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Matthew Raese

The Jack London Novel that Influenced a Century of Dystopian Fiction

My first encounter with Jack London’s work was the short story “To Build a Fire,” in which the protagonist attempts to survive the elements and keep wolves at bay in the wilderness by keeping a fire going while also fighting off exhaustion. Then, after encountering the novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang, I figured that all of London’s work was populated with outdoorsy men who either befriend or fight wolves. So it was a surprise to learn that he had also written a dystopian novel: The Iron Heel.

Pessimistic in tone and ironic in structure, proposing a world that is overrun by greed and where the wealthy Oligarchy use their influence to enslave the majority of the population of Earth, the novel is a stark contrast to the tone and content of much of London’s more well-known work. Published in 1908, The Iron Heel seems to predict some of the defining difficulties of the twentieth century, such as the first World War and the Great Depression. It also prefigures some of the paradigmatic dystopian novels that would come in the following half century such as 1984, Brave New World, and We, by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. In writing The Iron Heel, London created a template that other dystopian novels will follow and helped to define the genre.

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