Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road: sf or not sf?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2006)
 “My definition of science fiction is simply fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can't be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible.”
Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, in an interview at SF Site
It’s a rather incomplete definition of science fiction, which is a discussion for another day. Still it has its uses. Hold Schmidt’s definition up to The Road and the book doesn’t look much like science fiction. The post-apocalyptic setting becomes a painted backdrop that could be shifted out for another, say a camping trip gone very badly wrong, along the lines of the canoe trip in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970).

McCarthy evokes a suffocating sense doom and gloom and it serves his story well. A story that is not about the end of the world at all. It is a story about a father and son, about endurance and sacrifice in life and death circumstances.

In both its subject and its prose, The Road recalls Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Both are composed of short, simple sentences. Hemingway has more rhythm. McCarthy loves the occasional obscure, well-chosen word. Both concern the relationship between a man and a boy. In Hemingway, it is a fisherman and his young apprentice. In McCarthy, it is a father and son, where the skill being imparted is simple survival.

The Road is a strong work and it would ornament any genre that would embrace it. If we believe Schmidt’s definition then science fiction must let it go.

SF Site interviews Stanley Schmidt

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