine curiosity about human evolution. We knew about Darwin, but Watson and Crick had not yet been born—we were decades away from knowing about DNA. Mendel had done his sweet pea experiments, so there was a theory of genetic inheritance, but the details were fuzzy. There was a century less worth of known fossil record than today.

It was in this context, in 1907, that Jack London wrote a short novel titled Before Adam. In it he takes Darwinian theory, imagines a time of transition between different levels of protohumans, and uses that to look at different types of violence. No over-romanticized noble savages here! As one would expect from the author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang and “To Build a Fire,” London’s prehistoric milieu is full of nature, red in tooth and claw. It’s a vision of the past that I’m pretty sure is impossible, and I’m not sure how plausible it would have been even back before WWI, but the scientific accuracy is completely secondary to the theme that London is expounding on: violence, how it may have impacted human evolution, and what that says about us.

In the novel London depicts three separate groups of protohumans. There are the Tree People, not far removed from apes. They are bigger, have trouble walking upright, and mostly live in trees. They’re somewhat nomadic and only seem to band together in family groups. The group at the center of the story is the Cave People. They are good walkers, and have found a grouping of caves that allows them to live in a larger group close to water. However, they still act in many ways like simians (they specifically put me in mind of chimpanzees at times). They have almost no grasp of tool using. They’ve just figured out that gourds can be used to carry water. The last and most advanced group is the Fire People. They may be close to what we think of as Neanderthals. They control fire, live in tribal groupings, and use bows and arrows to hunt. It’s pretty clear which group will be our ancestors.

Before discussing the central theme, I’d like to examine London’s framing device. The narrator is a man who has been dreaming the experiences of one of the Cave People his entire life. He’s dreamed the Cave Person’s entire life in disjointed fragments, and the narrative is what he’s been able to piece together over the years. As a young child this scared him half to death, as one could imagine. In his college years he learned about evolution, germ-plasm, inheritance, and racial memory, and finally decided that he is essentially a mutant (he calls himself a “freak,” using an older meaning of the word) in whom the racial memory from one particular individual is uncommonly (and improbably) strong. There are a couple interesting things about this: in later examples of Prehistoric fiction (as this sub-genre of early SF can be called) the authors generally don’t feel a need to frame the stories at all. They simply tell the tale with no particular explanation of how the information comes to the present day. This can be seen in Cleve Carmill’s story for Healy & McComas’ anthology, Adventures in Time and Space titled “The Link.” That story also deals with a time of transitions between pre-humans and homo sapiens, but without any contemporary framing device. I’ve noticed that a lot of older stories feel the need to have some sort of frame: the last letter, a found diary, a tale related on a steamer ship, the narrative of the last survivor; that sort of thing. Later stories almost never have those sorts of frames. I’m not at all sure what caused the transition; perhaps simple authorial convenience combined with obvious audience acceptance for stand-alone fantastic tales. In this context Before Adam definitely belongs to the older school of speculative fiction before it branched off from the mainstream.

The other interesting point is the “racial memory” device. London had used it before in Call of the Wild, when Buck, a domesticated dog, starts to recover his Wolf heritage. This trope is not archaic at all: Karen Traviss is currently using it to good effect in her Wess’har series (starting with City of Pearl), and for a more trivial example the show Stargate: SG1 also uses it in their bad-guy aliens, the symbiotic Goa'uld. In Stargate one supposes that this is essentially a shortcut: why are young Goa’uld a threat? Because they’ve got big strong host bodies and they already know everything an adult Goa’uld knows because they’ve got racial memory. Traviss and London use it for a different purpose: to give a human insight into truly alien experiences. Traviss’ bio-modified human gains the racial memories of an adversarial insectoid race; London’s narrator dreams about the experiences of an unimaginably distant ancestor. Seeing the trope used at such different points in the time spectrum of genre history helped me see its utility. London also gets a great side benefit from his use of racial memory: for the narrator to be dreaming the experience of this one individual, that individual needs to have successfully passed his genes on somehow. Given that things get pretty tough for the little guy, we keep asking ourselves “will he survive, how will he pass on his DNA?” and that helps keep us turning the pages.

Having disposed of the mechanics, let’s get back to the theme. Violence. First off there are the animals. The POV character is rightfully afraid of many animals in the woods: snakes, boars and tigers amongst others. Any of the animals will kill in defence or out of hunger, as one would expect. In this way they are predictable. This could be taken as a sort of natural baseline of violence against which the protohumans are measured. Then there is an atavistic specimen of the Tree People living with the Cave People, whom the narrator names “Red Eye.” He is huge and incredibly, pointlessly brutal. He grabs whichever female takes his fancy (her previous mate can do nothing; the tribe is neither strong enough nor well-organized enough to deter Red Eye), and then kills them when he gets bored with them. Only once does he allow one of his mates to survive long enough to bear a child. This is obviously not a terribly successful strategy for winning the game of natural selection. This is senseless violence for its own sake—pure barbarity.

Next are the Cave People. They are not particularly violent at all. They deal with most threats by running away. When the saber-toothed tiger comes into their space they all retreat into their caves. Once they feel safe, they throw rocks at him and laugh at his agitation. This is great sport for them. They are easily amused and have a very low sense of humor, as one would expect for beings not far removed from chimps. Basically they can be violent but it is purposeless (which describes the POV character through most of the narrative: he wanders around quite a bit, but to no specific purpose, the only real goal he sticks to is finding his eventual mate). The narrator does not approve of this much, but one does get a sense of innocence about it: they are very much like children. They run, but they’ll be bullies if they can, and have no compunction about laughing at the misery of others. (There is no more receptive audience for slapstick humor than a three-year old.)

**SPOILERS AHEAD, that is, if you’re worried about spoilers for a book that’s 101 years old—I really think you’ve had your chance to catch up**

This de-romanticized “state of grace” is eventually toppled by the Fire People. The Fire People are so advanced as to be almost incomprehensible to the Cave People. After the POV character and his friend accidentally set fire to a Fire People camp by playing around with one of their banked campfires, the Fire People look to relocate. Specifically, they look to relocate to the Cave People’s caves. They methodically smoke them out and shoot them as they try to climb to safety. Those few that survive are hunted down in the forest. Here is where we get the most tension about whether or not the ancestor character will live or die. In the end it is clear that his is a dead-end branch of the human family tree, although his genes have mixed in to the main branch somehow. The Fire People are obviously the people from whom we are descended. They are violent, but more importantly their violence is goal-driven, purposeful. This makes them much more successful than the mere brute or the innocently bullying child. London is perhaps saying that Before Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, we fell when we started using violence to achieve our ends.

It is an unsurprisingly cynical view of humanity from an author who rarely if ever wrote about the better angels of our nature. I doubt this sort of story could work today; in fact I imagine that Prehistoric fiction (Clan of the Cave Bear excepted) would be much too weighted down with the Creationism vs. Evolution debate today to have anything to say about anything else. Before Adam is refreshing in that it accepts Darwinism as a scientific given, not something controversial, and goes back to really look at what might have made our ancestors so successful in the natural selection game. Unfortunately, it’s not altruism that put us over the top.

Is it a good story? If you enjoy London’s style you’ll certainly enjoy this. It has his hallmark excellence of description of natural settings and the denizens thereof. It doesn’t really have characters, but it has a strong narrative drive. You root for our little POV character, and hope that things work out for him even while you suspect the worst. This is a short novel and a fast read. It’s perhaps not a critical part of the history of the genre or of London’s oeuvre, but I am glad that I picked it up.

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