The Road

The Road - Cormac McCarthy A father, his son, three bullets, and a nuclear wasteland.

That is the simple premise of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I read it this past weekend after several friends recommended it to me, raving. And damn, after four hours of intense reading, I agree. This is a great book. The best I’ve read since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

If Hemmingway wrote a post-apocalyptic novel, peppered with Faulknerisms and the bleak hopelessness of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, this would be it. Think Old Man and the Sea meets nuclear winter.

The narrative is stripped of character names, of extended back-stories, of long stretches of philosophizing. There is only the father, the son, and the road.

What is so wonderful about this story is the relationship between the father and his son. The dialog is sparse. The themes understated. Though they travel through endless landscapes of gray, the story bursts with intense emotional color. It’s easily the best book I’ve read in the past six months, perhaps six years. Do yourself a favor and read it.

But I’ve a question. Is it science fiction? My answer is no. But then I think science fiction is too broad a term.

24 Replies to “The Road”

  1. Devin and I recently had an email exchange about this topic. My view is that The Road is science fiction. Classic post-apocalyptic novels have been an SF subgenre for decades. Think: On the Beach; Alas, Babylon; Earth Abides; Lucifer’s Hammer (although the latter is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic)–are all character-focused stories about people picking up the pieces after some global cataclysm; The Road is no different. What makes it SF is that the speculative element (in this case, the end-of–the-world setting) is crucial to the plot. Without it, in fact, you would have no story. In contrast, if you wrote a novel about teen romance that just happens to take place on a Martian colony, I don’t think that would necessarily qualify as SF UNLESS the speculative element, the setting in that case, is was somehow crucial to the plot (i.e., if you remove it, do you still have a story?)

    I hate to say it, but the fact that many people don’t consider The Road to be SF (it’s not in the SF section of Border’s or Barnes and Noble) is due to the fact that a highly regarded literary author wrote it. It’s another example of SF being considered an inferior product, a genre more about aliens and technology than about human emotion–a perception that I think a lot of us in Altered Fluid are trying to bring an end to. (Similarly, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, another best-seller from last year written by a non-SF writer was likewise deemed non-SF (and it’s about friggin’ time travel!!!) because, well, it’s “serious,” it’s a romance about real human beings with emotions. All of this is just a slap in the face to SF writers.

    In sum, I think The Road is SF, and it’s damned good SF too. (Nothing inconsistent about that). But it wouldn’t surprise me if Cormac McCarthy denied it.

    (Oh, and btw, I thought that McCarthy made a conscious decision to be vague about the cause of the end-of-the-world setting he envisions–one of the things I liked about the novel. It was far from clear it was nuclear-related).

  2. My problem is that science fiction, to me, is about one or two things: taking an idea of something that might be possible in the present and extrapolating that into the future. However, typically this idea is scientific or technological in nature. “The Road” is certainly fiction about a possible future, but is it scientific or technological?

    Science fiction is too broad a term. “The Road” is most definitely speculative fiction, but I would hesitate to use “science” as the defining adjective.

    I also believe that, after thinking about it and reading some reviews online, that it was in many ways a religious allegory akin to perhaps the struggle of Job. Notice that the only named figure in the whole of the novel was “Ely,” possibly short for Elijah. In that case, the Deus ex Machina some people mentioned may have been intentional. The question asked is then, “Okay, God, you’re providing for me, but why keep me alive in this hell?” I.e. what’s the point of Providence? I think the novel answers that in the relationship between father and son. Love alone makes life worth it.

  3. Very insightful analysis of the book as a religious allegory.

    It’s always a slippery slope when you try to define the borders of a genre. But I agree with John Scalzi’s three criteria for SF: 1. The Work Takes Place in the Future; 2. The Work Uses Technology that Does Not Currently Exist; 3. Events Are, By and Large, Rationally Based. He writes: “One of these criteria is often sufficient to describe a work as SF, but it’s best when at least two of the criteria are in play. The Road Warrior, for example, takes place in future time and is rationally based, even if the technology in it is already known to us.”

