To borrow a phrase from Battlestar Galactica: all this has happened before, and all this will happen again. The Dead Lands is set in a post-apocalyptic future after disease and nuclear war have ravaged the planet, but the epic journey its characters go on is a recreation of a historical one.
In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition sets off from St Louis, Missouri on a scouting mission to stake out new territory in the western United States, making it all the way to the Pacific coast before retracing their steps to report back to President Jefferson. So in Benjamin Percy’s novel, Lewis Meriwether and Wilhelmina Clark also set out on a voyage of discovery across western America.
But where the real Lewis and Clark had to deal with uncharted countryside, wild animals and hostile Native tribes, their fictional counterparts have to find a path through bombed-out cities, terrifying genetic mutations and savage bands of survivors. Also, they’re not setting out on a government backed expedition – they’re fleeing the tyrannical mayor of the Sanctuary, the walled fort that the future St Louis had to become to escape the plague.
The historical parallels are interesting, but by no means essential to understanding the story. It’s your standard dystopian stuff: having destroyed the world, the dregs of humanity painfully recreate social hierarchies in miniature so that the rich and powerful stay well fed and everyone else starves to death. Percy uses some particularly gruesome imagery to get his point across, so if the themes feel a little over-familiar at times, well, they’ve rarely been expressed in such a visceral way.
Divided into four parts, each devoted to a different stage of Lewis and Clark’s journey, this is a pretty hefty book, and Percy gives himself plenty of characters to play with. The expedition party is made up of six main characters, each of who is given space for his or
her own motives and emotional arc.
And then there’s what feels like an entire city back home, and a new colony over the horizon. The sheer number of different viewpoints gives weight to the novel, and the number of characters also means Percy is free to kill off (almost) any of them at any point. That, more than any description of giant spiders, makes the world of The Dead Lands feel genuinely dangerous.
Sadly, the ending is a pretty damp squib. In another Battlestar Galactica-ism, when the characters finally reach the end of their long journey, what’s waiting for them is inevitably disappointing. And shoving an unlikely epilogue onto the end doesn’t make it any more satisfying for the reader. There are ideas in this book – stacks of them – but not many of them actually go anywhere. Characters get forgotten or written out abruptly, and weapons are disposed of harmlessly.
By the end, what you’re left with is the depressing impression that history will keep rolling on, people will never change, and an awful lot of endeavour is pointless. Not exactly cheery stuff, is it?