Built on Facts

The Road

Cormac McCarthy is with good reason widely considered to be among the finest living American writers. The literary scene has appreciated his work for some time; the general public (including myself, though I do a lot of reading) was first exposed to his work in the uncommonly faithful film adaptation of No Country for Old Men.

Success breeds success in Hollywood, and McCarthy’s most recent book The Road is being filmed.

It’s an unforgivingly grim and brutal book. A father and son are trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America. It’s an uglier post-apocalypse than most. More or less everything is dead and covered in ash. Other than the occasional uniformly horrifying humans they encounter (we’re talking cannibalism, rape, and murder… in that order), there’s essentially no remaining plant or animal life anywhere along the journey. I assume there’s some kind of photosynthetic life somewhere, as the atmosphere is obviously still breathable. Sea algae, maybe.

McCarthy’s work is nothing if not spare and meditative, and essentially no detail about the catastrophe is given. We’re told nothing about the condition of the rest of the world apart from the small slice of the eastern US in which the father and son travel. Here’s all we’re directly told, in flashback (stylistic idiosyncrasies as written):

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went to the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull glow rose in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is is? she said. What is happening?

I dont know.

Why are you taking a bath?

I’m not.

The question of the day is what happened, assuming we’re looking for a realistic answer consistent with the evidence in the text? The two obvious possibilities are comet or asteroid strike and nuclear war. The latter seems unlikely – there’s no sign of radioactivity and the scale of the environmental destruction a decade later is overwhelming even by nuclear standards. But the comet theory has its own holes. How has it managed to kill everything but leave a breathable atmosphere? How didn’t it kill the man and his wife immediately if they were close enough to see the light from the impact and it was powerful enough to cause a mass extinction event?

It’s a pickle. And of course as a novelist McCarthy is not trying a technical manual, he’s interested in the story. But I think we can have fun trying to figure out both. Thoughts?


  1. #1 Bob Hawkins
    March 24, 2009

    A comet/asteroid strike would not necessarily be a single strike. Perhaps it was a comet that had lost most of its ice and separated into rocky pieces. The strike described is one of the smaller pieces.

    Another possibility is the Yellowstone supervolcano going off unexpectedly. That wouldn’t cause the same level of destruction over the whole world, so there would still be plants. But North America would be in bad shape.

  2. #2 Corbin
    March 24, 2009

    I imagined a world where no one thing caused the destruction – death by a thousand cuts. Maybe war, social unrest, climate change, environmental toxicity, loss of habitat, mass extinction, or economic collapse. They all conspire to amplify the others’ effect.

    The ash is from one of many wildfires. The country is literally burning because dead wood burns and emergency agencies no longer exist to stop it.

    The scene you quote is simply the couple witnessing a military action caused by panic. It isn’t “the event”. It’s when they realized the world had forever changed.


    I like not knowing 😉

  3. #3 llewelly
    March 24, 2009

    Meteorite war.
    The man and his wife saw only one of many impacts.
    Beyond that – the novel takes place in a part of North America. We’ve no hint of how the rest of the world is doing.

  4. #4 Brando
    March 24, 2009

    Could be multiple residual impacts from a large impact much further away. The result ten years later seems indicative of a mass extinction and blocking out of the sun (more or less). Honestly, it really doesn’t matter what exactly happened, the results are the same.

    FWIW, I went over a few sequences of the film back in November to potentially work on it, but we passed. It looks impressive and predictably rather depressing, but Viggo Mortensen fits the role perfectly to the way I imagined him in the book. The kid is a bit older than I expected and whines a bit more.

  5. #5 Markus Mencke
    March 24, 2009

    Maybe this has two or even more causes, not just one. The clock stops, the couple sees the sky lighting up, then concussions follow?
    Speculation: large meteoroid gets hit by last-line-of-defense nuclear warheads (causing a EMP, killing the clock, electricity and so on), the meteroid breaks up or at least loses some smaller pieces, the pieces enter the atmosphere (lighting it up), small pieces only near the couples house, blowing up high (concussions), the rest hits somewhere farther away and/or blows up in the atmosphere (more like a glancing hit, not a direct impact?), causing the slow death of everything.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    March 24, 2009

    Do we know which part of North America? (I haven’t read the novel.) If it’s in the western half, it could well be a volcano. Not necessarily Yellowstone–if Mt. Rainier blew up in Tambora-like fashion, much of Cascadia would be toast, but the tropics and southern hemisphere would be less strongly affected.