    Here are some other collected–and truly far-ranging–definitions of “science fiction”:

  4. It’s very subjective. Some of those definitions of science fiction would include “The Road” and others wouldn’t. By Scalzi’s definition, the book would not be science fiction. It does not use any technology that doesn’t currently exist.

    I think here the broader question is about genre, that weird little classification system we use to describe books and to sort them on bookshelves. Do you think this book would get a larger audience on the science fiction shelves? I don’t. Yet science fiction fans have found it and are reading it. Genre fans are willing to venture out of their circle, but would fans of mainstream literature (perhaps a genre in its own right) be as willing to walk over to the science fiction stacks?

  5. Actually, Scalzi says that you only need one of the three elements or preferably two to make it SF, but he would *certainly* put “The Road” in the SF category given his take on “On the Beach”–another post-apocalyptic novel (and movie) about people trying to get by in a post-nuclear-ravaged futureworld (no technology):

    “[Q]uite a lot of “science fiction” is not at all scientific in any rigorous sense (although it is all fiction). Nevertheless, “science fiction” is a useful common term for what might more accurately be described as “rationally-oriented speculative fiction,” and it’s been use for something along the order of 80 years, so it has a common currency.

    “I would also note that science fiction doesn’t have to call attention to its speculative elements to be science fiction. One of the movies in the Canon, On the Beach, qualifies as science fiction because it speculates on the end of the world thanks to a nuclear exchange — but it does so in such a prosaic, no special-effects fashion that most people blink hard when you say, “that’s science fiction.” Well, it is — it’s the end of the world as we know it.”

    Thank you, Scalzi.

  6. And on your other point about mainstream literary readers not venturing into the SF section–exactly! That’s why mainstream writers would love to avoid that scarlet-letter SF label (which translates into lower sales, not to mention critical disdain) when they write SF.

  7. “1984” is more science fictional than “The Road” by leaps and bounds. The ubiquitous surveillance, the infamous Big Brother, was a concept that didn’t exist in Orwell’s day, but its possible presence in the future was inferred in the late 40s when he wrote it. I would say that “1984” relied heavily on technology for the plot.

    But again, I think simple definitions, if something is in or out of genre, are too limiting. “1984” is social commentary as much as “The Road” is, and certainly the former is considered more than just science fiction.

  8. Do you really think that technology played such a large part of that novel? I don’t think so. It was almost completely about political ideology– and yet it’s clearly SF. If instead of Big Brother’s monitor you substituted armed spies in evey house (in other words, if you nixed the technology) I still think it’d be SF. Why? Because, like The Road, it’s about an imagined future in which the nightmare setting is integral to the plot. Likewise Y the Last Man (no technology) and Children of Men (no technology). I guess my definition of science fiction is in the traditional camp of those who say you don’t necessarily have to have “science” in the story (though apparently there are enough definitions of SF out there to satisfy anyone’s definition. :))

    All of that being said, I’ll ditto your sentiment that labels are unnecesarily limiting (though it is kind of fun trying to apply them).

  9. “The Road” is in no way SF. There is nothing that exists that shows an advancement of technology. It shows the exact opposite of it. I don’t buy that something taking place “in the future” is SF. “The Road” could take place tomorrow (with the exception of the time since the disaster). How far in the future does something have to be, then, to be SF? A hundred years? A hundred hours?

    The fact that nuclear weapons were used doesn’t make this SF, either, because we don’t know that is what happened. How do we know that is what caused this landscape? We don’t. Flashes of light and thuds traveling through the ground. That’s all we get. The main thing I love about the book is that we never know what caused this to come to pass. We can assume, but we never know, much the same way a person living through this would probably never know except through guesses and rumors.

    I guess it’s up to the individual as labels are as contrary as the people who create and use them. I’ve read and watched a lot of Sci-fi, and not for one instant while reading “The Road” did it ever occur to me it was sci-fi. Speculative, sure, but never sci-fi.

  10. I’m with Devin here. I would label the book “speculative” but not “science” fiction. There’s a weird overlap, but I’d fall back to my original point that I think science fiction is a poor term simply because the word “science” carries so much baggage. “Speculative” is so much better in terms of what it conveys.

