When Is A Post-Apocalyptic Novel Not Science Fiction?

the road cover

Question: When is a novel set in a grim post-cataclysmic wasteland with characters battling for survival not a science fiction novel?

Answer: When it’s written by a literary author.

My brother gave me a copy of The Road for my birthday. When I unwrapped it and read the title I kind of went “Ah.” Not because I didn’t appreciate the gift. My brother knows I like speculative fiction. He knows that The Road is a modern classic. It was a thoughtful gift.

But I was a little bit put off because I was familiar with the premise: father and son wander through desolate wilderness while trying to fend off cannibals. Without even looking at the reviews on the cover, which are peppered with words like ‘harrowing’ and ‘searing’, I knew I was in for a tough read. I knew I was going to worry about the boy. I knew there’d be some gross bits. I knew I was going to be both harrowed and seared. It was as though my brother had said, “Here you go bro: my gift to you is ten hours in hell. Enjoy.”

I saw the world differently for a day or two after finishing The Road. When I was done, I made myself a tuna sandwich for lunch and literally found myself wondering if I should lick out the tin. Just to be on the safe side.

Still, I’m glad I read it. The writing is very beautiful, and I was left with some hope at the end. Which is nice, after 300 pages of reading about hillbillies trying to eat a child like he’s a racoon on a stick.

But a quick tour of the internet on the topic of the novel in order to debrief and decompress left me with a nagging thought. I kept seeing the phrase ‘The Road is not science fiction’. For example, Michael Chabon’s review makes the point that the road is not science fiction, but ‘a lyrical epic of horror’.

Not sci-fi? Really?

There is a phenomenon that occurs when literary writers produce novels that are speculative in nature: critics will tie themselves up in knots to convince themselves the writer has not written a genre novel. Oh, no. It’s a ‘fable’, an ‘allegory’ or a ‘lyrical epic’. Louis Menand reviewed ‘Never Let Me Go‘ by Kazuo Ishiguro and decided that it was a quasi-science-fiction novel. Quasi? As in, it resembles a science fiction novel, but is not a science fiction novel. The plot centres on clones being used for organ harvesting, and considers whether or not these clones have a soul.

Sounds pretty science-fictional to me.

Literary writers will also do their darndest to distance themselves from the taint of genre writing. Margaret Atwood denies being a science fiction writer despite having won the Arthur C Clarke award. British author Francis Spufford said that “I want to use the SF toolkit even though I’m not a science fiction writer”. For me, this kind of flat denial of the bleedingly obvious is a little bit reminiscent of Orwellian doublespeak from that famous literary work, 1984. Which is also a science fiction novel.

Plenty of great writers through the ages have had a foot in either camp. Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle spring to mind. There’s nothing wrong with writing genre fiction, and you’re no more or less ‘literary’ if you do.

But the question then becomes, how can I tell if my favourite literary author has accidentally written a science fiction novel?

Easy. If it looks like science fiction, and it sounds like science fiction, then it’s science fiction.