Fiction Reviews

The Dead Lands

(2015) Benjamin Percy, Hodder, £8.99, pbk, 403pp, ISBN 978-1-444-77005-6


Over a century ago the flu came: H3L1 ravaged humanity, culling the vast majority of the population. Then someone in China launched a nuclear missile, Russia retaliated and launched theirs including at the US, the US retaliated and Britain and India joined in. The EMP pulses knocked out micro-semiconductor circuits and the few survivors became isolated. Then the unattended nuclear power plants added their radioactive contribution. It was the end of the world.

The centre of St Louis in the US survived as a small walled town of around 40,000. Beyond its defences were mutant animals, lethal monsters: St Louis is 'Sanctuary'. Beyond these creature, there is dry desert. Indeed the lack of water in and around Sanctuary was becoming a problem. The world's climate had changed and the rains had not fallen in St Louis for years. The population was dependent on wells to reach the groundwater but the wells were crumbling and the water table lowering.

Then one day a stranger, a young woman called Gawea, rides up to the wall. She carries a letter for Louis Meriwether that tells of a land far away to the west that is green and runs with water. The letter is secreted to Louis while Sanctuary's enforcement troop takes Gawea away and condemned for her all-black eyes as a mutant.

St Louis is ruled unforgiving by Thomas Lancer who, as the drought continued, kept the ever-reduced rationed population in place through increasing fear. In this he was aided by his head of security Rickett Slade, who implements harsh punishments and often death, to those who step out of line. To an increasing number St Louis was not so much a sanctuary from the empty wild lands, and deserts beyond, but a prison.

Lewis Meriwether is the son of the former Mayor but has forgone power in favour of pursue his academic studies and being curator of St Louis' museum. He and a wall guard Clark, her boyfriend enforcement officer Reed, and others (which later includes Jon Colter), free Gawea and leave Sanctuary for the long and hazardous journey west.

Behind them unrest increasingly ferments among St Louis' population. Ahead of them an unforgiving landscape with the prospect of death around every corner among the sporadic ruins of what was the United States…

The Dead Lands is an engaging read from the start: it is a post-apocalyptic high adventure that delivers on many fronts. This is not, though, mundane SF but has a firm science fantasy riff throughout. The fantasy primarily comes from the supernatural, embryonic powers some of the mutants display. There is even a sort of steampunk element with a mechanical owl, complete with whirring cogs, that flies as a scout for Lewis Meriwether.  For the scientist reader, the mass meltdown depiction of the unattended nation's reactors is unconvincing at best while the portrayal of the mutants (even without the superpower dimension) owes more to mid-twentieth century pulp SF than it does biology. But, what the heck, this is an SF yarn so let's not get too picky.

Indeed, as I read this I was getting less and less picky and more and more remembering mid-twentieth century SF. Specifically, I was minded of John Wyndham's 1955 novel The Crysalids. That too had survivor settlements in a post-apocalyptic world generations after nuclear war. That too had radiation-induced mutants who left, bad lands, and there was also the promise of a utopia land. Wyndham's novel was one of his 'cosy catastrophes' where the danger was understandable but in the main referred to rather than vividly experienced.  Conversely, The Dead Lands is dark, gritty: there is nothing 'cosy' about it.

This is all well and good, and I was really enjoying The Dead Lands two-thirds through when something jarred in my mind. Did not the names Lewis and Clark have some meaning in US history? A quick t'internet search and I discovered the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. What's more that expedition's Lewis was 'Meriwether Lewis' and there was a 'John Colter' too. There was even a Gawea connection in that the expedition encountered and took on a native Indian 'Sacagawea'

Now, I am not overly familiar with US history – heck, I am only just able to hold my own in a conversation about the past 2,000 years of British history – and so I cannot tell you how well or clever or not this parallel, or mirrored, The Dead Lands is with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. So I just let you know that there is this connection.

At the end of the day The Dead Lands delivers as a very solid dark read which itself quite a feat with the recent years flourishing of post-apocalyptic tales. That the book holds the reader through to the end, relentlessly carrying you on -- despite the over-familiarity of trope with which many current readers will have -- makes the The Dead Lands stand, at the least, shoulders above the mass of other such recent novels.

Jonathan Cowie

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