The Dark Path
I had a brief Facebook exchange with some friends regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recently, and it got me thinking about apocalyptic literature. Now, I should preface this by saying I’ve only read parts of The Road and never the whole thing, primarily because it is such an upsetting book and I don’t particularly relish reading something so bleak. Then again, on the other hand, it is truly beautifully written, so I find myself coming back, reading a bit, and then putting it down with a shudder. This demonstrates it as a work of true and raw power, if nothing else.
It also draws me to reflect upon what, if anything, is the purpose of post-apocalyptic literature as a whole. It is very much in vogue these days (though primarily as interacting with the uninspired trope of the zombie apocalypse. For my thoughts on this, see here.) and this shouldn’t be seen as accidental. It’s a reflection of our cultural insecurities, ultimately, as evidenced by our perceived status as ‘top of the world’ and the added realization of the vulnerability of that status. You can see the same thing happening to literature written in cultures in similar situations, such as HG Wells’ apocalyptic visions during the height of Victorian Britain, the rash of numerological fears in ancient Rome (they had their own version of the ‘2012’ myth), and others, as well. We fear the end because we see no way to go any higher or any further. When you can’t go up anymore, the only way to go is down.
But what, today, does wallowing in our own self-destruction provide us? It’s ghoulishly fascinating, of course, but is that all it is? Is the idea to just sit there and grimace as we watch our society torn down by barbarism and nod sagely, saying to ourselves ‘it had to happen?’
God, I hope not.
Stories that lead us nowhere but to human extinction are upsetting and miserable. Far be it from me to forbid the use of tragedy (it’s a trend in scifi that could use a bit of disruption), but the unhappy ending isn’t wholly my problem. My problem is that the hopeless apocalyptic tale is, essentially, bad tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to be a lesson. You should emerge from the experienced as enriched as you are harrowed. I find nothing enriching about witnessing the end of the human race with no hope for survival.
The subtext of a wide variety of apocalyptic stories I’ve read is that we, humans, are so broken, flawed, and miserable that we can’t help but screw ourselves over even in the midst of devastation. This is partially true, of course – we humans are miserable bastards sometimes and often do stupid, short-sighted, or cruel things. It is not, however, universally true. Stories that portray humanity without that goodness, nobility, resourcefulness, and perseverance that characterize a good bit of our history are lying to us just as thoroughly as those that portray us as exclusively possessing those traits. Presenting the apocalypse just as an excuse to jeer at the meanness of human experience is not terribly enriching, or at least I don’t find it so. It is powerful, of course, and horrifying and all the rest of it. I, however, find tales of redemption all the more powerful, though.
If you’re going to lie to me anyway, I’d rather the lie be sweet than sour. Maybe, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am still an optimist. Or, perhaps, I just won’t cede reality to the pessimists just yet. The world will yet turn; we may yet be saved. Take the tales of the apocalypse as warnings, but not portents. Our future is not yet written in stone.
Posted on September 10, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged apocalypse, Cormac McCarthy, HG Wells, optimism, post-apocalypse, scifi, society, The Road. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
Auston, give “The Dog Stars” a try. Its style is evocative of the road, but I think you’ll find it a little more palatable. Though in defense of “The Road”, I would argue that it has enriching lessons, albeit of the kind that you carry from the book into real life rather than reading into the story itself…kind of like Scrooge waking up and realizing he hadn’t missed Christmas.
I would argue that taking away Scrooge’s Christmas morning would render A Christmas Carol empty and meaningless. Point taken, though. I’ll check it out.
McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses is similarly beautiful in style, but much less bleak (in that it doesn’t take place after an apocalypse).
Loosely familiar with it. He’s an incredible writer, that’s for certain, and reading him is educational, at the least. I usually like to enjoy my education, though.
Someday I *will* read all of The Road. It’s only like 200 pages, after all.
I also haven’t read The Road–in my case, at all. But I do enjoy a good post-apocalyptic story. Though I think that, like you, I prefer ones with hopeful endings rather than tragedy all the way through. (See also my dislike of Childhood’s End!)
Overall, though, what I like about them is the set-up of who people are when the world falls apart. When pushed to that extreme, who do we become and why, and what are the extremes of that?
The mix of these two responses, the tragic and the hopeful, is a big reason I think The Walking Dead is a great franchise (and that’s what it is, at this point). I know you dislike zombie stories, but the zombies aren’t the story, they’re just an aspect. The real story is exactly that, who do we become when the world ends, when everything we know is gone. What defines a good person or a bad one anymore? Do we have any right to judge the bad ones, given the circumstances we all find ourselves in?
Of note, there’s a new television series starting up next Monday called “Revolution” that has a non-zombie apocalypse theme. In this one, electricity just suddenly stops working entirely, and the main tale picks up fifteen years later. It looks good, and it’s got Supernatural’s Eric Kripke on it, as well as JJ Abrams and Jon Favreau producing, so I’ve got high hopes.
I plan on watching at least the pilot of Revolution, but I find the concept so implausible I find it unlikely I can suspend my disbelief. I’m going to give it a shot, though.
For my money, I prefer truly ‘post-apocalyptic’ tales, in that they happen after everything has blown up, not during. The Planet of the Apes, for instance, or A Canticle For Lebowitz. The whole ‘what would you do if the world fell apart’ thing tends to fall flat for me, since the things the characters do are so seldom the things that I’d do, and the things that happen to them are so frequently implausible to make me frustrated with the experience.