The Dead Lands, by Benjamin Percy

Dead Lands cvr

Another post-apocalyptic novel.   A hundred and fifty years after a particularly nasty strain of flu killed nearly the entire global population, St Louis in what is left of the US has become a fortress.  Ironically named ‘Sanctuary’, its high walls were designed to protect its citizens from the outside, but increasingly serve to keep them in, the place run like a medieval fiefdom under its corrupt mayor.  His position is maintained by cronyism among his peers and increasingly fear and summary execution for the rest.  Despite this rigid enforcement of power, the regime is under pressure because of a prolonged drought, generating a groundswell of discontent that is being met by an ever-more repressive response.

Added to unreliable weather patterns, there are high levels of radiation caused both by meltdown of nuclear power stations, suggesting that the virus spread astonishingly quickly, and the futile use of nuclear armaments to contain the disease, leading to an environmental catastrophe that is presumably exacerbated by inbreeding among the few survivors.  But it’s not all bad news.  Along with the particularly unpleasant deformities and cancers there is the intriguing indication of a new type of human, one with enhanced psychic abilities.

The citizens of the Sanctuary have long been told that nothing survives outside their walls and they are the last remnants of humanity.  Imagine the confusion when one day a young woman arrives, bringing news of a prosperous community far to the northwest in rain-blessed Oregon.  Treated with suspicion by the Sanctuary’s authorities, she is the catalyst for an escape and epic journey to a promised land in the west for a few hardy souls who see no future in where they are.

In alternating sections we both follow the band as they progress to what they hope is a better life and witness the gradual implosion of order in the Sanctuary.   The travellers have to contend with hostile survivors in a ravaged landscape, with deserts, oil wells burning out of control creating a permanent winter, not to mention the nuclear radiation that along with disruption of the ozone layer is responsible for weird mutated animals.  Unfortunately, when they get to Oregon months later and several members fewer they find that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the continent, as the new society is being built on slavery, and the social organisation, though of a different kind, is no better than that they left behind.

Considering that two of the main characters are called ‘Lewis’ and ‘Clark’, and the group leaves from St Louis, it does not take much to work out that the narrative is modelled on the American Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804, which similarly set out from St Louis to cross to the other side.  The previous mayor of the Sanctuary was named Meriwether, and Lewis happens to have been his son, making his full name Lewis Meriwether, a reversal of the 1804 trip’s Meriwether Lewis.  Here Clark’s first name is Wilhelmina, an echo of the original William Clark.  Her brother is York, the name of Clark’s slave on the original expedition.  The young woman who travels to St Louis to take them back is called Gawea, a nod to the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Sacagawea.  In a coda Lewis, Clark and Gawea find their way to Washington DC (just how we are not told), where a basic US government is operating under the leadership of a President Jefferson, just as the Lewis and Clark Expedition reported to President Jefferson, who had commissioned the project.  The allusions are not exactly subtle.

Percy has crafted a panoramic vision which weaves together a future in which society has broken down and is being reforged with a quest story, and throwing in fantasy and horror elements.  Lewis is the key character, a museum curator with knowledge of the past and a brilliant flair for technology, but also possessing dormant but powerful psychic powers.  That is why Aran Burr (another nod to the early nineteenth century) in Oregon sent him a message and draws him onwards even when all seems hopeless, because Burr, even more powerful than Lewis but coming to the end of his life, sees the younger man as a successor in his efforts to build a new nation.  It’s not spelled out how this would help but Burr has his reasons.

A pause for thought makes one wonder how credible the story is, leaving aside the prospect of radiation creating these extraordinary abilities.  Despite this supposedly being a hundred and fifty years after the event, it is surprising how much usable material, even clothing, is left over from the pre-apocalyptic world, essential where people do not produce much but mostly live by scavenging.  Fifty years might have been more plausible, but Percy would then have run into the problem of that not being enough time for the radiation levels to have settled down a bit and for mutations, like the huge spiders, the human-size bats, or the intelligent bears, let alone the enhanced human powers, to have evolved.  He never quite manages to square these elements.

It’s a surprise as well to learn that the Sanctuary has a zoo, or even stray dogs; in times of adversity and shortages the animals usually get eaten fairly quickly, and who would waste water on them in a drought?  Washington seems an odd choice for the seat of government even if it does have a symbolic weight, not only because it is sinking into a swamp, but because we have been told that the east of the country had been devastated by radiation.  Washington seems to have had a relatively lucky escape.  But who actually elected President Jefferson?  As we only learn about him in the last few pages it is a fair bet that few are paying any attention to his administration.

To add to these weaknesses, the ending is wrapped up with a haste that is out of keeping with the leisurely pace of the bulk of the narrative; and while the previous switches between events in the Sanctuary and those on the road were well handled, the final series of short chapters alternating between St Louis and Oregon are choppy.  The travellers finally reach the flawed new settlement and sort it out with anticlimactic ease, assisted by a handy couple of sisters who have been waging a guerrilla war that Arran with all his super-powers has been unable to thwart;  meanwhile the decadent Caligula-like Sanctuary mayor gets his comeuppance (at the hands of his wife, which perhaps makes him more a Claudius) after a series of astonishingly stupid executive decisions; and the way is left open for a sequel: a civil war perhaps, between different conceptions of what the new polis should look like, fought under presidents Jefferson in his mildewy White House and, ooh I don’t know, Davis leading the other side – with our league of extraordinary gentlefolk from The Dead Lands playing a prominent role for the former.  After all, Percy does show clearly that in many ways past and future are not so different, and that civilisation’s veneer is thin indeed.

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