What Caused the Apocalypse in The Road?

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  • 12 Nov 2014 at 7:26 am #6055

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Hi Folks – some long time ago, there was a debate hereabouts concerning the causes of the terminal catastrophe whose aftermath is depicted in The Road. I held out for a nuclear attack; others supported a variety of eco-disasters. I’ve been looking for that debate thread since last night with no luck. Anyone either know which thread it’s buried in, or save any of that discussion for, eh, posteriority? I was hoping to save myself some time in writing the intro for Carrying the Fire, the Road casebook, by re-reading those arguments. Your assistance will be much appreciated.


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    29 Aug 2015 at 9:52 am #7553

    Richard L.
    Member

    Well, I can’t find my copy of THE ROAD: A CASEBOOK right now to quote you, but as I recall, you say in that preface that McCarthy did have in mind nuclear war or technological accident, even though it is not explicitly thus in the published text.

    Thus technological civilization commits suicide.

    I thought of this when reading MEET ME IN ATLANTIS, in which the author argues that one function of the Atlantis story he sees, is that Plato wanted to show how civilization was cyclic, and that catastrophes have occurred in the past to wipe out civilization and thus will occur again in the future.

    So much of McCarthy can be seen to stem from Plato, it can’t be long before some scholar writes a monograph with the Plato/McCarthy connection center stage. Listen to this, from Mark Adams’ MEET ME IN ATLANTIS:

    “Plato felt so strongly about the oral transmission of stories concerning the periodic deviations of the heavenly bodies that he explicitly addressed them in his final work, The Laws, in which three men on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Zeus on Crete discuss how to create a hypothetical city:

    ATHENIAN: Do you consider that there is any truth in the ancient tales?

    CLINIAS: What tales?

    ATHENIAN: That the world of men has often been destroyed by floods, plagues, and many other things, in such a way that only a small portion of the human race has survived.

    CLINIAS: Everyone would regard such accounts as perfectly credible.”

    _______

    Plato, Cormac McCarthy, and THE ROAD.


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    29 Aug 2015 at 11:43 am #7554

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Good call. Yes, believe it or not, we’re making some progress on that goddamned Road casebook – we had finally to do nothing less than reduce it all back to word documents and re-format the damned thing to erase all the incompatible code in it. And I mean, re-typing entire articles myself into docx formats. I’m killing myself trying to get this done in time for the conference. I’ve fantasized numerous times about parking U-Haul trucks full of ammoniated fertilizer in front of the Microsoft campus and the headquarters of Adobe, too. Fortunately, I still do enough yoga to calm myself down at moments like that, even in my sleep.

    I still go with the nuclear war explanation, and having immersed myself in this quicksand puddle of a formatting adventure (while playing the Youngbloods’ song “Quicksand” off of Elephant Mountain over and over to cheer myself up), I am more convinced that “technological suicide” works best as a description of what went on.


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    29 Aug 2015 at 1:32 pm #7555

    johndaum
    Member

    Hey Rick!
    I remember that thread and I am searching for it… I remember I quoted Tom Bissell’s essay, “A Comet’s Tale: On the Science of the Apocalypse,” in that thread. I tried searching with those terms but I was having trouble with the search function for the forum. Maybe you will have some luck.

    For what it’s worth, my opinion has always been a comet or asteroid strike for a variety of reasons. There was a lot of buzz about Near Earth Objects in the science community around 2003, the time McCarthy was apparently beginning to think about The Road. This quote from Bissell’s 2003 Harper’s essay always struck me as eerily similar to the conditions on earth in The Road:

    This one-kilometer threshold is important, for asteroids above it are known as “civilization- enders.” They would do so first by the kinetic energy of their impact, striking with a velocity hitherto unknown in human history. The typical civilization-ender would be traveling roughly 20 kilometers a second, or 45,000 miles per hour – for visualization’s sake, this is more than fifty times faster than your average bullet – producing an impact fireball several miles wide that, very briefly, would be as hot as the surface of the sun. If the asteroid hit land, a haze of dust and asteroidal sulfates would enshroud the entire stratosphere. This, combined with the soot from the worldwide forest fire the impact’s thermal radiation would more or less instantaneously trigger, would plunge Earth into a cosmic winter lasting anywhere from three months to six years. Global agriculture would be terminated, and horrific greenhousing of the climate and mass starvation would quickly ensue, to say nothing of the likely event of world war – over the best caves, say. In the event of a 10-kilometer impact, every- thing within the ocean’s photic zone, including food-chain-vital phytoplankton, would die, but this would hardly matter, as the deadly atmospheric production of nitrogen oxides, which would fall as acid rain, would for the next decade poison every viable body of water on Earth. Chances are, however, that the impact would be a water strike, as 72 percent of meteorite landings are thought to have been. This scenario is little better. A one-kilometer impact would, in seconds, evaporate as many as 700 cubic kilometers of water, shooting a tower of steam several miles high and thousands of degrees hot into the atmosphere, once again blotting out incoming solar radiation and triggering cosmic winter. The meteorite itself would most likely plunge straight to the ocean floor, opening up a crater five kilometers deep, its blast wave cracking open Earth’s crust to uncertain seismic effect. The resultant tsunami, radiating outward in every direction from the point of impact, would begin as a wall of water as high as the ocean is deep. If a coastal dweller were to look up and see this wave coming he or she would be killed seconds later, as it would be traveling as fast as a 747. Of course, these are all projections based in physics, and can be scaled either slightly up or slightly down in their potential for global destruction. As the paleontologist David M. Raup puts it, “The bottom line is that collision with a. . . one-kilometer body would be most unpleasant.”

    Note the world’s forests being incinerated by the thermal wave. Note the seismic implications of the earth’s crust being cracked open. Note the cosmic winter.

    As much as McCarthy has been coy about the cause of the apocalypse in The Road, I believe he does know the specific cause and crafted the story around the science of whatever cause he picked. Also, NEO’s seem to fit the “shafts of light and a series of low concussions” as a comet or asteroid began breaking up and pounding our planet.

    On the flip side, the nuclear exchange theory has plenty going for it as well… the rose glow, the lights in the sky, the father filling the tub could be his attempt to have radiation free water, young McCarthy growing up down the road from the Y12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee…

    Sorry… I miss chatting about all this stuff…

    Rick, way to represent in the Newsweek piece! Cheers!


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    • This reply was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by  johndaum.
    30 Aug 2015 at 5:45 pm #7559

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    john – welcome back! It’s been too long.

    Another observation – all those corpses scattered around dead where they stood or sat. To me that says “irradiation.” No other way to account for it.

    Anyway, thanks for the kudos on the interview – Jack Martinez did his homework on that piece, and may be coming to Memphis, too.

    And of course, thanks for that encouraging citation from Bissell. I think I’ll go slit my wrists now.


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    • This reply was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by  Rick Wallach.
    • This reply was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by  Rick Wallach.
    22 Sep 2015 at 1:17 am #7614

    cantona
    Member

    I found this article very interesting: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/sep/21/building-the-atom-bomb-the-full-story-of-the-nevada-test-site. Not least because it made me think about the nuclear argument for the apocalypse in The Road and all that cold war melancholy suffusing The Crossing and Cities of the Plain.


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    22 Sep 2015 at 3:42 pm #7616

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Cantona – thanks for reminding me about the “cold war melancholy,” as you put it, in the two Border Trilogy novels. That simply illustrates the extent to which the nuclear genie keeps banging at the cork in McCarthy’s work. Interesting article, to boot.


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    22 Sep 2015 at 7:36 pm #7617

    cantona
    Member

    Rick,

    Yes, the “Survival Town” – with all those mannequin-families and their fridges stocked with food – got me thinking about the bunker in The Road. Who knows, one day we might see a monograph on cold war melancholy in, say, The OK, Suttree, the last two books in the Border Trilogy, NCFOM, and The Road. Not putting myself forward here, though.


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    22 Sep 2015 at 10:02 pm #7618

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Well then pardon me for tooting my own ocarina a bit. I have dabbled in the matter of cold war melancholy myself, but not quite where you might expect it: http://htronline.weebly.com/2014.html


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    23 Sep 2015 at 5:31 pm #7619

    ztutor
    Member

    I feel like McCarthy himself gave us a fantastic hint at what took place via an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

    The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who’ve gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.

    This would explain the world of ash and also the seismic activity among other things. I feel like this is what McCarthy settled on had happened in The Road – maybe not while writing it but eventually, especially since he makes a specific mention of it when asked what happened in the book.


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