14 November 2010
I’ve been on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick this year. It all started when I got Fallout 3 last Christmas, and once I finished that game I moved on to reading some of the classics of the genre like On the Beach and I am Legend and The Stand. There’s something oddly fascinating about seeing characters face the end of the world, and to me it’s even more interesting to see what happens afterward. How do people pick up the pieces and rebuild? Is it even possible to rebuild?
After a bit of an interlude with some good old fashioned high fantasy, I returned to the post-apocalypse last month with Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Road. I’m glad I took a break with some lighter reading before plunging into The Road because it is a ruthlessly grim depiction of the end of the world. Even the writing style and punctuation (or lack thereof) conveys a hopelessness and exhaustion. The sentences are typically very simple and matter-of-fact:
He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I’m right here.
It’s as if the story itself is so drained by the bleakness of the world that it can’t work up the energy to use quotation marks.
The plot is not your typical plot arc either. The story is told in vivid vignettes, each of which seems heavy with meaning. The amazing thing is how much emotion a simple paragraph can pack.
It’s tempting to romanticize the post-apocalypse genre, in much the same way that pirates or the middle ages are romanticized: the truth is really quite unpleasant so a tantalizing fiction is invented to take its place. The Road does not fall into this trap. It is merciless. As I followed the man and the boy on their journey down the road, huddling in the freezing cold, seeking food and clean water and safety I found myself looking around and appreciating all the comforts in life that we take for granted.
That’s really what the post-apocalyptic genre is all about. Like all sci-fi, it allows us to look at our own world with new eyes and learn something about it. The Road is fundamentally the story of a father’s love for his son, and that is what keeps them going when they have lost, quite literally, everything else. It doesn’t attempt to depict the reconstruction of society in the aftermath of disaster. Many of the details that are present in other stories in the genre are missing because they are beside the point. In fact, we never even learn what the disaster is that caused the end of the world in The Road. Here is the extent of the description devoted to the event that caused the world to be turned to an ash-covered, burned and broken wasteland:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.
As I said, the details of this don’t matter to the story, but as a planetary scientist I can’t help but speculate about it. Throughout the book, we see that the world is covered with ash. The snow comes down gray, and the characters have to wear cloth over their faces to avoid breathing it. They have to filter every drink they take. To my mind there are three possibilities for the disaster that led to the ashen wasteland of a world in The Road. The first, a standard for post-apocalyptic fiction, is nuclear war. That would explain the clocks stopping and the immediate loss of power (due to an electromagnetic pulse) and would certainly give you some flashes of light and a lot of ash and destruction. There’s another scene in The Road where the man and his son come across an area that has been burned in some sort of firestorm to the extent that the blacktop of the road melted. That could also be consistent. The glaring issue is that radiation is never mentioned in the book, and if enough nukes went off to shroud the planet in ash and end civilization, I would think radiation would be on the man’s mind a lot.
Another possibility is a huge volcanic eruption. I’m talking something more like the giant Lake Toba eruption that is thought to have nearly wiped out humans around 70,000 years ago. A giant eruption would certainly explain all the ash, and if it was large enough could shut down civilization pretty well, but I’m not sure how it would explain the “long shear of light”. It’s never explicitly stated, but all the hints in The Road indicate that it is set in the eastern US, and as far as I know there aren’t any likely volcanic hotspots in that area.
Finally, there’s the possibility of a meteor or comet impact. That would give you the long shear of light, along with just about as much ash and global destruction as you need. It could explain the firestorm-melted areas encountered by the man and the boy and the associated dimming of the sun and acid rain would make earth a pretty nasty place for a while. Just ask the dinosaurs. Personally, I think this is the most plausible explanation for the world depicted in The Road.
In any case, The Road is an excellent book, whether you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre or just a fan of good literature. Despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the sentence-level writing, it manages to be filled with extremely vivid and evocative scenes. Its non-traditional structure and writing style may turn some people off, as might its grim subject matter, but I encourage you to give it a try. All of the post-apocalyptic trappings serve the point of highlighting the relationship of the man with his son. In the end, this is a story about fatherhood. It is a relatively quick read, but every paragraph is full of meaning and I think I’ll be re-reading this one to see what I missed the first time through.