This past week I saw the film Children of Men and read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (which was named by Entertainment Weekly the #1 Fiction Book of the Year).
I mention these together because my reactions to them are similar. Both are exceptionally well-crafted works of art, but both presume science-fictional premises entirely without examination, without in any way exploring the bases for those premises.
Children of Men, is set some 20 years from now when humanity has gone sterile, for some unknown reason, with no children born since 2009 or so, causing social unrest that apparently has brought chaos to virtually all the world except for Britain, which reacts with extreme measures against immigrants, forcing their exportation via coastal refugee (‘fugee’) camps. Equally unexplained, one woman has become pregnant after all, and to avoid exploitation by the UK government, must be ferreted offshore to a mysterious international organization aboard a ship called ‘Tomorrow’ with the help of the Clive Owen character.
Gary Westfahl’s review posted here makes the crucial point that the film is better at depicting social chaos and political turmoil than in imagining what a world *without children* would be like. Still, it does the former quite well, I thought, and I think the reason mainstream critics are reacting positively to the film is partly due to its depiction of a Britain under siege, with a great many incidental and background details, — with many obvious parallels to the ‘homeland security’ paranoia current in the US — and partly due to numerous examples of bravura filmmaking. The latter include at least two extended scenes filmed as single takes. The one most written about in reviews is the battle scene near the end, with Clive Owen dodging execution squads and military tanks in a Full Metal Jacket-like sequence lasting some 7 minutes (in a single, uninterrupted take, which required weeks of planning and rehearsing, reportedly), but also an earlier scene in which Clive and the pregnant mother and two other ‘terrorists’ are fleeing police in a small car, and the camera amazingly swivels and pans back and forth *from inside the car* to capture what happens to them as they flee down the road and are stopped by police. Yes, these might be filmmaking stunts (to some extent distracting to viewers who can’t help but wonder *how did they do that?*), irrelevent to the content and conceptual premise of the film, but they’re also effective stunts, truly enhancing the intensity of those events. And that intensity is in part what mainstream critics are appreciating.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a post-apocalypse novel in which a man and his 10-year-old-or-so son, born just after the barely-alluded to event that destroyed civilization, are scrambling across a ruined American landscape scrambling for food, trying to survive, and having nothing to live for but the arbitrary goal of reaching the coast. The writing is extremely spare: the characters are unnamed, dialogue is presented without quotation marks, and in fact McCarthy barely uses any punctuation aside from periods (full stops), breaking even subordinate phrases into separately stopped sentences. It’s emotionally effective and devastating, as the father remembers how the boy’s mother took her own life just after the apocalyptic event, how he wonders if it might even be better to take his son’s life rather than force him to endure endless hunger and trial, much less be captured by the various survivalist clans roaming the countryside. But McCarthy is concerned about that relationship between the characters, about what they think and feel from moment to moment, and in the context of their story, the cause of the apocalypse is irrelevant.
So are these works a victory of some sort? Have SF themes become such a part of popular culture they don’t need justification? Is this progress?