1900s, 1906, 1907, Ace Books, Bison Frontiers of Imagination, Charles Livingston Bull, Everybody's Magazine, evolution, fantasy, Jack London, New English Library, pre-history, primitive man, proto-SF, racial memories, science fiction
These are our ancestors, and their history is our history. Remember that as surely as we one day swung down out of the trees and walked upright, just as surely, on a far earlier day, did we crawl up out of the sea and achieve our first adventure on land.
Most people think of Jack London more as a writer of nautical adventures and savage nature, since his most famous works are “To Build A Fire,” White Fang, The Sea Wolf, and The Call of the Wild. However, the prodigious writer’s repertoire also included some early science-fiction/fantasies, including the post-apocalyptic The Scarlet Plague, the dystopic The Iron Heel, the works collected in Fantastic Tales, and this one, Before Adam. Before Adam interests me in particular because it’s a fantasy written much like London’s trademark, naturalist works, a tale of nature red in fang and claw—but instead of wolf-dogs in the Yukon, it’s an adventure of primitive humanoids living in the distant past.
London has applied his naturalistic adventure writing to the prehistoric age, the Pleistocene in specific, a time when three separate groups of humanoids exist. First are the Tree People, arboreal humanoids closer to savage apes. Next are the Cave People (the “Folk”), a race on the verge of culture, living both in trees and cave shelters, developing the seeds of language and tools. Last are the Fire People, who have yet to master domestication but whose tools include fire and the deadly bow and arrow. A writer’s easier task would be to follow the Fire People, but London took the more challenging route—the one more suited to his talents—and made his protagonist one of the Cave People, a race lacking a real language (and therefore dialogue). Here, we follow the adventures of Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear, of the Swift One and the atavistic Red-Eye, roaming among the many wild carnivores and dangers of the Younger World.
After an intriguing first chapter, the second bogs down in London’s (now archaic) rationalizations for the novel as buried racial memories portraying a long-lost evolutionary ancestor to humanity, from a time “before Adam.” It’s a neat frame-story device, though one lacking conviction. Evolution was the newer theory at the time, and London’s work helped popularize it; evolution is still a predominant scientific theory, while genetic memories have went the way of the dodo. Also interesting is that London’s work came out during an era where science was looking for a theoretical “missing link”—London’s protagonist and his kind exist with two other contemporary humanoid races, the Tree-People and Fire-People, not as some lost stepping stone in human evolution. Without knowing it, London depicted a theory that was more fully established with discoveries such as Lucy.
London’s prose is not without flaws. He’s repetitive with information—e.g., telling us that Red-Eye is an atavism every five pages or so, whenever he shows up. The romance between Big-Tooth and the Swift One near the conclusion is dry, distant, and emotionless; most of the book is emotionally distant, the “romance” particularly so. The science is now dated, but there was no way for London to know that. And the novel revolves around a linear but disjointed series of events, the excuse for that being gaps lost by the genetic memory. However, London’s strengths displaying the raw savagery of nature, lone individuals hanging on to life by their fingertips in a hostile world, are in full swing. He pens impressive action sequences, and is a master of using animal protagonists, making them realistic and sympathetic without anthropomorphism them, a feat he accomplished with the proto-humanoids in Before Adam.
One of the advantages of the Bison Books edition over the public-domain print-on-demand crop is that it retains the illustrations; the original editions were profusely illustrated by Charles Livingston Bull, and while the illustrations can make a book feel childish, Bull’s portfolio is a fascinating representation of London’s thoughts and ideas. The animals, characters, and vistas of London’s prose come alive in the illustrations, which include a handful of full-page plates (sadly black and white) along with dozens of smaller portraits and illustrations scattered throughout the text. Missing them isn’t a crime, but they do add a verisimilitude to the novel.
Long since public domain, you can read a copy of Before Adam yourself from one of several locations. The Internet Archive‘s version is a grainy scan, but it includes all the original illustrations. Project Gutenberg lacks the illustrations but comes in different flavors depending on which e-reader you prefer.
Considering it was published over a hundred years ago, Before Adam is still vivid and compelling—an example of why Jack London is one of those authors we’ve retained as “great” in our collective consciousness. The novel is rough around the edges, and scientifically dated, but as entertainment it’s an impressively imagined look at the earliest humanoids and the brutal world in which they lived. London dies a remarkable job making the protagonists near-but-not-yet human, making the Folk unique and sympathetic yet savage and alien; he did not beautify their lives, nor did he fully humanize a non-human species. The picture of rudimentary humanity that London has painted is impressive, their adventures compelling. Really, the novel’s only bad aspect is that it’s too short. If you like SF from the Radium Age, read this one.