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Review: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Bleak.

If you came here for a quick summary of Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic, then congratulations, because there you have it. Before it is brilliant, before it is visceral or shocking or profound, The Road is devastatingly, crushingly bleak.

The setting for this book is a massive, global extinction event. This is not a rollickin’ Mad Max-type apocalypse where badasses with shotguns take on oil tankers and dismantle the patriarchy. In this blasted and blackened landscape, the fiery bang that ended civilization was merely the precursor to the whimper with which the human species would finally expire, years later, of starvation and cold. A man and his young son, who is quite possibly the last child on Earth, struggle through a constant snow of falling ash down a road where cannibals and thieves stalk them constantly. Burned and desiccated corpses far outnumber the living humans they meet, and in general, the corpses are much better company. The only other survivors they encounter are a colony of mushrooms. The grass is dead. The trees are dead. The ants are dead. The sooty remains of everything humanity believed to be immutable are grayed by piles of the same ash that chokes the man with every breath.

In the dying twilight of the human race, the boy is the man’s reason, his justification, and his hope. Neither the boy nor the man ever gets a name. The man is every man and any man. We don’t know what he did before the catastrophe that destroyed life on Earth. Maybe he was a software developer. Maybe he was a farmer. Both of those professions are equally obsolete on the road. The man’s job is the last, first, and most basic job of life: keep the species alive. Continue the genes. Let me be the first to say that he does a great job considering the circumstances.

But there is more to life than grinding along above ground. The man is a relic of a world that, ultimately, was not viable. As such, the man makes certain assumptions and indulges in certain justifications that make sense in the paradigm of the old world. It so happens that the other people they meet on the road are also of that world – adults who saw everything go to hell and responded in accordance with how that world had prepared them. The boy, on the other hand, has never known anything but ashen forests and melted blacktop. To him, other humans aren’t threats. They’re rare, even precious.

Both the boy and the man have lonely moments, of course, and they are nuanced and profoundly moving. However, the man’s something of a…well, a man. He does not talk about his squishy feels and strikes one, directly from the get-go, as a tough bastard. The boy is kinder, softer. Though the man does his best to toughen up his kid, his entire existence is dedicated to making sure that his expressive, emotional child survives, as though the very sensitivity that endangers the child’s life in the unforgiving landscape are also a critical piece of what he wants to preserve. Makes ya think, huh?

The story is one of survival and of what survival means. The why of existence is too often lost on real-life bunker builders and preppers and end times nuts. Why survive? Once everyone else is dead, what reason is there to go on? McCarthy’s message is multifaceted, but at its heart is the idea that purpose is transformative. It is what separates humans from what happens to walk on two legs. It’s more important than food, fire, and the ability to read.

It might be too far a stretch to say that McCarthy is the inheritor of the Hemingway literary tradition, but McCarthy is the inheritor of the Hemingway literary tradition. His prose is as spare as a dead cedar tree in a nuclear winter. He strings together “ands” and sentence fragments that keep it feeling edgy. For example, to quote one of the book’s more cheerful passages:

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running.

It’s a rare author who enhances his post-apocalyptic book about a frozen and dying world with actual chills that run down your spine.

It’s a quick read (or listen, if you prefer) and one that sticks with you for days. Possibly longer. I’ve already put aside the cranial real estate to continue thinking about it for a long time.

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They came…from the Future!

Incredible but true! Well, not quite yet. But while you’re just hanging out and waiting for the future to happen, why not take a look at the literature and see what we’re in for?

 

 Dystopias

The hallmark feature of a dystopia is that the society in question is actually a messed-up utopia. Often, enough people who exist within that system live well enough that they don’t care to challenge the underlying issues, which may or may not involve teenagers fighting to the death on live television. We’re all familiar with The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, and other popular YA dystopias. But for the serious fan of messed-up future societies, the genre has much more to offer.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodImage of item

A classic, this story chronicles a world that has gone through a crisis in population implosion. The result: a society where fertile “handmaids” are used to provide chosen families with healthy children.

 

Image of itemHouse of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Matteo Alacrán is a lucky boy: he has wealth, comfort, and everything a child could want. Except, of course, that he is also the clone of a powerful drug lord, and his sole purpose in life is to donate all of his vital organs to the 143-year-old criminal.

 

 

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuinImage of item

An anarchist planet. A doubter. LeGuin will make you believe that time can encompass philosophy and ethics, that an anarchist society can still survive by unyielding and unspoken laws, and that one person’s ideas can change humanity.

 

Science Fiction

Statistical probability dictates the creation of new interstellar civilizations. People meet and successfully fight giant space bugs. Well-mannered aliens contact us for theological debates. Hitchhikers endure. A lot of science fiction is about the future. In fact, you could even say that all of it is about the future. Here are some of the best examples of the genre.

 

Image of itemThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Welcome to the Future! We hope you’ve wound up your motorcycle and gotten the latest vaccine for this year’s viral mutations. Remember, respect the androids, even if everyone else seems to be kicking them around. They might just be the future of intelligent life on Earth.

 

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanImage of item

Lightspeed travel has some odd time dilation effects, and nowhere is this clearer than in interstellar warfare. When the brave soldiers of Earth return home, will they recognize the people they are fighting for?

 

Image of itemDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Sci-Fi fans may know this story in its cinematic guise as Blade Runner. In a world where android replicants are virtually identical to humans, Deckard’s job is to suss out the fake from the genuine. As he begins to doubt his own humanity, the definition of “real” becomes dangerously fragile.

 

Apocalypses

The party’s got to end sooner or later, and as you might expect, it’s sort of a drag when the lights go out. Apocalypse books have captured our imaginations since well before When Worlds Collide, Day of the Triffids and Alas, Babylon. (Try Noah and the flood.) But these days, total destruction is often high literature. And, of course, it’s more fun than ever!

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelImage of item

All the world’s a stage, and since the Georgia Flu wiped out most people, it’s a darn empty one. As a troupe of actors travels the Great Lakes, they discover that art can save – or destroy – the survivors.

Image of itemWool by Hugh Howey

A toxic atmosphere forces all surviving humans to live in the underground Silo, but not everyone believes that the air up there really is bad. When the sheriff’s wife goes above ground, he’s faced with a choice: follow her and risk death, or remain underground and never know the truth.

 

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.Image of item

After a nuclear apocalypse, an order of Roman Catholic monks struggles to preserve the knowledge of the modern world. But will humanity repeat its mistakes anyway?

 

Zombie Takeovers

thriller-jackson-monsters

What would the future be without zombies? I, for one, don’t care to find out! From World War Z and The Walking Dead to philosophical literature like Raising Stony Mayhall, everyone loves those shambling, moaning, unkillable flesh eaters. Here, have a few more!

 

Image of item
Feed
by Mira Grant

Political machinations don’t die with the human species. As zombies attack a Presidential candidate, bloggers uncover the terrifying truth: that someone is using the undead as weapons on the campaign trail.

 

The Girl with All The Gifts by M. R. CareyImage of item

What happens when zombies are smart? What about when the smart zombies are children? The tension between humans and zombies, teachers and students, and researchers and subjects blooms in this critically acclaimed book.

 

Image of itemBreathers by S. G. Browne

After Andy dies in a car wreck, he discovers that life’s not easy for zombies. In fact, it’s downright hard to get a job, meet people, and have a decent conversation without someone screaming and trying to decapitate you. Enter the fight for zombie civil equality!