Friday, 15 February 2008

Fiction or Science fiction?

Q: When is a work of science fiction not science fiction?
A: When it's published by a respected literary novelist.

In recent years there have been a number of notable literary authors who have taken up themes usually confined to the realm of science fiction. Some authors, such as Margaret Atwood, have crossed this divide several times (most recently in the dystopian, apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake). Others have explored traditionally science fictional themes in single novels. These have included (less successfully, to my mind) Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and (more successfully) David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Now comes Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road.

The novel follows a man and his young son as they travel across the wasted remains of the southern United States of America. An unspecified catastrophe has destroyed civilisation, killed much of humanity and appears to have mortality wounded the Earth. The resulting cooling climate forces the novel's characters to travel southwards along "the road" to reach a warmer, more equable clime. As they travel they only occasionally encounter other humans, but as the novel gradually makes clear, humanity has largely turned predatory and cannibalistic as food supplies have dwindled and order has completely failed.

The novel succeeds brilliantly in infusing a continual sense of dread into the proceedings it describes. Even when nothing happens to the protagonists, their fear is palpable. As is their complete denial of the future. Although travelling southwards to reach a warmer climate, they are only living for today. They recognise that each meal might be their last, and that the next bend in the road may conceal enemies who will kill them - if they are lucky.

Narratively, the novel sees the father and his son navigating a number of hurdles along the road. Some involve mistrustful or deadly interactions with other survivors, while others deal with the lengths to which they must go to find food and shelter. Their meetings with other survivors are counterpointed between the father's extreme distrust and the son's desire to help the unfortunates they meet. McCarthy succeeds particularly well in these sections, making the reader experience first one, then the other, and then both viewpoints.

The novel has a number of small touches that suffuse it powerfully. One is the gun that the father and son keep with them. Although they use it once in self-defence (and rob themselves of a crucial second bullet), this is not why they treasure it - instead, it's because the gun affords them the chance to kill themselves should they run afoul of some of the more savage survivors. Another touch is the sparing description of the world around them, which serves to allow the reader to conjure a perfectly bleak world in their own imagination. Leaving the cause of the disaster unstated plays a similar role [*].

In summary, The Road is a first-rate literary exploration of the post-apocalyptic world. Compared to conventional science fictional interpretations of this, for example The Postman, the writing skill employed by McCarthy is clearly of a different, higher, order of magnitude. He presents a haunting vision of a despoiled Earth, bereft of any civilising qualities and with a diminishing, doomed future. What hope there is is doled out, in meagre, sparing quantities, much like food in the novel. The creation of such an evocative, if fear-filled, future is something that conventional science fiction only occasionally attains. And if writing such a novel requires that it be re-labelled as fiction, or speculative fiction, then so be it. Much as I like (indeed, love) conventional science fiction, it's always interesting to see what a literary novelist can make of it.

[*] Wearing my scientist hat, judging from the description of a seemingly dying world, the disaster most closely resembles a nuclear winter. With constant references to the cold, it certainly doesn't appear to represent our greenhouse future, although it's possible that a natural disaster like an impact event could cause similar damage. In fact, the lack of reference to any radioactive hazards is suggestive of this, although periodically the damage described does hint at some selectively violent event. Reading between the lines, the near-total loss of faith in human qualities is strongly suggestive that, whatever the disaster was, it was self-inflicted. As an aside, nothing in the novel prevents it from being an alternative past - if it does represent the future, it's a close one.

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