Jack London’s The Iron Heel

This wasn’t due to go up until tomorrow, but with the fucking Tories somehow re-elected this morning…

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FHCMEP0MLFirst editions: New York: Macmillan, 1907; London: Everett, 1907
Edition used: Edinburgh: Canongate Books (Rebel Inc. Classic), 1999

The Iron Heel is the incomplete memoir of Avis, written in 1932, on the eve of the Second Revolt. It recounts how, in 1912, she and her wealthy father met the revolutionary socialist, and her future husband, Ernest Everhard, and were won to his cause. Within a year, their lives are in disarray as the capitalist interests who dominate institutions and an increasingly tyrannical government seize complete control of America. This plutocratic oligarchy – dubbed ‘the Iron Heel’ by Ernest – forces the socialists underground. The novel ends with horrific descriptions of the destruction of Chicago in the failed First Revolt, and breaks off abruptly, leaving no account of the subsequent fifteen years. The memoir is introduced and edited by Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 409 B.O.M. (Brotherhood Of Man), the socialist era that follows three centuries of the Iron Heel.

6e75ede3299bc0149a0073dba92eb6d6In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback described the sf story as ‘a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’. To his list of exemplars – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe – Gernsback could have added Jack London. The Iron Heel reworks the ‘guided tour’ typical of the utopian novel: Avis, her father and Bishop Morehouse enter a new world – that of the immiserated, impoverished working class – and Ernest, their guide, explains in detail its logic and inner workings. The novel also anticipates the hard-sf which emerged from the pulp tradition (and which can still, arguably, be defined in Gernsback’s terms). The science in question is not, however, physics or astronomy but London’s idiosyncratic version of scientific socialism. The near-future events of the novel are predicated on a (vulgar) Marxist analysis of the process of capital accumulation and the cyclical crises it inevitably produces.

London’s extrapolative premises and technique are most obvious in the chapter ‘The Mathematics of a Dream’. Beginning with the ‘ABCs of commerce’ (108) – the production of value by labour and the extraction of surplus-value (profit) by the capitalist – Ernest takes his audience step-by-step through the logic of capital accumulation which leads to periods of overproduction and mass unemployment. His satiric proposal – that destruction of surpluses would be an effective way to deal with cyclical over-production, as in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) – is dismissed as absurd. But in a world in which, for example, agricultural subsidies are paid for deliberate underproduction to stabilise prices and ‘surplus’ crops are routinely destroyed (while people elsewhere starve), The Iron Heel’s prophetic value is difficult to ignore.

A curious aspect of the novel, and of its socialism, is the treatment of the all-but-absent proletariat. Avis’s conversion commences with an investigation into the fate of Jackson, a man who lost his arm in an industrial accident. The machine that maimed him is revealed to be part of a much larger apparatus, an economic and social system which – through coercion, collusion, corruption and conspiracy – denies him justice and subordinates and perverts other ‘slaves of the machine’. Years later, Avis meets a foreman who dishonestly testified against Jackson in order to protect his own job and provide for his family, and is now a member of a group of fanatical assassins. This is not to avenge his dead wife and daughters, he declares, but

‘’tis revenge for my blasted manhood’. (206)

Thus Avis’s career as a revolutionary is circumscribed by images of castrated workers. And when she describes one worker who has been a socialist for over twenty years, it is as

phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him at all … He could obey orders. (198)

a4fa9708a0f91a712cdf60581558931aThis denial of agency to the working class is indicative of the peculiar type of socialism, blended with aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ misunderstanding of evolution, advocated by London (who puts at least one of his own speeches/essays, ‘Revolution’, into Ernest’s mouth).

As his name suggests, Ernest Everhard possesses a phallic intensity of focus and purpose. He physically overwhelms Avis. When she first mentions him by name, he is linked to images of penetration, engorgement and assimilation (6). Her fantasies and desires are ripe with the language of domination (22). Her feelings pulsate with attraction and repulsion, until she is swept off her feet

by the splendid invincible rush of him. (55)

She conceives of him as a messiah – he is an eagle, a lamb, a lion, ‘the spirit of regnant labour’ (63), Christ – and longs to melt before him, to merge her ‘life completely into his’ (138). When they are on the run, Avis learns to take on a completely different appearance through controlling her body whereas Ernest requires cosmetic surgery to transform him: she is fluid, he is hard.

Avis, then, despite her origins, exemplifies what London’s socialism requires of the working class, ‘the People of the Abyss’.[1] In the Chicago uprising, they are not only depicted as dumb beasts but as an inundation, a surging fluid mass. Without form or identity, they are to be shaped or sacrificed by the revolutionary party.

TheIronHeelCapitalV.Labour565This system of images – rigidly armoured male bodies; women and the feminised masses as a threatening flood – is typical of the literature produced by the German Freikorps in the 1920s, many of whom later played significant roles in the SA and SS.[2] And so at the heart of this ‘small folk Bible of scientific socialism’ we find a form of fascism.

Or perhaps not.

