Novel * Benjamin Percy * Post-Nuclear-Plague * 2015
One of the problems with this project is keeping things fresh. Not for my readers, I don’t really have many of those and therefore don’t have to worry about an audience. No, I mean for myself. I’m over here cataloging my vast collection of apocalyptia, which means I do a good deal of re-reading old classics and favorites. This is fine, I enjoy going back to things with the perspective gained over the interim since I last read them. New things present themselves and I reconsider old thoughts, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Still, I like to inject some new blood into the proceedings every once in a while. The problem is, the genre of “oh-god-the-world’s-ending-and-we’re-all-fucked” has taken off lately, so I barely know where to start. Lucky for me I know a bunch of bibliophiles, and so The Dead Lands fell onto my desk thanks to my turbo-nerd of a wife. That’s a term of endearment, by the way. That said, I am always always always on the lookout for new authors, so keep in mind that I totes do requests.
Meanwhile, holy shit this book right here. All I got from my wife before reading it was “it’s like a post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark,” and she’s not wrong. It is exactly a post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark, and in case you were worried you might not get the parallel, the main characters are named Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark and they leave from St. Louis and make their way to Astoria, Oregon and have adventures. So, it’s not subtle. Still, I don’t want to sell the concept short, mostly because it works so well. The ultimate effect of the apocalyptic disaster was to utterly remake the state of the world. The Dead Lands is an account of humanity re-discovering the vast wilderness of America. I’m annoyed I didn’t think of it, to be honest.
I am always fascinated by the nature of an apocalyptic disaster, or by the structure of a particular dystopia, and I’m not disappointed here because I pretty much get both. The book takes place in the grim aftermath of a superflu epidemic not unlike The Stand. Because Percy knows what’s up, there is definitely a reference to that book, which pleases me. Yet, the superflu wasn’t enough. In an attempt to neutralize the epidemic, the powers-that-be around the world made the decision to use nuclear weapons to destroy major population centers, thus eliminating the source of contagion. Essentially, they made a devastating virus which got out of control, and then they nuked the flu. The good news is, this drastic approach totally worked, and the flu was neutralized. The bad news is, pretty much everyone was fucking dead. Oh, and the vast amount of radiation that rained down on the planet started mutating everything, so by the time the story starts, there are horrible mutant-monsters roaming the wastelands and it’s basically Fallout.
Yet not everyone perished in the radioactive aftermath of the superflu. Somehow. The citizens of St. Louis built a big-ass wall around their “fair” city, and shut themselves and the flu (and the nukes, I guess?) out. They renamed this city Sanctuary, and continued the American tradition of democratic rule, because eventually The United States would rise again. Except it didn’t, and now the Midwest is a big desert and the city is running out of water. To make things worse, Sanctuary has been hijacked by a preening little bitch of a dictator, and everything sucks now. People are getting desperate, but Thomas Lancer, the aforementioned bitchtator, has the city in lockdown. No one leaves. But then a mysterious rider from the great outside rolls up with tales of Oregon and then oh boy, here we go.
If all that’s not enough, the characters here are all extremely well-drawn. That said, this is not really the kind of book that has really likable characters. I think my favorite is actually Lewis’ tiny mechanical owl, which doesn’t talk or anything, but it’s still pretty adorable. Otherwise, this is a group of flawed, desperate, post-apocalyptic survivors. They’re rough, they do shitty things to each other, but you’re still pulling for them because they got grit, you know? Lewis is an unpleasant gomer, and Clark is a boisterous alcoholic, and the Sacajawea character is a taciturn mute, but by the end of the story it all clicks and I ended up quite enjoying all of them. In fact, it took me longer than usual to finish this one, because goddamn this story is harsh. This makes sense, but I would put off reading because I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with the next stretch of brutality that I just knew was coming. Still, it’s an exceptional novel. Seven thumbs up.
I’m going to ruin every bit of the story now, because that’s how this works. Now, as much as I enjoyed the story, nothing really popped into my head thematically that I feel is worthy of writing about. This is not to say the book isn’t doing anything worthwhile, my brain was just busy processing a new story and new characters to spend much time thinking about what it all means. Thinking back, I could probably whip up something about an enclosed society turning in on itself and turning into a horrible dystopia, but that all sounds like work and this edition of the novel comes with a reading group guide. Which means someone else came up with questions to thoughtfully answer so I don’t have to. Which means I’m obviously doing that. Let’s hit it.
In what ways is the Sanctuary a shelter? A prison? In times of crisis, are governments ever justified in setting curfews or limiting travel by citizens? Why or why not?
