Review: The Wasteland Saga / Author: Nick Cole / Publisher: Harper Voyager / Release Date: Out Now
An omnibus edition of a trio of linked tales, The Wasteland Saga is comprised of the post-apocalyptic short novels The Old Man and the Wasteland, The Savage Boy and The Road Is a River.
Forty years after the world was devastated by nuclear war, individuals and small communities struggle to survive amidst the radioactive wasteland of what was once the United States. An Old Man tries to prove his continued worth to himself by braving the shattered void to salvage whatever may still remain functional; after the death of his guardian, a Boy makes his way across the country to fulfil his mentor’s dying wish; and the dauntless optimism of the Old Man’s granddaughter ends up inspiring hope to those who no longer have any.
When the term post-apocalyptic is used to describe a work of fiction, it can often conjure images of decaying cities populated by warring bands of marauders who look like hybrids of Sex Pistols fans and extras from The Warriors, battling over some retro-sci-fi Macguffin while the last vestiges of humanity disintegrate before your eyes. However, The Wasteland Saga is a less expansive and much more personal experience. Although some sci-fi themes are present – particularly towards the climax of The Road Is a River – any futuristic aspects of the novels are very much secondary to the human drama that drives them. Characters are rarely given actual names; the primary protagonists of the Old Man and the Boy are continually referred to as such, even in moments of self-contemplation, as though a sense of true personal identity is a luxury few can afford.
The Old Man and the Wasteland, right from its title and continuing to its events and themes, intentionally draws parallels between itself and Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea. The novel is the Old Man’s favourite book and he often imagines himself talking to its protagonist, acknowledging the direct resemblance between his own plight and the book’s plot.
The Savage Boy has a similar structure and style: an unnamed protagonist ventures alone out into the scorched earth, the unforgiving environment pushing him to the limits of his physical and psychological endurance. Instead of the fisherman Santiago, the Boy instead has silent conversations with the soldier who raised him, imagining what advice he would give the Boy on how to react to a given situation, his perceived thoughts often different from the Boy’s initial reaction.
The Road Is a River takes its cue from The Savage Boy's conclusion, and follows the Old Man and his granddaughter as they travel north in an attempt to save a group of people trapped in a military bunker, the events of the journey stimulating questions about what being human truly means in this damned world.
Less a trilogy in the strictest sense, The Wasteland Saga instead forms a kind of literary triptych anchored by the desolation of the wasteland itself. The Old Man and the Wasteland, revolving around the Old Man’s memories of what he and the world used to be, represents the past; The Savage Boy, detailing the Boy’s regular and often violent encounters with what the world has descended into, shows us the reality of the present; while The Road Is a River is driven by the Old Man’s desire to do the right thing to give his granddaughter hope for a future less relentlessly bleak than the one nuclear war saddled him with all those years ago. The end result more than succeeds in its ambitions.