July 2011

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

The most dismally beautiful piece of post-apocalyptic fiction you'll ever read.

    

Cormac McCarthy is best known for All the Pretty Horses (1992) and No Country for Old Men (2005), both of which were adapted for film and now the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Road, published in 2006 and adapted for film in 2008 starring Viggo Mortensen. The film, however, misses much of the richness of the characters, as well as the austerity of the story in the adaptation. As is often the case, the book does much more to invest the reader in the world he has envisioned; a world that's frighteningly real as our own seems to edge toward destruction. The story manages, like a candle guttering in a storm, to plant a human seed within an inhuman existence and allow it to grow into one hell of a narrative feat.

     In the near future, we can safely assume within a decade or less from today, there is some catastrophic event. Described as "low concussive booms", the landscape is nonetheless diminished to an ashy wasteland where very little survives. The main characters, a father and his son, are "each the other's world entire", traveling through this unnamed wasteland toward an unnamed coast in search of hope for survival, hope for humanity. The landscape provides challenges beyond that of simply finding food and shelter, as many other survivors have resorted to cannibalism, forming roving groups for protection. No character is made a person complete in the novel, (the father and son even lack names) but we understand the core emotional drive of the father to protect his son and to continue to move toward something, anything to keep alive the small candle of hope in both of them. He simultaneously attempts to protect his son's innocence from the devastation of land and man as they pass through their desolate world. His son, however, seems to understand the need to learn about these evils and thereby protect himself, and in that contest of wills their relationship is developed.

Gibson's Neuromancer showed us that technology was going to be cool and scary

By design, I don’t read a lot of science fiction.  I don’t like the emphasis on techno-cool over plot development, the typical reliance on stereotype over nuanced characterization.  But then again, you don’t often come across books that do all of the above well.  One example—and the seminal example of cyberpunk literature—is Neuromancer, written in 1984.  William Gibson's postmodern adventure invented cyberpunk, or stories about the technologically-savvy, anarchically-dangerous future, a genre that spawned film classics like Bladerunner and the Matrix Trilogy. In this novel, Gibson’s pseudo-hero, Case, is a computer hacker who works to take out an artificial intelligence that is trying to take over the world.

Idlewild: An Ontological Murder Mystery

Cal Sagan's son turns out an incredibly modern science-fiction thriller.

    

A bit like the amnesiac mystery Memento, the main character in Nick Sagan's debut novel Idlewild wakes up at the beginning on the novel and must piece together an ontological mystery that grips the reader by the short hairs and doesn't let go. Sagan, son of author and astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/artist Linda Salzman, has worked as a screenwriter on dozens of movies, television episodes, animated series and video games. However, with his debut novel he's already established himself as a significant author in the science-fiction genre in his own right, particularly since you will see none of his father's sensibilities in his writing. Nick Sagan is flippant and dark, and Idlewild, despite its facetious tone and the teenaged sensibilities of its characters, is ultimately a bleak portrayal of the loss of self in a virtual world.

     The main character, Hal (short for Halloween), wakes up in a virtual school that he and nine of his classmates have been in for the majority of their conscious lives. He soon realizes that one of his classmates or their virtual tutor, the Maestro, is attempting to kill him. The school is policed by an AI program called PACE, and through the arc of the story the reader is never certain whether this world has gone haywire as a result of a programming error or a human malevolence. A fellow student, Lazarus, has already been killed and Hal must explore the parameters of his reality to discover the truth. Throughout the story Hal meets people with whom he suppsoedly has a past, and atempts to find a way out of this virtual world and to wake up.