London’s novel depicts failed revolutions. This suggests an anxiety about the revolutionaries’ terroristic vanguardism, and the novel does not claim that the final revolution is of that ilk. Rather, the post-revolutionary editorial framework emphasises Ernest’s relative insignificance, Avis’s ‘errors of interpretation’ (1), the ‘equal futility’ of the First and Second Revolts and the

many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. (4)

North America and Asia are beneath the Iron Heel of the Oligarchs for 300 years, but as early as 1912 a wave of socialist revolutions swept the world, inspired and empowered by the general strike which prevented a war between the US and Germany. Perhaps it is such collective action and international solidarity that leads to the Brotherhood of Man.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

This expression, which London also used as the title of his 1903 book of reportage on the London poor, is borrowed from HG Wells’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901).

See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).


Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre and Expédition nocturne autour de ma chambre

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FWUCxEkvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Originally published: 1795 and 1825 respectively
Edition used: Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus 2004)

Confined to his room for 42 days, the narrator undertakes an expedition around it.[i] His closely observed account of its content and disposition wanders off into recollections, fancies, speculations and other digressions. Thirty years later, and without the company of his valet or his dog, he undertakes a similar journey around a different room over the course of a single night.

These two humorous short tales gently mock the conventions of sentimental fiction in a way not dissimilar to Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). At the same time, de Maistre’s digressive manner owes something to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) – Voyage not only alludes explicitly to the hobby horse of Tristram’s Uncle Toby, but also has a distinctly Sterne-ian chapter twelve, consisting of a lengthy ellipsis in the middle of which appear the words ‘the mound’ (17).

But what makes de Maistre’s diptych interesting to the scholar of fantasy lies elsewhere.

In Voyage, the narrator offers a pseudo-Cartesian metaphysics in which

man is composed of a soul and a beast. – These two beings are absolutely distinct, but so closely fitted together, or one on top of the other, that the soul must have a certain superiority over the beast to be in a position to draw a distinction between them. (9)

350px-Guillaume_pour_MaistreAs evidence for this dualism, the narrator offers an example that seems to equate the beast with an autonomic, almost machinic, material substratum, and the soul with the imagination (while also offering a provocation to the reader of a book which seems incapable of fastening its attention on anything for very long):

 When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read. – This comes from the fact that your soul, having ordered its companion to read to it, did not warn it of the brief absence on which it was about to embark; as a result, the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening. (10)

Why would the explorer and adventurer need to leave his room, if the mere act of being handed a wet sponge with which to wipe clean the portrait of a lover can make his

soul sweep across a hundred million leagues in a single instant. (21)

Or if one can find in fictional worlds a spur to the imagination (51)?

From the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos – this is the vast terrain which I wander across in every direction at leisure; for I do not lack time any more than I lack space. It is here that I transport my existence, on the trail of Homer, Milton, Virgil, Ossian, etc.
All the events that occur between these two eras, all the countries, all the world and all the beings who have lived between these two limits – it is all mine, it all belongs to me just as much and just as legitimately as the vessels that entered the Piraeus belonged to a certain Athenian. (53)

What is refreshing about this advocacy of imaginative indulgence is its absolute lack of moralism. The narrator is clearly something of an amorous adventurer when unconfined, and so when (in chapter 39) his soul berates his beast

‘What!’ said my soul, ‘so that’s how it is: during my absence, instead of restoring your strength by having a peaceful sleep, and thereby making yourself more able to execute my orders, you have insolently decided’ (the term was a bit strong) ‘to succumb to transports of delight that my will had not sanctioned?’ (57)

131215101517673575it is singularly unconvincing, not least because his soul, before waking, had clearly been engaged in an erotic dream about Mme de Hautcastel. The narrator’s disavowal of his wet-dream and its physiological consequences follows precisely the same logic as that which underlies cyberpunk’s spurning of the flesh in favour of disembodied cyberspatial elation two centuries later – as does the narrator’s solipsism.

The narrator’s reveries turn to matters cosmological in two key passages in the sequel story, in which he sits astride his window sill and contemplates the night sky. While the combination of confinement and flights of fantasy is common enough – see, for example, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Jack London’s The Star Rover (1915) and those Gothic fictions in which a socially-entrapped heroine misinterprets mundane events as supernatural – these moments in Journey seem to hint at something specifically science-fictional: not so much the cognitive breakthrough conclusions of stories like Robert Heinlein’s ‘Universe’ (1941) or Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ (1941), which convert the profound ontological revelation of humanity’s cosmic insignificance into a plot twist, but something closer to Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937), in which the night sky observed from a hillside is subsumed into an escalating spiral of immensity. The response of Journey’s narrator to immensity is to proffer a thesis whose paradoxical nature acknowledges its own inadequacy. Chapter 16 reads:

The system of the world

I believe, then, that as space is finite, creation is also finite, and that God has created in his eternity an infinity of worlds in the immensity of space. (95)

And should one be tempted to misread this as something profound, the following chapter commences with the narrator admitting that he does not himself understand it

any better than all the other systems that have hitherto been hatched […]; but mine has the precious advantage of being contained within a couple of lines. (96)

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

This period of confinement coincides with the punishment meted out to de Maistre for a duelling incident.