Back behind the scenes in our super-secret superversive headquarters located deep in the Misty Mountains, somewhere south of the Hundred Acre Wood and east of Oz (Narnia, of course, can only be accessed via Wardrobe), we had a discussion once about whether or not there could be such a thing as a superversive tragedy. The original consensus was that while it was not technically impossible, the nature of a tragedy would make it extraordinarily difficult, and it’s possible no examples actually existed.
Since then we’ve codified the superversive concept down into concrete elements, and given these parameters the idea of a superversive tragedy becomes a little bit easier to swallow. There’s no reason a tragedy can’t contain at least the five categories of simple superversive, right?
But are there any specific examples of tragic superversive spec fic?
Yes, there are. And one of the prime examples is Nick Cole’s “The Savage Boy”.
To be clear – I am now a huge Nick Cole fan, and I’ve only read five of his books; one I wasn’t even a huge fan of (“The Red King” underwhelmed me, but the sequel was better). The reason I am a huge fan is his Wasteland trilogy. It is – and I am hesitant about saying this, because it’s a somewhat overused term, but I really think it’s appropriate here – a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s unbelievably good. And while there are minor things to criticize here or there, it executes certain things so ridiculously, impossibly well that it’s amazing the man isn’t even more popular than he is.
Between the pulp revolution and the Superversive fiction movement, Nick Cole probably has the best grasp of characters of every single one of us. In fact, the only writers I know of who are better at creating three dimensional characters are…T.H. White? Tolkien? C.S. Lewis? That’s the sort of echelon he’s in.
Like “The Old Man and the Wasteland”, “The Savage Boy” is both an in-depth character study of one person, the aforementioned Savage Boy of the title (in the sequel it was implied that at birth he was named “Broken Feather”, which is the closest thing we have to a “real” name for the Boy), and an intense, action-packed adventure through post-apocalyptic America. The main difference here is that where the Old Man’s quest ultimately ended in success, everything the Boy does or tries to do ultimately ends in failure or tragedy.
“The Savage Boy” is a brutal book. It is a book about loss and defeat. At the beginning of the novel, the Boy starts with nothing but a tomahawk and a horse. He is on a fool’s mission to trek alone across the entirety of the United States in order to deliver almost certainly pointless information to a group that almost certainly doesn’t exist anymore. And the mission wasn’t even his, but his mentor’s, Staff Sergeant Presley, who is already dead when the novel starts. Despite this, Presley has the most distinctive and entertaining voice in the entire novel, as the Boy imagines his presence in order to relieve his own loneliness.
The trek is dangerous. The Boy is nearly killed several times. Every time he meets up with a group of people, the good men he meets are quickly overshadowed by the dangerous ones. And when he finally completes his journey, well…
I’ll just say that there are two major character deaths at the end of the novel that basically makes every single struggle, every hardship, absolutely pointless. By the end of the book, the Boy actually, impossible as that sounds, has finished with even less than he started out with.
This shouldn’t be superversive. This shouldn’t even be good writing! This book should be a total failure on every level, the type of literary trash that we all sneer at. On its own, the plot has almost nothing going for it. It’s set up to be a complete disaster!
…But it’s not. Somehow, it works. It works really well. “The Savage Boy” is an incredible book, for the simple reason that I’m honestly not even sure how Nick Cole pulled it off. Sure, his Hemingway-esque writing style fits the book exceptionally well and gives the language an odd sort of beauty. But as Tom Simon points out, style is just the rocket. With no payload that’s just sound and fury signifying nothing. And indeed, in some ways that’s the whole point!
So how? How does it work? How did Nick Cole do it?
I think it’s the Boy. The Boy simply doesn’t give up, and this gives him dignity through all of his injustices. Even though he knows he’s on a fool’s quest, even though he knows that even if he’s successful, still nothing will change…he keeps going. And Cole doesn’t mock him for this. Quite the contrary – he turns him into a hero, a man we can root for. And it makes his failures not pathetic, but absolutely devastating.
And there’s this moment…at the very end of the book…
A moment of grace. A moment of the divine. A subtle one. A small one. But a moment. And it might be the thing that puts this book over the top from “good” to “great”.
After reading Nick Cole, I honestly don’t think it’s possible anymore to say that we don’t have the caliber of writers that the pink sci-fi crowd has. Between Cole and John C. Wright, I’ll put our best up against their best any day of the week. I can’t recommend his Wasteland trilogy enough.