Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Dead Lands’
‘The Dead Lands’
416 pages, hardcover; $26
Grand Central Publishing, 2015
Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea battle mutant spiders and monstrous bats in Benjamin Percy’s reimagining of America’s legendary expeditions into the west. Percy’s vividly imagined new novel, “The Dead Lands,” is set 150 years after a super-flu and a nuclear fallout have ended the world as we know it, turning the U.S. into a desert-like wasteland filled with mutated monsters and baking under an unforgiving sun.
As the disaster unfolded, the people of St. Louis built a wall around the city, killed anyone approaching it, and remade itself as “Sanctuary,” an insular and increasingly stratified society lorded over by the despicable and despotic mayor, Thomas (as in Jefferson?).
As the novel opens, a black-eyed visitor, Gawea (as in Sacagawea) approaches Sanctuary, claiming to come from a still-verdant and thriving Oregon. She leads a fugitive expedition through the western wasteland with our heroes, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark. They battle animals and insects mutated into monsters by the nuclear waste and humans driven to animal-like savagery by desperation.
Denver is turned into “Goblin City” after a warhead leaves the remaining buildings and people glowing green, “all of them with skin like melted wax and hair that grew in patches.”
Much of what remains after the end-times will be unsurprising to readers familiar with our currently apocalypse-obsessed pop culture: totalitarian leadership, food and water scarcity, and “Mad Max” fashion trends. But Percy, who has taught workshops at Aspen Summer Words, is a fantastic writer who packs an emotional wallop in this page-turner. With “The Dead Lands” he’s joining a horde of literary novelists – from Cormac McCarthy to Colson Whitehead – who in recent years have imagined life after the apocalypse. Like the best of them – and the best of science fiction generally — Percy uses the richly rendered world he builds in these pages to scrutinize contemporary America. When Thomas declares America a myth and himself a “truth teller,” noting “One percent of the population controls everything,” he could be on a campaign stump in 2015 rather than in the ashes of the apocalypse. Those uneasy moments – and, of course, all those fantastic creatures – make “The Dead Lands” a dystopia worth visiting.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.