The road is magic in American culture, simultaneously the escape route from and solution to our problems, so it’s unsurprising that the “road trip novel” is typically thought of as a 20th and 21st century phenomenon; ancient travelogues The Canterbury Tales aren’t really road trips in the modern sense, as they are either not focused on the trip itself, or span so much time they’re not really a trip, as much as a lifetime. It wasn’t really until the creation of the modern road system that writers got the idea to structure a novel against a road trip
Over the decades, in fact, science fiction and fantasy writers have sort of perfected the road trip novel (and thus, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and speculative fiction are forever linked). To prove the point, here are five sci-fi novels that truly take up on a journey.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Dismal, depressing, and sparse, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel is called The Road for a lot of reasons, some symbolic, but mainly because it’s a classic road trip novel through and through. The entire story takes place on the ruined, abandoned roads of a desolate world that has suffered an unspecified apocalyptic disaster. Starving, clinging to largely imaginary hope, the unnamed characters—a man and his young son—walk the old roads in search of any sign of brighter things ahead, dodging cannibals, injury, illness, and the futility of trying at all. If you’re planning a road trip in your future, this is…well, this is not the right book to read for inspiration.
The Stand, by Stephen King
Yes, only portions of this novel involve characters making their way slowly from one place to another, but since the page count is large enough to encompass three or four novels—and because the road trips are essential to the story—it counts. King destroys the world (mostly) via a modern-day Superflu, then slowly draws the survivors together via extended pilgrimages that slowly reveal the desolate America left behind, and their own fates as warriors in the final battle for the soul of the world. Recent editions literally put a road on the cover.
Find Me, by Laura van den Berg
Key to a road trip novel are the characters taking the trip—not the events experienced, but how those events affect the people we’re traveling with. In her debut, van den Berg starts off with a premise that might seem too familiar: a disease that causes memory loss and then, quickly, death, sweeps the world. Joy, an immune teenager suppressing her own bad memories, is rounded up into a hospital in Kansas with other immune teenagers and subjected to experiments, ostensibly to find a cure. When order breaks down, Joy escapes into a post-plague America in search of her mother, and that’s where the novel finds its footing, and becomes amazing. Joy’s road trip leads to a series of unexpected, imaginative encounters as it explores what people might do (or become) when stripped of society’s constraints.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Another book that self-identifies as a road novel by the use of a literal road on the cover, the core of this story is Shadow’s trip across America with Mr. Wednesday, who has a hidden agenda. Wednesday is on a mission to rally the old gods—weakened by waning faith placed in them in the modern age—against the rising new gods rapidly replacing them. Driven by this incredible premise, this book solidified Neil Himself’s place in the pantheon of modern speculative writers, stuffing the road trip model with a hilarious, inspired story in which the new Internet god is often referred to as “the fat kid.”
The Deadlands, by Benjamin Percy
If Percy’s apocalypse isn’t the most original—another superflu, another nuclear war—his idea of what comes after totally is: the people of St. Louis build massive walls around their city to ride out the end of the world, and succeed, if living in a spoiling, crumbling city running out of water and ruled by corrupt and incompetent tyrants is your definition of success. When a rider appears outside the walls reporting the Northwest U.S. is seeing rain and growing crops, Lewis Meriweather and Mina Clark set out along a historically significant trail to see if humanity’s salvation can be found. Old-school road trip meets irradiated monsters, slave gangs, and giant spiders in a book that deserves to survive to classic status.
What’s your favorite SF/F road trip?