The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

Reviewing books is a touchy subject.  On one side of the coin, publicly calling someone’s creative baby ugly is just a mean thing to do.  Flipping the coin over reveals the whole needy world of authors begging for any kind of press they can get.  I’ve always dreamed of writing a book and getting published – what joy that would bring.  But I can also imagine the soul wrenching torture of waiting for reviewers and readers that never come.  Anyone who takes the time to review books is a generous human being, at least in the eyes of new writers.  Most magazines and newspapers have cut way back on their space devoted to book reviews, and I think bloggers have come to the rescue.

I wish had the time and talent to review books.  Those reviewers who can read a new novel and write a review that promotes the book without giving anything away, that sets the context in relation to other books of similar style and stories, who gives just the right snippets to hook potential readers and provides a bit of background about the writer, are people with a very special knack.  Really good reviews of this sort will not only introduce you to a new book but will teach you something about literature in general.

I don’t have that knack, so I don’t try to review books.  However I love books and I love talking about them and I love exploring where books take me on intellectual safaris.  I like to think of myself as an explorer of reality, but I’m not a pioneering explorer.  I follow in the footsteps of others where they leave notes along their path – those clues are called books.  I don’t read to be entertained, although I do love entertaining reading.  I think of books as very complicated messages – not messages with meaning, but messages with information about exploring reality.

Most people get bored if their friends spend more than a minute talking to them in a stretch.  Few people have the patience for lectures.  Well, a book, either fiction or nonfiction, is a very long speech from another person, sometimes ten or twenty hours, and even forty or fifty hours in some special cases.  No one will be patient enough to let a friend drone on and on like that.  Thus writing, either essay or fiction, is the art of capturing attention.

This long winded intro, which I hope hasn’t tried your patience, is leading up to something.  I’m trying to do two things here.  One, get clear in my mind what I’m doing when I talk about books, and two clarify or justify statements I have made in the past that have caused problems.  I’m hoping the next time you say, “I hated that book” you will have a new context to express yourself, because this essay will be about calling people’s intellectual babies ugly.  The public often hates critics because they come off as superior, and it is true, some critics are downright snooty, gleefully firing down their cannonball sarcasms from a superior vantage point.

I sometimes annoy people with sweeping statements I make about books.  For example, I frequently say I find books written by Robert A. Heinlein after The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress are painfully unreadable.  Now I know there are many Heinlein fans that love these later books even more than his earlier classics that I cherish, and I think its these people I annoy the most.  I don’t mean to offend or be inflammatory.  At one level when I say I find a book painfully unreadable all I mean is I personally experienced those books as painfully unreadable.  The real question here, for scientific purposes we might say, is whether or not books have absolute qualities that can be judged and compared.

I don’t like reviewing books in the sense that I’m going to say yea or nay as to whether someone should buy and read the book.  I love reading good book reviews, and I consider quality reviews a real art form.  I’ll mention again, I can’t carry that tune.  What I do like writing about is my impression of books, and how they affected my life.  Hey, it’s all about me, isn’t it?  That’s a joke, and not my vanity slipping, but it’s also a truism.  Blogging is news at a personal level.  Blogging is memoirs in bite-size chunks.  I’m can’t write scholarly reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books.  I would love to be that well educated so I could put each book I read into a larger context and relate it to its peers.

When I write about a book I want to relate how it fits into my life.  When I criticize Heinlein’s later books people need to know I how much I admired Heinlein’s earlier books.  The first paycheck I ever earned when I turned 16 was spent on ordering all twelve of the Charles Scribner’s Sons books by Heinlein in hardback direct from the publisher.  I once wrote an essay for Lan’s Lantern, an old fanzine from the 1980s, about how Heinlein was my father figure growing up.  I remember waiting for each new Heinlein book after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, expecting so much and always be so disappointed.

There are many factors to explore here.  Did I change by growing up?  Did Heinlein change as a writer?  Or if I had read the later books at age 13 when I discovered and read all my favorite Heinlein books would my opinions be different about them?  Have I gotten older enough, and well read enough, to look at all of Heinlein’s books and judge them with a mature perspective?

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I just finished listening to The Cat Who Walked Through Walls which many Heinlein fans love because this story includes so many characters from Heinlein’s earlier much loved books.  Now I’ve read this book once and listened to it once, and it is probably the least offensive of all the later Heinlein books to me, but my personal opinion is the book is still mediocre Heinlein.  Oh, it’s more readable to me than The Number of the Beast or Friday, and its amusing to see what he does with the characters I loved from his older classic stories, and I do get a kick out of the meta-fiction, but ultimately I have to come down hard on this story.

