(Viggo Mortensen in The Road.)

At times The Road owes more to the horror writings of Stephen King than, let’s say, Roger Zelazny. In one particularly gruesome scene the father and his son come across a house where a band of cannibal survivors store live dismembered humans for food. It is also hinted that women are deliberately impregnated so that their young may be eaten at birth. Will humanity descend to this type of behavior when confronted by a situation like this? Any student of Germany’s 30 Years’ War will probably tell you, yes.

But the point of the novel isn’t the various horrors the characters witness and the tribulations they undergo, but the love the man has for his son; something which people who don’t have children probably won’t understand, but which any parent would. (It is never specified exactly how old the man and his boy are. Judging from the book, the man’s son is probably between eight and ten years old, maybe even younger.) “You have my whole heart,” the man tells his son. “You always did.” It should come as no surprise that McCarthy dedicated the novel to his own son, John Francis McCarthy. The relationship between the man and his son is the book’s most moving aspect and what prevents it from simply becoming a depressing tract on humanity’s selfishness and cruelty.

It is obviously science fiction, but Cormac McCarty’s novel is being deliberately branded as anything but. The paperback’s own description at the back classifies it as “Fiction / Literature”. Thus the chances of you seeing it tucked next to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, also a tale about a struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic scenario, at your local bookshop is pretty much zero. About the only honest retailer is where the book has been hovering at the very top of the Science Fiction & Fantasy category for quite a while now at the time of writing; consistently outselling Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass books probably because of its mainstream allure. And because it had the luck of being chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick of course . . .

"The people who will read The Road won’t bother renting The Road Warrior . . ."

But this sort of literary snobbishness is nothing new to science fiction fans. Over the decades they have become used to the various non-genre writers “slumming” it whenever they write a science fiction book that goes on to be classified as “Literature” instead of “Science Fiction” (which supposedly isn’t literature, even though many great writers specialize in it).

The most notable examples of this snobbishness include George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is never thought of as science fiction. When a writer of detective stories writes a novel about a nightmare world in which people can no longer have any children, then you’ll see it safely tucked away on the Fiction shelf, but when a science fiction author does it, you’ll find it filed under Science Fiction & Fantasy. (The novels in question are P.D. James’ Children of Men and Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard. Aldiss’ novel was published several years before James’. Guess whose novel got made into a film?)

Think we’re paranoid? Then just read a recent Guardian article recounts about how Salman Rushdie’s agents turned down a major sci-fi literary award for the then-unknown author because they feared that their client would be classified as a “Science Fiction & Fantasy author” something which they considered to be the kiss of death for their young client . . .

The Road is only the latest slap in the face of science fiction; a genre looked down upon by many as being for anorak-wearing geeks who still live with their mothers even though they’re in their thirties. There must be a hell of a lot of them out there though enough to have ensured that sci-fi & fantasy movies such as the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies are amongst the biggest grossing movies of all time. There must be enough nerds right across the globe to have bought US$1, 117, 642, 702’s worth of movie tickets for Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Maybe they all went to see it more than once?) Yes, geek has gone mainstream, but the written word still remains the last enclave of a clique of self-appointed intellectual snobs who will read The Road, but won’t bother renting The Road Warrior. . .

The Road is scheduled for a 2009 release. (More details . . .)



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