    As for nuclear war, one way around the lack of radioactivity issue would be for the war to be somewhere else in the world, e.g., Pakistan vs. India. You could still get a nuclear winter out of that if both sides went all-in. But the problem with that theory is why the protagonist sees the flash and loss of electrical power in North America–perhaps the war includes taking out some spy satellites in low Earth orbit.

  7. #7 Paul Johnson
    March 24, 2009

    I dunno, if all the plant life in north america were destroyed, the earth’s oxygen content would change dramatically

  8. #8 Alex Besogonov
    March 25, 2009

    Nope. If _all_ the plant life is gone, then the atmosphere would still be breathable for about 1000 years before natural volcanism poisons it.

  9. #9 erik Remkus
    March 25, 2009

    Well, it could just be a new bomb that doesn’t emit radiation (latest innovation in the green movement). So possibly an anti-matter bomb maybe.

  10. #10 Lindsay
    March 25, 2009

    I had to read this for a lit class last semester. I (as the only scientist in the bunch) seemed to be the only one bothered by the causation of the event(s). Knowing only the barest amount of geology/vulcanism, the best I could come up with was a combo of events, most likely an asteriod/comet that breaks up and sends fires throughout the world then perhaps triggering (or just unluckily coinciding with) volcanic eruptions. McCarthy certainly makes it sound at times as if the cause was man-made. But IMHO a man-made cause big enough to cause that kind of destruction would have destroyed all of humanity.

  11. #11 Bosch's Poodle
    April 6, 2009

    I like #5, it’s kind of tragic and poetic and vaguely pathetic, a last-second nuclear strike that the US military probably knew was totally futile, but they felt like they should do something. It explains the flash and the relative lack of radioactivity, etc. Well done.

  12. #12 2012
    December 14, 2009

    Just watched this movie, very depressing!!

    A comet did hit the earth in the book. If you noticed in the movie Vigo asked the old man if he prepared for the comet. And the old man said he had no reason too.

    The damage would fit a comet or astroid strike perfectly. Their seemed to be ongoing earth quakes and rumbles throughout the movie, which would indicate that something hit the Earth’s crust.

    There is no way in the world a nuclear war in Pakistan/India would have this type of an effect on the planet. Even a global nuclear war would not be as bad as what was seen in this movie. An asteroid impact is the best explanation consistent with the facts.

    Truly a sad and depressing film.

  13. #13 fatima louise
    March 3, 2010

    i’m looking forward to see this movie! it sounds interesting! :]

  14. #14 Kaitlyn
    October 17, 2011

    The clocks stopping at 1:17, this is a reference to Revelations 1:17, Revelations being the book of the Bible that describes in detail, “The End of Times”. Revelation 1:17 is when Jesus speaks the words “I am the beginning and the end.” If McCarthy references Revelations here, perhaps his vision of how the world ended would coincide with the descriptions in the book. Many of the events involve fire, which would match up with the frequent imagery of burned lands and ashes.

  15. #15 Charlene
    October 31, 2011

    I prefer to think that humans just finally used up the planet. Isn’t that what they say will happen some day? (See “Advertising and the End of the World.” It is a movie that I screened one time to show my Media Studies class. Unfortunately, it was quite long and rather dry, so I never did use it!) Supposedly, someday, we will just use up all that the earth has to give us. I believe the book works better as a cautionary tale this way.

  16. #16 Michael
    November 2, 2011

    1:17 is 9 completion/fulfillment.

  17. #17 Michael
    November 5, 2011

    Matt Springer

    The Road is a book of fiction and the author is writing about an event that will happen sometime in the future. Most people like to keep things as fiction but when one is presented with information that brings light to an event that will happen and takes it from fiction to an actual event that will happen in the future, media will ignore the real thing and back a book based on fiction. Unfortunately It is the way of the world. The number 117 that is in the book placed their knowingly or unknowingly by the author is written in a book on page 117 which is a prophecy written by one that made a point of visiting New York in 1912. He sates that……….. as a direct chain of events, momentous and possibly CATASTROPHIC IN NATURE, and which cannot as yet be dimly visualized, WILL suddenly….. derange the equilibrium of the world…. This book also speaks to the Native American Indian on page 16 and the book is 171 pages long. The code is 16/7/117/171 which is 7117171. The word code is 11/7.

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