Well, its big, slap-dash wall is obviously impervious to viral attack, so there’s that. Also it concentrates resources so that they can be efficiently distributed to the most people, thus ensuring a healthy population. I mean besides the cancerous growths and freaky mutants. Of course walls work both ways, and once Farty McButtface takes over and decides no one gets to leave, people are pretty much screwed. Then the wall becomes less about safety and more about power, which is never a good time. Incidentally, this segues into the next question. It all depends on how you define the term “crisis,” and if limits are set on any extraordinary restrictions. Then it turns into a freedom versus safety issue. If your town is under attack by fucked up bat-monsters, probably you want to keep your citizens inside. If you’re just sick of looking at them and their dumb, ugly, wasteland faces, well, probably not. The real answer is don’t elect petty, vain little bitches to run your society… oh. Whoops.
Would you have joined Clark, Lewis, and the others on their journey?
Obviously. Also, just say “Lewis and Clark,” it’s not like you’re confusing anyone.
Did this novel give you a new appreciation for the journey undertaken by the real Lewis and Clark? What personality traits help explorers – real or fictional – push through their arduous quests?
No, because I live in the Northwest and we already can’t get enough of Lewis and Clark. I was born in Lewis County, Washington. My sister currently lives in Clark County. Some of the fun of living here is learning the names of places, and finding out that they were named by L&C, and is almost always a terrible name. My favorite is Cape Disappointment. Sometimes I’ll pick out landmarks and imagine what their L&C name was before someone renamed it to something more appropriate. “Mount Fuck This Place.” “I Hate It Here And Wish All The Natives Would Just Die Already” Cove. “Does It Ever Not Rain In This Miserable Shithole” Ridge. You get the idea. They didn’t like Oregon much. As for personality traits, clearly you have to have a good deal of ambition, persistence, endurance, and the ability to be a complete dick if necessary. Or not.
In what ways does the futuristic wasteland of The Dead Lands draw from contemporary fears and current events? Do you think our planet is in danger of experiencing environmental devastation at this extreme level?
All the ways. Too broad? Look, the post-apocalyptic genre has blown up for a reason. It’s the same general social anxiety disorder that has plagued humanity since the mid-19th century, and it’s only getting more acute as time goes by. Humanity is able and willing to do all kinds of incredible things with their technology in the name of progress. This is at once both good and bad. The good, obviously, is being able to sit in my nice warm house and look out at this blowing snowstorm and not even have to tend a fire. The bad is, that power comes from somewhere. Either someone is burning fossil fuel at an industrial level, or someone built a giant concrete monstrosity to obstruct a massive river, or someone built hundreds of weird looking wind turbines that clutter up the horizon. It’s likely that humans, shortsighted and selfish as we are, will eventually tip the scale too far and the consequences of our exploitation will overwhelm civilization to a point. I don’t know that we’re going to nuke a virus, but maybe?
Is Clark a good sister to York?
Even though the United States, as we know it, has been fractured past recognition for most of their lives, the characters in The Dead Lands maintain a strong sense of American nationalism. Why do you think this is? Do you believe the people of any country would rally around a national identity in a post-disaster world, or is there something distinctly American about this response?
A deep-seated sense of American Exceptionalism? So, let me allow the bitchtator (I’m gonna use this until Trump’s secret police silence me) to have a brief say about this question. This is from a moment in the book when Thomas is finally ending even the façade of democracy.
“People believe in America, but America is a myth. It has been since 1776. People believed in the country’s greatness because it promised them greatness. Hold a gold coin just out of reach and say, ‘This could be yours.’ One percent of the population controls everything. One percent. That’s how it is here. That’s how it was all over the world. That’s how it has always been throughout human history. America sponsored the appearance of freedom. I do not. They say I’m a liar? America was a liar. I’m a truth teller.”
The worst part is that he’s not wrong. Now, the whole “one-percent” thing has become a meme at this point, which is a shame because income/power inequality is a big fucking deal which is generally dismissed. After all, how do you address it without infringing on the rights of people’s property or wealth? America is and always was a myth, but there’s something to be said for the optimism of that myth. Now, does that myth lead a lot of people here and fail them immensely? You know it does! Is a segment of the native population gross and entitled and lazy? Hell yeah they are! At a certain point, however, you have to dig below these and try and understand the promise of America. That is, anyone with ambition and bootstraps can start with nothing and turn it into a vast fortune. In practice, this almost never happens. Yet there are juuuust enough examples of it that the dream lives on. Because this myth is so ingrained in our sense of nationalism, we tend to cling to those examples and refuse to acknowledge the entrenched power structures (of both government and corporate varieties) which serve to undermine everything about The American Dream.
Even so, with the death of civilization I’m not so sure the myth holds up. In the case of Sanctuary, there is at least some structure, so it’s more plausible. After all, the very concept of nationalism isn’t terribly old. Tribalism, on the other hand, is as old as the species. So I think it’s more likely the citizens of Sanctuary would become a group unto their own rather than a part of a whole. This is to say, they could call themselves “Americans” but they would actually become “Sanctuarians,” and be more beholden to that ideal than of some mysterious past. Likewise, if the story took place in York, England (they already have a wall!), they’d become Yorkians (??) first, even if they still called themselves English.
Oh hey, look at all these words. I really wish more books wrote questions for me. So much easier than thinking for myself.