    Also, does placing a story in the future automatically make it science fiction? I would say no.

    I read somewhere online that the clocks in the novel stop at 1:17, a supposed reference to Revelations 1:17. Does that make it religious fiction?

  11. One thing that I keep thinking on is “Lucifer’s Hammer”. That took place in the future, and while it did have aspects of the space program in it, there was nothing out-there enough that would make it unbelievable in that time. So we tag it as science fiction, as it happens in the relative future. Then what do we do with it today, when we read this book written over 30 years ago? Is it still sci-fi because that’s what it was when it came out, or is it now alternative history? It’s all very plausible for the time written.

    As far as the 1:17 goes, I knew there was a reason he was pointing that out but it escaped me at the time. It’s a book I’ll need to read over and over to get all of it, I’m sure. There’s also a point half-way through the text where he jumps to the boy’s POV for a mere sentence. I need to study that for meaning as well.

    I also agree with Matt that this is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. The only one I would give higher marks to is another McCarthy book, “Blood Meridian”.


  12. I remember where he switched to the boy’s POV. I thought it was for two paragraphs, where the father is dying and the boy wanders off for a minute. I think he was perhaps setting us up for the later switch to the boy’s POV at the end. But it was the first time they really separate, where the boy has to survive on his own, so that might be why too.

  13. Yes, that point and also at one point much earlier in the book, and it was only for a sentence or two. I’ll have to find it. Oh wait, you have my book!

  14. Hey, if you guys want to put all of those classic post-apocalyptic novels–that in *every single way* resemble The Road–into the non-SF category, trust me, you’re in the wee minority. End-of-the world stories have always been considered SF. Just see all the “non-tech”-picking-up-the-pieces books I’ve listed above: On the Beach; Alas, Baylon; Earth Abides. (There are more–in fact, it’s a whole subgenre–but those are the ones that I can remember). Those have always been considered SF.

    It’s only now that we’ve come up with all this additional genre terminologies that folks are trying to redefine SF to narrow it to require “tech” or aliens. SF, as I define it, may be broad, but “speculative fiction” is even broader. In fact, I think it’s too broad of a term. It encompasses SF, fantasy, horror and, arguably, fiction itself! Isn’t the term “speculative fiction” redundant?

    Interesting point, Devin, about old SF novels that speak about a “future time” that has now passed. I’d still judge them by what they were at the time they were written though. (1984 is still SF).

    Finally, To Kill A Mockingbird? SF all the way! (Okay, maybe not).

  15. Not sure if these are the sentences you’re referring to Devin, but these lines on pg 232 threw me:

    He looked across the water to the country beyond.
    What are we going to do Papa? he said.
    Well what are we, said the boy.

    Huh? Who’s talking to whom?

  16. You’re right, “spec fic” is redundant in a way. But genre terms, when you get right down to it, are stupid little things that only serve a purpose for

    1) arrangement in a bookstore for easy finding of books about similar topics

    2) a supremely vague classification used to describe a book when a) recommending it to friends b) reviewing it in a public forum.

    I won’t say anymore whether “The Road” is sci-fi or not, I will only say that I grew up buying books in the sci-fi section and if I picked it up there (unlikely) I probably would have put it down (as a child) because it wasn’t what I was expecting science fiction to be.

    As for that quoted scene, the boy speaks twice because the father doesn’t answer. The father doesn’t know what they are going to do and is (perhaps) thinking about his gun, imo. Thus the silence because if they stop, they die.

  17. On that dialogue from the book: As soon as I read it on the blog post, it made sense to me. I guess it threw me because normally you don’t start a new paragraph when the same speaker is talking (unless it’s a long monologue in which the speaker changes subjects, warranting a new paragraph). McCarthy certainly pushes the limits of grammar throughout the novel, particularly in his barrage of fragments early on, giving us fleeting glimpses of nightmarish images from this post-apocalyptic world–all to to great effect. But what makes the novel so affecting is the love between a father and son that he captures with so few words.

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