Now if you love The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I’m not here to convince you that you are wrong.  I think the reasons why we bond with books are emotional and out of the range of analysis.  However, I do believe books have qualities that can be discussed and compared and maybe even judged.  The qualities are not as precise as the elements of physics and chemistry, but they are concepts we can get behind and even point to and say they exist.  Some of these qualities are characterization, plot, narrative, point-of-view, the accumulation of significant details, drama, and emotional conflicts.

If you enjoy reading The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and don’t want to be an English professor, critic, writer or literary scholar than these points won’t matter to you.  You buy the book, get your kicks and go on to your next read.  No big deal.  Maybe books do not have qualities that can be absolutely measured with scientific instruments, but those qualities can be discussed and judged.  The quality of any ruling is related to the quality of the judge and jury.  The judgement of giving The Cat Who Walks Through Walls to the MFA professors at the Iowa University writer’s program or Harold Bloom will be different from a group of fans at the hotel bar of a science fiction convention or panel discussion.

It is my thesis that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been an outstandingly great novel but instead is a huge belly-flop.  Getting back to that explorer metaphor, let me say that Heinlein was aiming at a very ambitious idea, exploring new fictional territory with his World as Myth theory.  I don’t know if he was old and losing his writing abilities, lazy, or just corrupt by the power of writing, but The Cat Who Walks Through Walls fails miserably as a work of art.  I’m sure there are hordes of Heinlein fans who reread this book every year and find it delightful, but I’m not one.  Heinlein let me down big time.

Now here’s where my slip starts showing.  As an amateur explorer of the realms of fiction can I leave the notes that scientifically explain where I’ve been?  A good novel is built from many kinds of building blocks, and a great novel reflects the craftsmanship of each.  When I was a kid I liked to take mechanical alarm clocks apart to stare at the fascinating maze of mechanisms.  Exploring the world of fiction means learning how stories tick.

I know Heinlein intimately knew story engineering because he wrote so many masterpieces.  How can I judge him?  I’ve read a lot of great novels, and I’m slowly developing the sense for what makes them great.  I’m still in high school though.  How do I know that the later Heinlein books don’t involve master skills that I haven’t even come to recognize?  That’s a good question.  Like I said, I’m an explorer that follows in the footsteps of others.  I only have a vague sense of where the event horizon of the unknown lies.

I think quite a lot can be said about how The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is put together.  First off its a book that depends on older novels for characterization.  If you haven’t read The Rolling Stones, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Number of the Beast and other stories, you’re shortchanged when you read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. And even if you are very familiar with these stories, there is still trouble.  Hazel Stone is not the same character in The Rolling Stones and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

I know I’m about to make one of my statements that offends people, but here goes anyway.  The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is fan fiction, but of instead of being written by fans of Heinlein, Heinlein is writing the book for his fans.  However, the quality of the story telling is more like fan fiction in general, a poor parody of the original.  I know this was probably an emotional book for Heinlein to write, and I know his fans have a great emotional attachment for his characters, but is it only me that feels this books does a great disservice to the fictional people living in the original stories?

I’m not a reader who like sequels or long story series.  I often find a great novel is best left to stand alone, and writers shouldn’t cash in on earlier successes.  As far out as the concept World as Myth is, I can’t help think such stories are not much better than daydreaming about your favorite books and characters and making up your own fantasies.  I consider Heinlein a master storyteller – and I think it would have been far better for his career to have kept inventing new stories, characters and plots instead of recycling old ones.

However, if The Cat Who Walks Through Walls had at its foundation a novel as good as Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones, and the World as Myth unfolded naturally as part of the storytelling this would have been a brilliant work of fiction.  Instead it’s a long meandering novel about crappy topics Heinlein was obsessed with and then near the end he throws in some World as Myth ideas and wraps things up quickly.  He should have stopped the book when he got these ideas, thrown out what he had, and then worked out a real plot to fit the idea.

To make this book a masterpiece requires letting the reader in on the gimmick as soon as possible, like the Jasper Fforde novels.  Second, and this is absolutely vital, is he needs to make his classic characters act and sound just like they did from the original novels.  Third, an again this is vitally important, he needs to make the mysterious enemies vivid and realistic.  To build proper tension and page turning power readers need to know what’s at risk as soon as possible.  A last minute explanation of the bad guys told and not shown at the end of the book is just pathetic writing.

