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Is It Science Fiction: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Ewan at Ewan’s Corner has posted a short review of The Road (SF Signal review). In it, Ewan states that the book isn’t science fiction because, “you never find out what caused the end of the world, no aliens and little science.”

To me, that is a very ‘mechanics’ focused view of what science fiction is. It’s too narrow, at least for my tastes. Looking at other post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, we see that the above definition would rule out these books as science fiction, when they clearly are.

Moving to the realm of TV and film, the original Mad Max and Jericho also fit the above description, and I believe they, too, are science fiction, of varying degrees of quality, but still science fiction. Given all of the above, is the setting alone enough to make something science fiction? I’d have to say yes. And not just because of setting. Science fiction doesn’t have to be about the science or technology in a story. That sort of thing can exist and stay in the background and a story can still be science fiction, see Slaughterhouse Five or The Handmaid’s Tale or even Children Of Men, among others. I think people get hung up on the mechanical aspects of a story because of mistaken perceptions, as most people are going to see SF as being all about science, technology, aliens, and all the other tropes you see in SF movies.

But to answer the question in the title, yes, The Road is science fiction. McCarthy may be traveling a well worn path, but his book is still SF.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

13 Comments on Is It Science Fiction: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. O.K., Earth Abides, check, the downfall is a bit of a mystery. Alas, Babylon, though? A big atomic war? What about the end of the world is a mystery?

    And Lucifer’s Hammer? Bit comet hits the Earth. Ka-boom! More ka-boom! Some nations exchange nuclear strikes. Even more ka-boom! Where is the mystery as to the downfall?

    Atwood, despite protestations to the contrary, has written SF. She just doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. Ditto other folks like McCarthy.

    Way back when, folks like Twain and London and that Wells fellow freely interchanged between SF, mystery, adventure, “general fiction” and back again. We were all a tad less uptight about labels. Bookstores like labels. We don’t need to follow their lead.

  2. Doesn’t Ursula LeGuin use the term “counterfactual” to describe fiction that doesn’t fit the usual die-cuts for SF, fantasy, horror, etc. and depicts either events that didn’t happen (yet) here in our timeline? Or maybe “The Road” is “alternate history” or plain old dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction. Oooh, maybe the book is “slipstream.”

    That’s the problem with abstractions like genre labels — they’re leaky. The “science fiction” label is just a convenient handle on a bag of tropes, and not the same tropes for everyone.

    The more important question is, “Is it worth reading?” Also subjective, but at least more actionable.

  3. joshua corning // July 8, 2007 at 4:58 pm //

    I will say the same thing I said about firefly;

    No robots

    Sound in space

    and a perpetual confusion as to whether they are in a different galaxy or a different solar system.

  4. If we accept the ‘little science’ criteria for deciding The Road isn’t science fiction then we have to disavow entire sub-genres such as Space Opera. And since when did science fiction have to include aliens? Someone better point this out to William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson before they waste too much more of their time.

  5. joshua corning // July 8, 2007 at 7:01 pm //

    OK no one is really getting it guys.

    that the debate as to whether an obvious piece of scifi is scifi or not…

    How about you guys dig up some crazy essay on how something that is obviously not scifi is in fact scifi…

    Like say the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

    Or some crazy essay on why all space opera is fundamentally an American form of literature becosue it has one of two quintessential elements of American lit…namely space (although I can think of a few space operas that delve into race as well)

  6. Huck Finn is a SF novel. It’s a closed universe novel, one of the first. See Heinlein’s “Universe” and “Commonsense” for an example, or Ed Bryant’s novelization “Starlost: Phoenix Without Ashes” for another.

    “How about you guys dig up some crazy essay…”

    Oddly enough, I wrote such an essay in high school, citing Huck Finn. Got an A+. Honors English.


  7. Dan Goodman // July 8, 2007 at 8:08 pm //

    “Looking at other post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, we see that the above definition would rule out these books as science fiction, when they clearly are.”

