Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but a science fiction novel just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Of course, no one is willing to admit that Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel The Road is a work of science fiction. But this is symptomatic of a recurring pattern with books of this sort. The tremendous creativity on display in the world of speculative fiction is masked by a conspiracy of book stores and publishing houses to keep high quality works out of the genre categories.
So you won’t see Cormac McCarthy’s book on the shelves alongside Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein any time soon. The same is true of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler's Wife, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and many other examples. If the science fiction category strikes many readers as unbearably lowbrow, perhaps it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In previous works, Cormac McCarthy has depicted gritty, unforgiving landscapes, usually located in the American Southwest and across the border in Mexico. His tales are marked by conflict and violence. McCarthy is to American fiction what Sam Peckinpah is to Hollywood film. His heroes rarely triumph, they struggling merely to survive.
But McCarthy has never painted a bleaker picture than in The Road. The novel opens in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Details are never provided, but some event of mass destruction has left behind a nuclear winter. Cities are demolished, food supply is scanty, and roving gangs of marauders terrorize the isolated survivors.
In this unforgiving world, a man and his son struggle to reach the coast, where they hope to find other survivors and fresh supplies. McCarthy builds his story around the constant risks and challenges faced by this pair on their dangerous journey. Many things remain unsaid – the cities are unnamed, the protagonists as well, the historical setting is left an enigma. Instead the reader is presented with the human dimension of the story in all its starkness and immediacy.
The novel has a relentless, cinematic quality to its development. But, as always with McCarthy, the psychological aspects also come to the forefront. He builds up the tension in his account to an almost unbearable level. As I read through The Road, I wanted at times to put it down, so overwhelming was the intensity of the narrative. But I felt equally compelled to read on, caught up in the descriptions and unfolding events of this powerful work of literature.
The Road is a major work by a leading American writer. It also serves as testimony to the power of speculative fiction to infuse new life and energy into mainstream fiction. But however you classify it, this cautionary tale is a must-read book.