I’m not a prude, but my most vicious attack on this novel will make me sound like one.  Having all of his “good” guys sound like a convention of smarmy talking wife-swappers is just gross.  I hate to sound like a teenage girl, but damn, Heinlein’s kissy-kissy talk and innuendo just made me want to puke.  And making his classic characters act out in this limp-dick porn flick is just tragic.  Having them go on and on about how they were going to kill people for bad manners is just a little psycho to me.  Evidently a lot of people and situations annoyed the hell out of Heinlein and he used this book to vent.  Some people want to call this satire but I think that’s whitewash.

Maybe Heinlein lost his mojo and these multiverse stories were the best he could do.  Personally, I thought The Rolling Stones was a perfect novel, and bringing back Hazel Stone was a fictionally fuck-up of an idea, ditto for the cast of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Maybe I am a prude because I just don’t want the Hazel Stone, grandmother of Castor and Pollux, joking about being stretched out of shape by giant 25 centimeter cock.

All of Heinlein’s personally favorite characters get put into a fictional juicer and blended into weird rabble of sex obsessed mob that chirp a weird innuendo patter and are almost impossible to tell apart.  When I read these multiverse stories I can’t help but believe that horniness was driving Heinlein crazy.  These later stories are preoccupied with sex, killing people, responding to annoying people, the reliability of witnesses, rude people deserving capital punishment, and so on.  Not only does Heinlein recycle his characters to death, he constantly recycles his pet peeves.

The trouble with writers who keep recycling characters is their lovely fictional children get abused and mangled till they become unrecognizable from the characters of the original classic works.  The books Heinlein wrote in the 1950s contain some of the most inventive science fiction ever written.  He create fantastic science fictional ideas and matched those ideas with believable characters.  At the time he was on the cutting edge of exploring the boundaries of science fiction.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls like the other multiverse stories, end up being a convention of swingers flirting with each other in endless pages of cutesy sex talk and solipsism arguments.  The lesson here for writers is don’t write in too many characters, and don’t have them all sound alike, and most especially don’t have them all sound like teenage girls trying to write porn.  Two people in a complicated plot that leads to sex is one thing, but stories that end up in orgies of leering conversation is a huge writing mistake.

Another story telling mistake is to give your characters too much power, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls illustrates this perfectly.  If your heroes can time travel, dimension travel, live forever, then nothing feels real or believable, and no fictional conflict builds tension, and all bad guys feel like straw men put up for target practice.  Characters are built through the limitations they face, not from the magical powers they weld.

I actually believe that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been as great as any of my favorite Heinlein stories.  Heinlein hated editors, but if he had his own Maxwell Perkins it’s no telling how good these later books could have been.

I do think Heinlein was exploring new territory, he just left poor notes.  As Heinlein neared death I think he feared his own end and worried about the mortality of his beloved characters, so these World as Myth stories created a heaven for them and himself to live in.  It’s a fantastic idea, and maybe why so many Heinlein fans love these stories.  It doesn’t mean they are good novels.  What I ask is to imagine if they had been great stories with the same theoretical ideas.  I don’t know why Heinlein became so sex-obsessed in his later years.  Maybe he always had been like that but stern editors censored him.  Or maybe he believed if we were all free from hang-ups and lived in the future we’d be wife-swappers, and all men and women would be horn-dogs.

Right after I finished The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I put on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton to listen to and instantly heard master story telling.  Ethan Frome was first published by Charles Scribner’s, the publisher of Heinlein’s best books.  If Heinlein could have written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with Wharton’s skill of narrative and characterization it would have been lighthouse on the shore of a new fictional ocean.  Recycling famous characters and authors into new stories is sailing on a dangerous sea.  Look at what they are doing to Jane Austen and her children.  Theoretically it might become a new art form, but it’s going to be hard to please the lovers of the original classic stories.  Heinlein couldn’t please me and he’s my favorite author.

Finally, I have to wonder if the sexual relationships that Heinlein wrote about is something he really expected for future people.  Today conservative thinking believes that sex should be between couples, and we’re arguing over whether those couples can include same sex partners.  We liberals answer yes.  Heinlein is speculating that in the future we’ll accept group sex marriages and even relationships we consider taboo now, such as incest, which I think is hard to believe even for liberals.  Like I said, I think of these ideas as swinger fantasies.  And we are a lot more liberated about sex than we were before Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.  Even Ethan Frome is exploring the boundaries of sexual relationships in 1911.  What human behavior will be in the future is solid ground for speculative fiction, so I can’t object to Heinlein trying.

