Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Road -- Cormac McCarthy

There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of post-apocalypse novels, most of them by genre writers and therefore overlooked by the literary guys. Now and then a mainstream writer discovers doomsday, and the resulting novel gets a lot of play. The first one I remember like that was Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide. Then came On the Beach by Neville Shute. And now we have Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was such a hit that it won the Pulitzer.

It's basically a two-character story. T
he two, the man and the boy, are among the last survivors of some kind of apocalyptic event and they wander through what appears to be a nuclear winter, looking for food, starving, avoiding roving bands of cannibals and worse. They follow the road, trying to get to the sea. The man's not sure what he expects to find when they arrive. If they arrive. Maybe it's all about someone's search for meaning even where there is no meaning, or maybe it's about humanity's ability to hope when there appears to be no reason to hope. Or if there's no meaning at the end of the journey, maybe the journey itself is meaningful. Or . . . I think I'll stop now.

McCarthy's up to his usual stylistic tricks: no quotation marks, scanty use of the comma, and so on. This time he's very heavy on the sentence fragments, one after another. Took me nearly 100 pages to stop being irritated by them. I was brought up short by other things occasionally, sentences like this one: What are you doing? he hissed. You know what I'm going to say, right? Just try hissing it. And this one, which just made me say, "Huh?": . . . and the fire was good for no more than an hour or perhaps a bit more. But I liked this book better than No Country for Old Men, maybe because I have a weakness for post-apocalypse stories. It turned out to have a more hopeful ending than I was expecting. While it's not exactly jolly, it's not as bleak as the novel had prepared me for.

Here are a few of my favorite post-apocalypse tales, all of them as award-worthy as McCarthy's novel in my book:

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
I Am Legend
, Richard Matheson
Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny
On the Beach, Neville Shute
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart
Dr. Bloodmoney, Philip K. Dick

Through Darkest America
, Neal Barrett, Jr.
Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
The Postman, David Brin
The Stand, Stephen King
Swan Song
, Robert McCammon
Farnham's Freehold
, Robert A. Heinlein
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
Day of the Triffids, John Wyndam

19 comments:

Ed Gorman said...

Ya got this old sf fan all choked up jest a lookin at that list of yours. Most of these are the are among the finest books I've ever read. Glad to see Dr Bloodmoney listed. Too often considered minor Dick but to me the characters make it major.

Bill Crider said...

I like Dr. Bloodmoney quite a bit. I even like the cover of that old Ace edition.

Anonymous said...

A GIFT UPON THE SHORE by M.K. Wren is a wonderful book and should be better known.

sas

Richard Heft said...

John Wyndham also wrote the excellent THE CHRYSALIDS, a post-apocalyptic novel in which religious fanatics are faced with the specter of an infinite series of genetic mutations, including Telepaths, whose powers threaten their narrow worldview.

Gerard said...

I've read only a couple from your list. "The Postman" is one I think about occasionally.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see the often overlooked ALAS,BABYLON on your list. I've been drinking "Speedballs" ever since reading it.

Todd Mason said...

...and yet...Pat Frank was the Cormac McCarthy of his day. Not a "newsstand sf" guy, and held apart from the riffraff by at least some reviewers. PD James's moronic THE CHILDREN OF MEN was preceeded by moronic similar apocalypses by Taylor Caldwell. Then there were those interesting books by George Stewart...maybe not Olaf Stapledon, but who else was? Meanwhile, back on the ranch...you think that FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD, which can make one long to be reading THE CHILDREN OF MEN in (great big) spots, is in the same class as the fine THE LONG TOMORROW? De gustibus, if so.

TM said...

Not, I should add, that you mentioned James, I was just reminded of her, with the ridiculous seriousness with which her bibble-bibble was treated. The film, while still pretty dull and self-indulgent (at least in those big spots), was wise to toss most of the book and its attitude.

Bill Crider said...

Haven't read Children of Men and am not likely to. Lots of people love the movie, though. As for Farnham's Freehold, my excuse is that I was young and impressionable when I read that one, and I've never looked at it again.

TM said...

Yeah, almost everything's more worth your time than FARNHAM revisits, unless you're ready for the working model for all the bad RAH to come after. CHILDREN OF MEN the film is flashy and dull at the same time, and very dumb...I think those who like it are either stroked by its time-displaced celebration of hippies/hippy ethos (with none of the responsibility that, say, John Varley brings to that task), impressed by its slick flashiness, or both.

Fred Blosser said...

I keep waiting for a big wave of new post-apocalyp movies and books, which always seem to thrive in tense times, and boy, are today's times tense or what? I think the last wave occurred in the '80s (the Mad Max movies, Red Dawn, all of those pbs by Jerry Ahern) in the wake of the oil embargos and Reagan's saber rattling against the USSR. My favorite civilization-went-to-hell tale is Edgar Rice Burroughs' old-timey BEYOND THIRTY aka THE LOST CONTINENT, where the UK and continental Europe revert to the stone age after WWI, and lions roam Picadilly Circus (their forebears having escaped from the zoos and bred). Does anyone remember a post-atomic war short story by Donald Hamilton in an early issue of MANHUNT?

Bill Crider said...

I'd love to read that Hamilton story!

Fred Blosser said...

"Throwback," in the August 1953 issue. If anybody ever compiles a BEST OF MANHUNT, it should be included.

Bill Crider said...

I'll have to check to see if I have that one.

K said...

I've read five of the books on your list. I hated Canticle for Leibowitz, can't really remember Farnham's Freehold, but loved Alas, Babylone. I've read it at least three times and shall read it again.

Karin M said...

K is me. Something happened ...

Bill Crider said...

The comments have been screwy.

I like Canticle quite a bit. First read it 50 years or so ago as a serial in F&SF. I also like Alas, Babylon, obviously.

Anonymous said...

Bill: Read all those on your list, though I might make a slightly different list, but it would include many of these. And I agree, THE ROAD was a disappointment. I did like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, though, even though about two thirds through I got the feeling he realized he was writing a good crime novel and said, dang, and decided to "literary" it up. Which he didn't really. Just messed it up some. But it is so good when it's good, and the movie is a good version. This seems to be the sort of thing that no one is neutral on however. And, what's up with the lack of quotation marks. I kind of like minimal comma use, but, man, there's times when I don't know who's talking or who's doing what. Joe Lansdale

Ed said...

Someone hated A Canticle for Leibowitz? I can't remember anyone ever saying that before.