“Before Adam” by Jack London

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Has this happened to you? You’ve settled into bed and have just fallen – or are just about to fall – asleep, but then you suddenly shake yourself fully awake after having the sense you are about to fall. What’s that all about, anyway? Well, it’s a common phenomenon known as a “hypnagogic myoclonic twitch” or “hypnic jerk” for short. While the cause is not completely known, it has to do with the brain misinterpreting “relaxation signals” from the muscles and being tricked into thinking you are falling down. It then takes the appropriate measures to prevent a fall. Many think this is an ancient reflex from when evolutionary ancestors slept in trees to avoid the many predators below.

Whatever the cause, author Jack London uses the latter idea brilliantly to explain the phenomenon that the narrator of his unique novella, “Before Adam,” is experiencing. You see, the narrator, since childhood, has spent night after night dreaming of a time long ago, recalling an earlier life of an ancient hominid progenitor. He believes this phenomenon is a freakish amplification of the type of “racial memory” (like the sensation of falling) everyone experiences, and that he is seeing a kind of replay of an actual life lived long ago.

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(my guess is that Big Tooth would fall somewhere between the third & fourth of this line-up) 🙂

All of this is explained in the first couple chapters, and the remainder of the novella is a narrative of the adventures of this ancestor, known as “Big-Tooth,” who begins his life living in the treetops of a primeval forest with his “species” and flees when the abuse of a step-parent (to apply the modern terminology) becomes more than he can endure. He next lives with “the horde” – a clan of cave people who spend time dodging saber-toothed tigers and also the clan leader, a oversized brute called “Red-Eye.” Other dangers include a new “race” of hominids called the “Fire-People” who have alone tamed fire and have even invented a rudimentary bow and arrow. They hunt the people of the horde, to whom a bow is a shocking development.

I found it remarkable that London’s imagination could run so far with this concept, especially in an age when the science of the day knew relatively little of the early ancestors of man. Perhaps, though, this is also why this is a novella rather than a longer work. London ran as far as he could with it. In an age where it is becoming harder and harder to find anything new under the sun to read, I found this work of just over one hundred years ago a refreshing change of pace.

Have you read “Before Adam?” What did you think about it? Is there other “prehistoric genre” literature that you can recall or recommend?

(Other cinematic interpretations of early and proto-humans: Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Raquel Welch as Luana being brought home to “meet the family” by Tumak in One Million Years B.C.)

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