However, even the best of Heinlein’s stories shows a weak knowledge of human behavior.  Heinlein wrote great stories for teenagers, but his adults all seem a bit daffy, mainly because the characters from his adult novels were talky, opinionated and horny to strange degrees.  For all his later stories that speculate about group marriages he never once wrote realistically about people in such a dynamic relationship.

Now this gets me back to novels being complex messages.  The best novels contain treasures of data about how humans and society work.  They contain lots of intimate observations.  Heinlein didn’t write these kinds of stories.  He wrote about fantasy people, like the fantasy people of the Oz books or the Edgar Rice Burroughs books.  Look at how many lives that Tarzan has lived.  I think Heinlein was hoping his characters would have the fictional vitality of of Tarzan, John Carter, Dorothy, Toto, and The Wizard of Oz.

In these times of genre writers stretching out the lifetime of their characters in book after book. like some Days of Our Lives never-ending soap opera, was Heinlein’s ambition all that strange?  Readers love hanging onto favorite characters, but I don’t know if that’s healthy.  If the Heinlein juveniles would have been twelve books about one character it would have meant eleven fictional universes never seeing the light of creation.  Will we ever know if seven Harry Potter books are superior to seven different stories J. K. Rowling could have written?

Again, I think if Heinlein had written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with original characters about a fictional reality where authors, fans, editors, movie directors and other writers could easily reshape the lives of those characters in fantastic ways he could have created a memorable original novel.  I think he confused the idea by recycling his older characters, because they aren’t his old characters really, nor are they new original characters, that get to be born fresh into a new virginal fictional reality.

Ultimately, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is an excellent lesson for me on how not to write a novel.  Heinlein, indeed was exploring new territory and I have learned from his efforts.  I could write a whole book tearing this story apart line by line but would it really be worth the effort?  I wouldn’t mind seeing other writers try using this idea and inventing a World as Myth with Heinlein and his characters.  Especially if the writer was very astute at analyzing Heinlein psychologically.  And just because I don’t think this is a very successful book it doesn’t mean I don’t think Heinlein fans shouldn’t read it.

Jim

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

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Over at 1% Well-Read Challenge they have set up a reading dare that I found very enticing.  It is built around the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I ran out and bought and highly recommend to anyone who loves to read widely.  It’s richly illustrated and gives fascinating tidbits and short plot synopsis for 1001 books.  Oh sure, if you read the reviews on Amazon and other places on the net you’ll see a lot of grumbling that they didn’t include this book or that, but ignore such whining because overall, editor Peter Boxall included an amazing line-up of stories to get to know.  I’m now reading through this rather massive volume trying to select the perfect 10 books I’d like to read for the challenge.  The challenge is rather simple – read 1% – that is 10 books in 10 months.  You can see the list of titles here.

When I get the time, and I’m afraid I say this much too often and never find the time, I’m going to set up a web site for general books like I set up for science fiction.  My Classics of Science Fiction created a recommended reading list by finding 28 sources of recommendation, building a cross-tabulation database of all the titles and then deciding that any book that had been on 6 or more of the 28 sources would make my Classics of Science Fiction list.  I would use 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as one of the sources for a Classic Books to Read web site.

Since I started blogging I’ve discovered the concept of the reading challenge, which is a fun blogging activity.  Over at A Striped Armchair, Eva seems to be the queen of reading challenges, and you can find a lot of good information there.  I don’t have Eva’s ability to read so many books quickly, so I think I’ll start out slow and just stick to this one challenge for awhile, but if you’re a bookworm, I bet they’re addictive.  Although scanning down Eva’s right hand column makes me want to bite off a lot more than my eyes can chew reading-wise.

One reason this reading challenge is so enticing is because of the reading rut I’m in.  I read all the time, but I seem to be going through a period of less than stellar books.  I’m finding plenty to read, even very good books, but few books this year have really jazzed my mind.  The last was The Road by Cormac McCarthy back in January.  That’s the thing about being a jaded bookworm – reading is only as exciting as your last great book.  I want every novel to go nova in my brain.  And when I finish that explosion I hunger for a book that will go supernova.

