By Jefferson Flanders

Dystopian visions appear to be all the rage these days. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s just-released Children of Men, a film set in 2027 London, imagines a dying world where humans can not reproduce; on television, CBS is airing the series Jericho, a futuristic drama about life in a small Kansas town after an atomic attack on Denver; and Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Road,” traces the journey of a father and son through a lawless America in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.

What lies behind these harrowing scenarios? A delayed reaction to 9/11, or to the dangers of genetic engineering, or to global warming? Fears triggered by North Korean nuclear tests, or the threat of terrorists acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction?

While the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the “global level of nuclear danger” kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reflects worrisome trends (it reached seven minutes to midnight in 2002, much narrower than 1991’s 17-minute gap), we are relatively safer than we were during the brinkmanship years of the Cold War. In 1953, for example, after the U.S. and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices the clock moved to two minutes from Armageddon; in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis nearly escalated into all-out war.

Perhaps today’s artistic anxiety stems from the greater potential for random acts of destruction. The Cold War superpower standoff was based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, the assumption that rational leaders would be deterred from using atomic weapons knowing that there could no winners. In contrast, many of today’s terrorists have embraced suicide as a religious act, and Iranian leaders have mused aloud about acceptable population losses in a nuclear exchange with Israel. Rationality is no check. The fear and trepidation that these works of science fiction tap into is very real.

“The Road” captures that anxiety. McCarthy has been in a grim mood of late; his 2005 novel, “No Country for Old Men,” explored the disturbing impact of drugs, easy money and anarchic violence on Texas small towns along the Mexican border. McCarthy (through the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a traditionalist) clearly longs for a return to older values and virtues, such as family and faith, which have been challenged by a brutal, criminal amorality.

A Hobbesian America

That longing for a baseline morality again surfaces in “The Road.” McCarthy sketches an anarchic America, still smoldering from the war, where the few survivors confront a Hobbesian nightmare, scavenging for food and shelter, evading the roaming bands of predators who have descended into barbarism.

There are echoes here of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” with his hero’s Homeric journey through the back-roads of a Civil War South where the social order has collapsed. The protagonist in “The Road” hopes that by travelling south to the coast through a “barren, silent, godless” landscape he and his ten-year-old son can find sanctuary from the coming harsh winter. All the while he fights his own growing “dull despair” and clings to a preapocalyptic morality—telling his son that they are the “good guys” and promising they will never resort to the savagery, including cannibalism, that they see around them.

Fire dominates this book: it has scorched the ruined America the two travelers encounter (“Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim”); yet building a fire is also necessary to keep the man and boy alive in a post-nuclear winter climate. And “carrying the fire” is the reason the man gives his son for persevering despite their nearly hopeless situation; that fire is a metaphor for keeping alive the internal spark of humanity.

McCarthy is known for his spare, poetic prose—it is on full display in “The Road.” His stripped down language (with its Hemingwayesque use of conjunctions) matches the stark environment he limns:

It was as long a night as he could remember out of a great plenty of such nights. They lay on the wet ground by the side of the road under the blankets with the rain rattling on the tarp and he held the boy and after a while the boy stopped shaking and after a while he slept.

There are hints of Biblical imagery (the destruction of Lot), and of more recent horrific images (the “Highway of Death” from Kuwait to Baghdad where Iraqi solders were incinerated during the first Gulf War). McCarthy couples his description of the radically altered physical landscape with a portrait of a father’s redemptive love for his son and his growing desperation as he realizes that he is dying and may not find a safe harbor in time for his boy.

There is much to admire in “The Road,” and yet McCarthy’s imagery and lyric Celtic prose don’t elevate the novel into something first-rate; in the end the book disappoints. It feels derivative, borrowing (intentionally or not) from the popular-culture dystopias we’ve encountered in the Mad Max and Terminator films (and perhaps even from futuristic clunkers like The Postman and Waterworld). There’s nothing particularly fresh, or different, in McCarthy’s somewhat baroque postapocalytic take. (I would argue that Nevil Shute’s novel “On the Beach” remains the scariest, and most haunting, vision of what might happen after a nuclear war, as the surviving remnants of humanity await the radioactive winds that doom the species, “not with a bang but a whimper.”)

Recognizing the future

The most fascinating science fictions these days—in print and on screen—are those that provide us a glimpse of a plausible, but deeply disturbing future, one that is familiar and that we recognize with a bit of a shudder. Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 film Code 46 does just that, imagining how globalization, environmental stress and genetic engineering might lead to a society divided by wealth and “breeding.” We encounter a pampered, urban technocratic overclass and an impoverished, “genetically inferior” underclass, oppressed and isolated from First World civilization, restricted by a series of codes and laws. The film hits close to home in a way “The Road” does not. (Screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol explored somewhat similar, and uncomfortable, themes of genetic privilege in his 1997 movie Gattaca.)

Storytellers are as much drawn to the future–its mystery, its plasticity, its mythic potential–as they are to the present or the past. Yet innovative science fiction is harder to create than it appears. McCarthy’s comfort with the themes and tropes of the Western—another distinctly American genre–are evident in his “Border Trilogy,” but his foray into science fiction isn’t nearly as successful. He’s not alone: since George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the challenge for mainstream writers to imagine the society of the future has proven irresistible and enduring. Sometimes they hit—witness “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess), “Planet of the Apes” (Pierre Boule) and “Never Let Me Go” (Kazuo Ishiguro)—and sometimes they miss the mark (vide: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Caleb Carr’s “Killing Time”).

They will—we can safely predict—keeping trying.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders All rights reserved

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