Saturday, June 09, 2007

Going Down A Familiar Road

I just got finished dusting myself off after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, and while it was a good book, to a science fiction fan, this isn’t a new road at all. No, as far as post-apocalyptic SF goes, “The Road” is more like a new layer of asphalt paved over an existing highway that’s been paved and re-paved a bunch of times already. A highway which in turn was built over an old dirt road, which itself was nothing more than a widening of an old horse trail overtop of an older footpath which took the place of an old animal trail. The mainstream readers of the world (those part of Madame O’s cult of personality or otherwise) may see this as startling and new, but SF fans have been down this road before.
In describing the desolation of a blasted and dying world, to oppress the psyche of the reader to such a profound degree with its total finality, it takes McCarthy 284 pages to say what Ray Bradbury did in only 8 pages with “There Will Come Soft Rains” near the end of ‘The Martian Chronicles”.
For the sense of individuals trying to maintain and/or rebuild themselves amidst the ruin of an old world, Walter M. Miller’s “A Canticle for Liebowitz” paved the way decades ago, and gave us an entire cycle of death, rebirth and death again. This was echoed years later with Asimov and Silverberg’s novelization of “Nightfall”.
Individuals scavenging among the ruins for survival in a world where it’s nearly impossible to rebuild because other humans have been forced by that very struggle for survival to debase themselves beyond humanity? Let’s tap a pop culture icon for an example here: how about the “Mad Max” films?
And as for cross-country journeys through the badlands in the hopes of finding a better place, we can again look to film – how about some seriously retro stuff in the form of “Damnation Alley”? (ah, George Peppard ramming across the desert in his heavily-armed silver phallic symbol, the Landmaster – the American redneck’s wet dream) Or why not something a little more offbeat, like “Watership Down”? (the Richard Adams novel or the animated movie)
Books about the relationship between two people (father and son or other types of relationship) clinging to each other through tragedy are legion in SF and mainstream literature – far too many to mention. I’ll go with Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” again because it contains a few examples along these lines and it’s close at hand. Pretty much anything by Dickens if you want a mainstream example.
To keep things from being impossibly bleak, to make some nod to the hope that lies within human nature (at least the nature of some humans), McCarthy does offer a kernel of bright possibility at the end of his tale. But again, SF fans have seen the flower amidst the ashes before – let’s look at Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” again, the last chapter with two families having escaped the devastation on Earth in the hopes of opening a new chapter for humanity on Mars.
Again, let me stress, “The Road” isn’t a bad book. It’s quite good if you want to be depressed on a “Jude the Obscure” level. What I am saying is ignore the hype. It’s a good book, but not one of the greatest ever written, and certainly you don’t need a map to see that it’s not heading in any new directions.

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