Then I’m willing to back off and read some gentle books for awhile, maybe some nice informative non-fiction, or even a crappy guilty-pleasure novel, but eventually, the gnawing returns and I need another nova level fix.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I want something that will make every white blood cell tango in my veins and give me a reading fever.  As every bookworm knows, unless a book makes you willing to give up food, sleep and sex and contort you body for hours clutching a tome until it hurts, then it’s not much of a page turner.

Scan the list and let me know of any that have blown your mind.  I’m looking for 10 Supernova Books!

[The New York Times just reviewed 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as “Volumes to Go Before You Die” and it is an excellent supplement to the book.]

Jim

The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century

I have already worked out a way to define the Classics of Science Fiction by collecting lists from science fiction fans and critics, but this morning I got to wondering which science fiction books, if any, are recognized as classics by people who normally do not read science fiction.  Over the years I’ve encountered a lot of lists recommending the best novels to read, and occasionally a science fiction novel gets thrown in.

One of the most famous lists, and maybe the most authoritative in recent years, is the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels.  On their list they had Brave New World (#3), 1984 (#13), Slaughterhouse-Five (#18), and A Clockwork Orange (#65).  These are very famous books, but I don’t consider them true science fiction, at least not in the genre sense.  They may use SF settings and techniques, but Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut and Burgess were not SF writers.  By the way, ignore the list on the right column that does contain many genre SF novels.  That comes from imprecise fan voting and not from scholars and experts.

Recently, the Library of America published it’s first volume to contain genre science fiction, Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick.  LOA is even more selective than Modern Library, so should we consider The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik the stand out SF genre novels of the 20th century?  I think we need some corroboration first.

Another list to counter the Modern Library list is the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. 1984 (#9), Brave New World (#16), Slaughterhouse-Five (#29), A Clockwork Orange (#49), Cat’s Cradle (#66), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (#72), and The War of the Worlds (#85) show up. Notice the overlap of the first four titles, but also notice the addition of four titles in the back half of the list.  Still none of these novels are what we’d consider genre classics?  No Dune or Ender’s Game.  And the H. G. Wells books was from the 19th century.

The 150 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century compiled from several lists at the Friendswood Library finally seems to get us somewhere.  On this list we do find some familiar genre titles – Fahrenheit 451 (#28), Stranger in a Strange Land (#31), 2001 (#66), and Dune (#86).  It’s nice to see a few of our favorites listed among all the standard literary work that get mentioned so often and taught in schools.  But we’re still not seeing any overlap.  There just doesn’t seem to be any consensus, unless it’s the same four mentioned for the Modern Library list.

Time offered The Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present.  Their editors throw in Snowcrash, Neuromancer, and Ubik.  This is the first validation of the Library of America choosing PKD.  It also overlaps with 1984, A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse-Five, and leaves off Brave New World.  Overall this list adds many newer literary favorites and dumps some of the standard heavyweights like Ulysses.  Still there is no consistent sign of a genre favorite in the minds of the world at large.

If we really broaden the search and include books like 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die we can catch a number of genre classics:  Cryptonomicon, Neuromancer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Chocky, The Drowned World, Stranger in a Strange Land, Solaris, Foundation, and I, Robot.  Still, it’s as if the mundane world is willing to throw us a bone and include a few token SF titles.  We’re still not seeing a stand out genre novel.  Science fiction appears to be something fleeting in the peripheral vision of the literary world.

If you look at Top 100 Sci-Fi Books and my Classics of Science Fiction by Rank, you’ll see a lot of common overlap.  Both of these lists were compiled by taking many lists and cross-tabbing them.  I would guess by looking at all the lists that maybe Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land are the two titles that the general reader may know about, but I have met plenty a bookworms in my life that I have had to educate about these titles.  I would say Ender’s Game is the the most popular title that my non-science fiction reading friends have discovered.

Most people think of Star Wars and Star Trek when you ask them to define science fiction.  The world of science fiction literature is really a sub-culture that few people  know about.  However, if I had  to introduce the world at large to SF, I would recommend these titles as the most popular SF books to try:

  • Dune
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bladerunner)
  • Ender’s Game
  • Neuromancer

However, from reading and studying books that talk about the best books to read, I can easily imagine that these titles will be forgotten in about another fifty years.  I think in the end, say in 2108, if you ask a bookworm about science fiction of the 20th century, they will list off:  1984, Brave New World and Slaughterhouse-Five.  I tend to think A Clockwork Orange will lose favor because its too hard to read.  In the end science fiction will be represented by books that were never from the sub-culture of science fiction writers.
On the other hand Dune, Ender’s Game and Stranger in a Stranger Land may hang in there.  Books go in and out of favor by the public.  Stephen King may turn out to be the Charles Dickens of the 20th Century.  Stranger in a Strange Land might be its Gulliver’s Travels and Ender’s Game its Alice in Wonderland.

