In Defense of “The Road”

In her recent negative review of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, the fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin makes a pretty good case for the book’s slightness:

A good many things in the novel were inexplicable to me, such as how and when North America came to be like this, what happened to nation and religion, how raw materials are produced and how, without trains or good highways, they manage to have coffee, petrol, electronic devices, food in plastic pouches, neoprene suits, plastic throwaway dishes and implements — unsustainably hi-tech luxuries that we in 2014 enjoy thanks to our immense global network of industrial production. In a broken, sporadic civilisation, where does all this stuff come from? Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

There are some good points here. Le Guin’s basically complaining about a lack of worldbuilding in Lee’s novel, and she provides enough specific detail that the complaint makes a lot of sense. But her passing shot at McCarthy — clearly in reference to The Road — just seems wrong-headed to me. Complaining that The Road doesn’t adhere to SF worldbuilding dogma is like complaining that L’avventura neglects the conventions of mystery fiction because it doesn’t (spoiler alert, I guess) resolve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance.the-road

When you get down to it, worldbuilding is really about ecosystems, either natural or cultural. How does this world work? How do its parts hang together? How did it come to be this way? If you buy into the worldbuilding orthodoxy, you demand this sort of detail; and if you really buy into it you relish that detail, all intellectual considerations aside.

But The Road’s focus is precisely: what if there are no ecosystems left? What if all the natural and cultural infrastructures that sustain us are stripped suddenly away, replaced only with the certainty that we can never, ever get them back? What if the world the author builds seems gray and lifeless because that’s exactly the world he’s trying to create in order to explore the themes he wants to explore?

In The Road, there appears to be no earthly life left other than man. This is, to put it bluntly, impossible — no disaster we can imagine, whether meteor or supervolcano or thermonuclear war, could bring about such a state. But the world McCarthy creates has to be this bleak to fulfill his purposes. He masterfully exploits his stark mise-en-scene to examine a very specific question: how can a parent fulfill his obligation to nurture and protect his child when there is absolutely, positively no worldly hope? Complaining that the cause of the book’s apocalypse is left unclear or that “we can’t live without bacteria” (as one of the commenters on Le Guin’s review gripes) is dogma-driven nerdishness of the most obtuse and tedious sort. It prizes a specious rigor over the central aims of art.

Le Guin has complained about McCarthy swiping SF’s goods before (though, interestingly, a close reading of her comment there suggests she hasn’t even read The Road). And she’s long nursed a resentment toward the mainstream literary world — more specifically, to the way she feels the mainstream literary world looks down on SF. It’s an understandable resentment. It can be ridiculous to see a gaggle of Brooklynites or Upper West Siders go apeshit over an SF trope that has, for readers familiar with the genre, long since curdled into cliché. But The Road was a popular success as well as a critical one, and so far it’s had a lasting cultural afterlife (which I suspect Lee’s On Such a Full Sea will not). It’s not just literary mandarins who embraced McCarthy’s novel, it’s the reading public as a whole, and that should tell Le Guin that she’s acting like a bit of a literary mandarin herself.

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2 Responses to In Defense of “The Road”

  1. Isaac Yuen says:

    I’m probably the biggest Le Guin fanboy out there, and even I can’t defend that offhand dismissal of The Road, which I just reread mere hours ago. I think the sparseness of detail is paradoxically absolutely crucial to the worldbuilding. Nothing left – No need to elaborate on why or how things came to be outside of a few vague hints.

  2. inthebrake says:

    Yeah, I love Le Guin — she’s a strong progressive and probably two of her books would be in my top ten SF. But she was showing her crotchety old-person “get off my lawn” side here.

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