Literature: The Iron Heel
: But suppose the trusts win in this battle over the ownership of the machines, and the world? Everhard
: Then you, and labor, and all of us, will be crushed under the iron heel of a despotism as relentless and terrible as any despotism that has blackened the pages of the history of man. That will be a good name for that despotism, the Iron Heel
A novel written by Jack London
in 1908. One of the earliest works of what would eventually be called Science Fiction, it tells the story of a Not-Too-Distant Future, where an evil Mega Corp. Takes Over The World
and enslaves all Mankind, save for a few plucky revolutionaries...Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Well, it turns out Jack London set the stage for Dystopian Sci-Fi, singlehandedly codifying most of the Tropes we've now come to recognize as standard for the genre. Informed by the politics of The Gilded Age
and by London's personal political views, The Iron Heel
was meant to be something of a cautionary tale, a warning of what could happen if things were allowed to continue as they were. As such the novel can seem somewhat dry and preachy, and frankly, many of the Tropes he invented have been done much better since 1908
The bulk of the novel takes place within a Framing Device
, in the form of a historical text written by one Anthony Meredith, in the far-flung year of 419 BOM (Brotherhood Of Man). The text is an analysis of the recently-discovered "Everhard Manuscript," a lost chronicle of the tumultuous years between 1912 and 1932, when the so-called "Iron Heel" was first consolidating its power. The Iron Heel was a powerful cabal of industrialists that rose to prominence in the early years of the 20th Century, eventually growing so powerful that they managed to take over the government of the United States, squeeze the Middle Class into extinction, and turn the bulk of the population into overworked slaves in all-but-name. In its early days the Iron Heel was opposed by a radical group led by the visionary thinker Ernest Everhard, and later by his wife Avis, the actual author of the Everhard Manuscript. Through the Manuscript we learn how the Iron Heel rose to power, first in the United States and later throughout the world, what measures they took to maintain that power (it ain't pretty), and what Everhard and his allies did to try and resist them. Thanks to the Framing Device, however, we readers know from the start that Everhard's rebellion fails, and that the Iron Heel endures for centuries after his death.
While perhaps not as compelling a read today as it was for the contemporary audience, The Iron Heel
serves as a fairly accurate reflection of the fears of organized labor during the Gilded Age, and the future London posits seemed scarily possible in the American social and political climate at the dawn of the Progressive Era. And the entire concept of "Big Business enslaves the world!" got its start right here; any work of Science Fiction featuring evil corporations, soulless technological advancement, or economic devastation owes something to this story.
Read it at Project Gutenberg here.
Tropes featured in "The Iron Heel" include:
- Apocalyptic Log: Avis Everhard's manuscript might or might not be this. Anthony Meredith, the historian from the Framing Device, points out that it just ends mid-sentence. History does not record her fate.
- Author Tract: Very much a soapbox for Jack London's Socialist ideals.
- Bittersweet Ending / Downer Ending: By the end of Avis's manuscript, the First Revolt has been crushed, Chicago has been lost, and Ernest is dead. But Avis holds out hope that the Second Revolt they're planning will succeed. Meredith, speaking from some seven hundred years in the future, notes that the Second Revolt fails completely, and the Iron Heel holds sway for centuries to come.
- Bourgeois Bohemian: Professor Cunningham and his friends start out this way. They have progressive opinions but no strong political inclinations, and their dinner parties where they discuss the politics and current events of the day are mainly just entertainment for them. That changes when they invite Ernest Everhard to dinner one night: he opens their eyes to the threat of the rising Oligarchy and the plight of the average working man...and Cunningham's daughter Avis starts to fall in love with him.
- Break the Cutie: The sad tale of Bishop Morehouse. A sheltered but good-hearted clergyman never really exposed to the misery of common humanity, once he realizes how bad it is out there he speaks out against it and is promptly destroyed for it by agents of the Iron Heel.
- Crapsack World: Pretty standard futuristic Dystopia: an oligarchy of businessmen and industrialists hold all the political and economic power, and live in disgusting luxury in "wonder cities," exclusive high-tech paradise communities. The vast majority of the population lives in crowded filthy slums, laboring long hours for subsistence-level compensation. Conditions are so dehumanizing that the workers actually devolve mentally, becoming almost feral. Outside of the cities there is only chaos, as embattled farming communes regress into feudal states and clash constantly with Iron Heel mercenaries. The individual cells of Everhard's Resistance form similar communes, which are relatively more peaceful and equitable, but the methods they use to maintain their secrecy are no less brutal and cruel than the Iron Heel's methods to maintain order.
- Day of the Jackboot: One of the earliest depictions in literature of Fascism in action.
- Defector from Decadence: Many later members of the Resistance are children of the ruling class who've grown disillusioned with the Iron Heel.