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. The Road is a novel that will stun your soul. I found this stark metaphor about human nature so beautifully written I would use it as a textbook on writing. Although the term science fiction is seldom used when reviewing this literary work, its theme puts it squarely into that realm of storytelling and the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, like the magnificent Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Predicting the end of civilization and the death of mankind goes back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The list of such tales is rather long, and the approaches to the idea vary widely. Some have hope, some are about rediscovery of ancient knowledge, and some like The Road, are a kind of last judgment of mankind.

For those who only watch their science fiction, think The Road Warrior or The Postman or Waterworld, usually featuring a few good people fighting against the lawless hordes of barbaric humans. However, these stories would be about overpopulation compared to The Road, which is set in a world so bleak the reader is not even sure if plants and bugs still live. Most post-apocalyptic novels are warnings to the present, telling us to get our shit together or we’ll end up like the people in this book. When I was young and read these novels they were exciting and adventurous and I’d fantasize how well I could survive. I’m much different at fifty-six and Cormac McCarthy’s story was like standing in front of a well lit mirror. I saw I don’t have what it takes. I would be one of the millions that died off quickly. And that’s depressing.

The Road is about Mankind and Mother Nature failing to the max. Nothing lives but a few humans in a cold gray landscape. We do not know why things have failed, but by reading the book the reader will realize just how vital civilization is to our psychic well being. For me at least, reading this book made me understand that the value of being human is directly proportional to the success of society. Without our social structure life is no more meaningful than dirt.

With the dark clouds of global warming gathering over our heads I can’t help but read The Road as prophetic. If civilization collapses and economics failed and the western world fell into chaos like Afghanistan or the Sudan, we’d be reduce to the strong preying on the weak, but as The Road shows even this only goes as far as resources allow. If the machinery of society came to an abrupt halt, we’d have seven billion people scavenging for food eating anything they could digest. Humans would be worse than locus.

In The Road what nature or man didn’t destroy the remaining people ate or burned for warmth. The unnamed father and son, who are the main characters of the story, trudge along an unnamed road, constantly on the lookout for any dwelling that might still have something eatable within. The only sources of food appear to be the leftovers of civilization or the flesh of humans. In this story the man and boy avoid all other people thinking of themselves as the last good guys running from all the bad guys.

Bleak huh? While reading The Road you admire the beauty of the writing but are horrified by the vision it creates. This book has the power to turn a liberal into a conservative. This isn’t a book you read for fun or diversion. It’s a parable about human nature that will open up your philosophical veins. We’d like to think that the future is always bright because who remembers the dark ages. I think some people will read this book and want to arm themselves with enough firepower to kill a whole city. But no matter how much food and ammunition you store up you won’t be able to protect yourself and family. Anyone with anything becomes a beacon to the desperate. McCormac aptly illustrates that living like a cockroach is the superior survival strategy, if that’s what you want. You may realize it is this world or nothing.

People like to believe in heaven, and maybe millions would be anxious to leave this planet for the next world if such a collapse occurs, but the real lesson of this story is civilization, law and order, economic stability, cooperation and trust is what we really want out of reality.


I read The Road by listening to the Recorded Books edition read by Tom Stechschulte. This dramatic reading magnified all the best qualities of the novel and made McCarthy’s writing vivid. A MP3 sample can be found here. This sample is not typical of the book because it uses one of the few flowery writing segments referring to a dream. It does give a feel for the setting and the end of the sample shows the more common POV of the father. I wished the sample had included the dialog between the father and son because Mr. Stechschulte’s reading is dead on in characterization.I got my copy at Audible.com, but it’s also available at Amazon and iTunes.

  • Be sure and read Jason Sanford’s essay Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction, which goes much deeper than I do in exploring the debt the literary world owes to science fiction and other genres. I used to be in a MFA program and experienced the strong bias the literary folk have against genre writers.  Sanford documents this in great detail. He also talks about Michael Chabon’s review of The Road and how Chabon tries to bridge the gap between the literary and genre world. Sanford also summarizes many of the literary reviews of The Road and how those reviewers failed to credit earlier post-apocalyptic novels.  – Excellent read.

JWH