Cormac McCarthy's The Road is such a well known book, particularly with the recent movie release that I don’t see a whole lot of point in hashing over the plot in too much detail. In essence, a man and his young son are traveling around in a post apocalyptic world a number of years after the disaster has occurred. The young boy has known nothing but this disastrous terrifying world but remains an innocent, a cautious innocent, but an innocent none-the-less.
McCarthy has had some involvement with the San Jose Institute, so it would be a mistake to assume that he his apocalypse is, like Susan Beth Pfeffer's moon-meteor collision in Life As We Knew It, set up purely as a literary device.
Nothing grows in this world. Even the sea is grey. Photosynthesis has stopped. We have a (within science fiction literary circles) a disaster story with a similar setting: John Christopher's No Blade of Grass. In that story the bases of our cereal crops (including rice) can no longer grow. There are some food plants, but certainly not enough to feed the oversized earth population.
What is odd about John Christopher, is that he is one of the authors included in the group of cosy (cozy in U.S.) catastrophe writers that Brian Aldis sited in The Billion Year Spree. A cozy catastrophe is a cataclysm where the disaster itself is difficult to manage, and there is a lot of initial strife, but in the end everything turns out to be not so bad in a less crowded earth. The term does not fit No Blade of Grass particularly well. But he also wrote End-of-the World-as-We know-It (EOTWAWKI) type books such as The World in Winter (Early Ice Age), and A Wrinkle in the Skin (Earth Quakes), Empty World (YA Plague). In any case, with some modification for disaster seriousness, No Blade of Grass reads like back story for The Road.
With McCarthey, you certainly have an uncrowded earth. But it is not cozy. And that is in part I think the genesis for at least the setting of his book. A lot of his books have a very hard edge. He does not want this book to turn into a tale of sunny redemption through perseverance. An interview with Joe Penhall, at Culture lab gives some more depth. Penhall wrote the screenplay for the movie and was interview by Michael Bond:
Cormac McCarthy doesn't tell us the cause of the apocalypse. What did you imagine it might be?
McCarthy told me it was some kind of environmental meltdown. He has an office at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, he loves hanging out there and a lot of his friends are environmental scientists, molecular biologists and physicists, so he's coming at it from a very scientific point of view. It's about what would happen if environmental meltdown continued to its logical conclusion: crops and animals would die, the weather would go out of control, there would be spontaneous wildfires and blizzards, you wouldn't be able to grow anything and the only thing left to eat would be tinned food and each other. But I was anxious not to quiz him too much about what happened because we wanted to preserve the mystique of it.
Aside from the relationship between the father and son, the story is bleak, with almost no sense of hope. What made you think it would be suitable for the cinema?
I loved the boldness of McCarthy's supposition that when the end comes it's going to be an excruciating conflation of high horror and banality. On the one hand the world will lapse into cannibalism, rape and civil war, on the other there'll be the numbing repetition of having to find food every day and worrying about replacing your shoes. Post-apocalypse films are often so concerned with the big picture that they miss the small details of what everyday existence would be like. McCarthy captured those beautifully: how you're going to be endlessly waking from dreams about your past life and mourning the things that have gone, like apples.
Penhall goes on to note, that the authors son was eight at the time that he wrote the book. The story being somewhat autobiographic: a man and his boy: and an apocalypse.
The redemption is the redemption of human kindness, still present, within the confines of a terror filled world.
The specific setting is chosen in response to the preceding, too cute and clever stories of apocalyptic redemption. He is signaling, to those in the know, that this is not a cozy.