    Earth Abides: A very nasty plague. Alas Babylon: WW III. Lucifer’s Hammer:

    Earth hit by a comet, subsequent stupidity doesn’t help anything.

    TV and film: Not relevant. The genre boundaries are different in different media. For example, written sf doesn’t have the comics distinction between sf and superhero fiction.

  8. My point in using Lucifer’s Hammer et al was to show that those stories weren’t about what caused the apocalypse, but instead were about what happens afterward. Which raises an interesting question then: If The Road had mentioned the cause of its apocalypse, would it then be obviously SF? If that is case, why does explaining the calamity make SF, but no naming it makes it not SF? The apocalypse happens in either case, so it is SF in both cases, even with out going into detail about the end of the world.

    In fact, I think you could make the case that The Road is actually a book of Mundane SF.

    And I disagree about different media being irrelevant. SF is SF, no matter what form it takes. But maybe I missed the point of the remark?

  9. First you have to accept the concept of “Mundane SF”. I’m still trying to figure out what it is, exactly. Sounds like a lot of the stuff that I’ve filed under “holocaust SF”, “disaster SF” or “technothriller”…

  10. Post-apoc is a sub-genre of sci-fi, more often than not because the reason for the end of days was somehow technological.

    The plot thickens with zombie genre, as it is a co-genre or sub-genre of post-apoc. Though zombies are sometimes-but-not-always caused by technology or medicine.

    And I think the setting in The Road is post-volcanic or post-supervolcanic, because some of the stories I’m working on are in a similar setting and The Road featured the unmistakable hardened slag on things like highways, and burned away trees, and smoking hot springs, etc. There is a lot of ‘geo-thermal’ stuff.

    McCarthy simply chose not to pidgeon-hole himself as sci-fi, which in this case was smart because he seems to have reached a broader audience. Though there’s no guarantee that trick would always work.

  11. Earth Abides is science fiction because it explores what would realistically happen after a plague. It uses science to explore that – postulating the next logical steps to occur if 99% of all people suddenly left the planet. In other words, it uses a few sciences as part of its fiction.

    To me those are always the best kinds of sci-fi. So I can understand when a reader like Ewan takes issue with something that seems far removed from that being labeled as science fiction.

    Of course, if you do reject those types of books you have to throw out a lot more. Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t qualify nor does 1984, as do many others people consider a staple of the genre. Or does merely having a dystopia qualify becuase it uses sociology as the science?

  12. McCarthy, if you look at his bibliography, doesn’t write SF. So, to avoid being placed in the SF genre, he wrote a story without naming the reasons for the widespread destruction and post-apocalyptic Earth where his story takes place. As far as I can tell, that is all he did. This is enough, in the eyes of his publisher, to remove him from the SF genre.

    Which, as Scott points out, is quite silly. It’s similar to many other SF books in nature, but it isn’t considered SF by many, apparently because explaining the disaster equals SF, otherwise, good old, regular fiction. This is a shame as The Road should be used as an example of ‘good’ SF, despite what the author or publisher think. Because it is SF.

  13. You’re all missing the point, which is that the cause is not explained because it allows us to not just focus, but immerse ourselves in this world, the relationship between the boy and the man, and the fight for the little bit that is good about humanity that is left.  This book defies genrification and more books should.  It is so many things on so many levels that simply calling it “science fiction” ignores all the other things it is.  It wasn’t written with the intent of writing science fiction, but on focusing on the relationship between a father and his son during the apocalypse.  Just because something calamatous, beyond our comprehension happens, does not mean that it is immediatly science fiction.  It seems like you all are arguing for it to be included into that genre for materialistic purposes, to have another peg on the notch, and are missing the whole point of the book.  Not that I have anything against science fiction, it’s my favorite type of story aside from horror, but I can see beyond all that when something special like “The Road” comes along.

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