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Literature / The Iron Heel

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Kowalt: 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) - around 2630 or so. 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 it takes three more centuries and at least three more large-scale revolts to finally depose the Iron Heel.
  • 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.
  • California Collapse: "The Big One" happens in 2368, devastating Sonoma County. When the Everhard Manuscript is discovered a few centuries later, it revives historical interest in the pre-BOM era, and historians are able to find the former site of one of Everhard's resistance cells, uncovered by the earthquake-shifted landscape.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Par for the course for Jack London's political writings. The Iron Heel's control over the means of the production combined with their control over the media, thus influencing public opinion, enables them to keep the Working Class in a state of constant anxiety and ignorance. Most of the Working Class are too ground down to do anything but just try and keep their jobs, let alone organize and rebel, and the Oligarchy squeezes them of every drop they can to fund their luxurious lifestyles.
  • 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 and each other. 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.
  • Dewey Defeats Truman: As a Future History depicting a time that has now passed, it was inevitable that the novel would fall into this trope somewhat. Some examples:
    • London predicted the shrinking of the middle class in the wake of monopolistic trusts crushing labour and small- and mid-sized businesses. In reality, the U.S. Progressive Era led to a breakup of exactly those trusts.
    • London also predicted that the Socialist Party would become a major party in the United States strong enough to have a realistic chance of winning major elections. While Eugene V. Debs, running on the Socialist ticket, actually did manage to get several million votes, he never did have a realistic chance of winning an election. The failure of this prediction is likely interrelated with the failure of London's previous prediction, and indeed laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act may well have been passed in part precisely to limit the appeal of socialism.
    • Additionally, London predicted that when international tensions reached their breaking point, the solidarity of the international labour movement would prevent the United States, Germany, and other nations from being drawn into war. In reality, international capitalist interests demonstrated more solidarity at the time. In fairness, London was far from the only writer to get this wrong.
    • That said, some of London's predictions proved to be eerily prescient. One example is his prediction that international tensions would come to a head in 1913 (it was actually 1914). Additionally, while history in the United States diverged quite radically from his predicted course, history in certain other countries (with Salvador Allende's Chile being the most cited example) has actually adhered quite closely to the outline proposed by this novel, to the point where some publishers have lampshaded this by depicting a boot stamping on Allende's face.
    • In London's narrative, Oklahoma never becomes a state; instead the Pocock family turns the entire territory into one huge strip mine, over which they rule without mercy for five generations.
  • Dystopia: Quite possibly the Trope Maker. It's certainly widely considered the first modern example of one, and codified several tropes widely associated with the genre.
  • 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.
  • Femme Fatale Spy: Anna Roylston, "The Red Virgin", one of the most famous operatives of Everhard's Resistance. Beautiful, cunning, and utterly merciless to her enemies, she is responsible for the downfall of many an agent of the Iron Heel.
  • 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.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Thanks to the framing device, we already know from the beginning how Ernest and Avis's story will end. Badly.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: One of the most infamous members of the Oligarchy is Albert Pocock. Described as a languid, unassuming man of unremarkable beginnings, he manages to rise through the ranks of upper management very quickly, eventually becoming the brutal overseer of the Oklahoma strip-mining operation. Within the world of the story he's spoken of much as we speak of Mussolini: a cruel and swaggering tyrant.
  • 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 become just as monstrous and cruel as the regime they're fighting.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: The Brotherhood of Man, the ruling society of the future Framing Device, established a new calendar when it overthrew the Iron Heel. Anthony Meredith is writing in the year 419 BOM - which is approximately 2630 AD/CE.
  • 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, tarnishing his reputation in academia. After that, the university needs very little persuasion to revoke his tenure, taking away his means of employment. 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.
  • Industrial Ghetto: Members of the Working Class under the Iron Heel are crammed into huge overcrowded cities.
  • 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 Turn-of-the-Century Socialist orator and political revolutionary. It kind of comes with the territory.
  • The Mole: Extensive use by both sides in the conflict.
  • More Deadly Than the Male: Some of the most dangerous of Everhard's operatives are women, mainly because they're underestimated by the Oligarchy and permitted to get close to powerful individuals in the guise of domestic servants and lovers. And since many of them have suffered personally, or have had family suffer, at the hands of the Iron Heel, they take their vengeance with frightening enthusiasm.
  • 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 Quisling: The "Favored Unions," labor organizations who have collaborated with the Iron Heel, reaping benefits and privileges while crushing any other union that tries to spring up.
  • 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 went nuts after philosophizing himself into a corner.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Well, four years into the electoral cycle in the United States.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Meredith calls Avis Everhard this, but he concedes that, due to her being right down in the thick of these violent, world-changing events, she couldn't possibly be expected to maintain the detached and impartial air of a trained historian, or demonstrate the same level of awareness of the long-term consequences of these events. 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.


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