One of the things which really annoys science fiction fans is non-sf authors writing science fiction novels but refusing to admit they have done exactly that. There have been plenty of examples – PD James’ The Children of Men, Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (of which Jeremy Paxman said it couldn’t be science fiction because it was good), and pretty much anything by Margaret Atwood which doesn’t feature “squids in space”…
Of course, the reverse is also true to some extent. We fans of science fiction are happy to claim for the genre works which we feel fit the genre’s remit, even though they were not written by sf writers, or even identified as sf by their authors. Such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Admittedly, Burgess was not unfriendly to sf – albeit not as friendly as Kingsley Amis or Michael Chabon – but he preferred to think of it as “futfic”.
Which brings us to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
It’s a mainstream novel by a mainstream author. Literary fiction, if you will. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And yet comparisons with sf novels are inevitable – George R Stewart’s Earth Abides and Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, especially.
Incidentally, I dislike the term “literary fiction”. It’s mis-used too often as a genre tag, a handy way to label fiction some people don’t like. So rather than being descriptive, or perhaps even aspirational, it becomes a barrier, a shorthand for “I won’t read this book because I read a book once that wasn’t a simple escapist tale and I didn’t like it, so all books like it must be rubbish”.
I prefer to think of fiction as occupying a scale similar to food. At one end you have fast food – junk reading, intended to entertain but doesn’t require much thought. At the other end, you have gourmet reading – prose to savour, books to think about after you’ve finished them, products of great talent and skill. And, of course, there’s everything between those two extremes.
But The Road… Comparisons to sf are inevitable because of The Road‘s subject. It is a post-apocalypse novel. Something destroyed civilisation, and most of the life on Earth, years before. A man and his son walk from somewhere in the north of the United States towards warmer climes at the coast. En route they encounter other survivors – some have turned to cannibalism, others to violent tribalism. But there is no hardy community of back-to-nature survivors.
Few sf novels, even ones about the end of the world, are as bleak as The Road. Perhaps that’s because science fiction – despite much discussion of late claiming the contrary – is an inherently optimistic genre. It takes as axiomatic that problems can be solved, that phenomena are open to explanation. It’s pure optimism to assume – to operate on the assumption – that the universe is explicable. And malleable. And part of the bleakness of The Road stems from its refusal to explain the cause of the apocalypse.
In fact, there’s very little in the way of explanation in The Road. The man and the boy are not even named. The man also displays knowledge from a variety of fields – medicine, engineering, woodcraft – but his background is never described.
And then there’s the prose. Which is a great deal better than that you’d expect to find in a sf novel. There are indeed well-written (gourmet, so to speak) sf novels, but the genre is not known for the quality of its writing for good reason. McCarthy’s prose is spare, often stark – frequently forgoing even verbs – and is as responsible for the novel’s sense of bleakness as its dour premise. Some of it works really well:
The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.
Some is less successful: the occasional odd verb, such as “… glassed the valley below them with the binoculars” or bizarre terms like “the snow lay in skifts all through the woods” and “the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires”. Skifts? Kerfs?
McCarthy’s punctuation is also… odd. Paragraphs are formatted as they would be on-line, with no indents and a line or two of space between them. But dialogue in a single paragraph is indented, and does not use inverted commas. This lack of quotation marks does somewhat distance the speech, which may have been the intent. McCarthy clearly doesn’t want the reader to get too close to the man or the boy. Or he would have named them.
I can think of no good reason, however, why he chose not to use apostrophes for certain constructions. The apostrophe is there in “there’s” and “they’re”; but not in “wont” or “cant” or “wouldnt”. I don’t understand the logic in not using it only for the elided “o” in “not”.
The Road is a very good novel indeed. But, despite its prizes, despite its acclaim, despite the film being made of it, The Road is not an important novel. It will not alter the way we think of post-apocalypse novels, it will not affect the relationship between sf and mainstream literature. At least, it will certainly not do that within the genre. Perhaps non-sf readers might think differently, but I suspect not.