- Fantastic Caste System: The Iron Heel develops a rigid class system: the members of the Oligarchy on top, then the mercenaries, then the "Favored Unions," and at the bottom the huge population of workers.
- Footnote Fever: Avis Everhard's narrative is frequently broken by footnotes written by Meredith, relating a historical anecdote or explaining something for his audience. And Meredith comes across as a rather stuffy and condescending scholar from a more "advanced" time, so some of them are actually pretty funny in a dark way. He frequently translates early 20th-Century slang for the benefit of the 27th-Century reader (even though London's audience would know exactly what the characters are saying). Oh, and apparently they don't have Mexican food in the future.
- "Funny Aneurysm" Moment: London's nightmarish vision for the future has been, for the most part, averted. But as Science Fiction is wont to be, the story is eerily prescient on a few things: like a European war in the 1910s that the US gets drawn into. Or a cabal of powerful businessmen trying to take over the government.
- Genius Bonus: Meredith's note that, by his time, nobody remembers what a "tamale" is, actually has some political symbolism. Being cheap, portable, and relatively nutritious, tamales were a popular food for poor itinerant workers in the Deep South during the early 20th Century, and were thus associated with poverty and dead-end unskilled labor. The fact that, by Meredith's time, nobody even knows what they are, implies a much higher quality of life under the Brotherhood of Man.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Avis is very much in love with her husband, and devotes a great deal of her manuscript to talking about his passion and energy. Yeah...she's not just talking about his political activism...
- Gray and Grey Morality: There are good and bad individuals on both sides of the conflict. Once the Iron Heel establishes its control over the government, Avis notes that, surprisingly, many members of the ruling class actually develop a sort of sense of Noblesse Oblige toward the underclasses, and that some of them become great artists and engineers that advance the progress of human civilization. Meanwhile, there are plenty of members of the Resistance who have let their rage consume them and turn them into violent monsters.
- Humiliation Conga: The Iron Heel's favorite tactic to discredit their enemies. Avis's father suffers one when he tries to speak out against them. First a cabal-controlled newspaper takes one of his remarks out of context and uses it to paint him as a dangerous revolutionary. Then the university is, ahem, "persuaded" to dismiss him from his post. And finally his house is taken from him, due to foreclosure on a mortgage that doesn't even exist. The joke turns out to be on the Iron Heel, though, because Professor Cunningham actually finds the loss of everything to be liberating, and he manages to carve a somewhat happy existence out of his remaining years.
- Kill 'em All: The Iron Heel crushes the First Revolt first by using double-agents to draw all the Revolutionaries to Chicago. Then they stir up a city-wide riot that gives them the pretense to send in their mercenaries, who basically wipe Chicago from the face of the earth. Avis and Ernest barely make it out alive.
- Large Ham: Ernest Everhard is a Socialist orator and later political revolutionary. It kind of comes with the territory.
- Les Collaborateurs: The "Favored Unions," members of the labor class who work to keep the Iron Heel in power.
- The Mole: Extensive use by both sides in the conflict.
- Nightmare Fuel: The siege of Chicago. London describes it in nauseating detail, from the heaps of mangled bodies that actually block the streets, to Avis's encounter with the rioting workers who barely seem human after a lifetime of grueling and degrading work, and then being worked up into a murderous rage by the Oligarchs.
- Private Military Contractors: How the Iron Heel maintains order. As the regime evolves they develop into their own social caste.
- Punch Clock Villain: While working with Ernest in the early days, Avis discovers that the bulk of the people working for the Iron Heel aren't bad people at all; they're just hopelessly ensnared in a vast machine that they are powerless to affect, and all they want to do is be able to feed their families.
- The Purge: The Iron Heel wipes out most of the Resistance in Chicago...along with most of the population of the city.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Avis does not sugar-coat the things the Revolutionaries have to do in their desperation to survive.
- Spoiled Sweet: Avis starts out this way, the privileged daughter of a renowned scientist and scholar. Her relationship with Ernest exposes her to the plight of the poor and humble, and leads her away from her privileged life.
- Take That: Jack London absolutely despised Social Darwinism. He has Anthony Meredith throw in a dig at Friedrich Nietzsche, calling him a crazy person who philosophized himself into a corner and off the edge into madness.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future: Well, four years into the future...one electoral cycle in the United States.
- Unreliable Narrator: Meredith calls Avis Everhard this, but he's charitable enough to admit that she wasn't a trained historian, and she couldn't possibly know the long-term consequences of the events she was living through. And also that she's just a woman.
- We Have Reserves: The Iron Heel's main resource is numbers: the vast population of workers kept under their thrall that they can guide and manipulate to do their bidding. This is one of the reasons they sacrifice Chicago; they've got plenty more workers ready to step up and fill the empty spaces.