Benjamin Percy's The Dead Lands (2015) is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark story. After a virus and a nuclear holocaust sweep the world, few survive. In the walled colony of St Louis, the memory of civilisation - or even a greater Unites States - is fading. The citizens are more concerned about water, mutated critters and, when they stop to think about it, their increasingly dictatorial 'Mayor'.
Lewis is the town's librarian, mechanic and something more - the lattermost being a side effect of the world's newly irradiated landscape. Clark is one of St Louis's scouts, the few brave people who forage outside the city walls. When Gawea, a stranger from the far West, comes to town, the two see this as an opportunity - proof that there's something more than their insular, decaying city-state. With a few comrades in tow (some more eagerly than others) they set out...
The Dead Lands is a tough one to puzzle out. Structurally, this is a massive - epic, even - quest, with the future of humanity on the line. There are heroes in search of their powers, Big Bads, little bads (with pointy teeth), fathers with dying wishes, timeless romances, etc. etc.
Certainly there are similarities to the many other post-apocalyptic novels that fill the shelves, but, despite a few recognisable tropes and set-pieces, readers looking for yet another reboot of The Stand will be sorely disappointed. The Dead Lands is a return to a much older story, presented in a way that deliberately inspires - or even provokes - the reader.
The Dead Lands is neither an epic tale of humanity's phoenix-like resurrection nor a tightly-insulated look at one person's microcosmic struggle. And, with equal perversity, it is neither pure exploitative splatterpunk apoca-pulp... nor deliberately high-brow literary metaphor. Instead, The Dead Lands wanders. In structure and in tone; as well as in plot and in style.
So what is The Dead Lands? If there is a central message - both in the book and the way it is crafted - it is about the travel, and not the destination. Lewis and Clark seek answers in Oregon, but, in fairness, they don't even know what answers they're actually seeking. Even before Gawea arrived in St Louis, both Lewis and Clark had already 'left'. Clark had already made preparations to flee, while Lewis - bound by certain obligations - was escaping in his books, maps and inventions. The West is simply a place to go. Whether or not it can provide answers is completely incidental. Hell, they don't even know what questions to ask. They face slavers and bat-monsters and worse, all in the name of an inexpressible, indescribable need to move - to progress somewhere, however futile the attempt.
In a parallel plot, Ella and Simon are two teenagers that never leave St Louis - instead, they remain in the city and struggle under its increasingly oppressive regime. And, as with Lewis and Clark, their enemy is stasis. In this case, it is embodied by Lancer's self-destructive determination to resist change at all costs. And his will is truly self-destructive: his increasingly nonsensical edicts are intended to do nothing but preserve the status quo. Lancer's is the sort of insane dictatorship that begs the question, "what if you actually win? what could possibly happen next?" - but we're left with the deep suspicion that he would rather reign in hell, no matter how briefly.
Despite the bat-monsters, giant spiders and hairless wolves, The Dead Lands isn't just deadly serious, but also surprisingly optimistic. Certainly, this is not a happy book. Terrible things happen; generally to undeserving people. But entwined with the need for progression is a message of hope - at times, a blind one, but it is still always there. Clark, at one point, even has a chance to hit a sort of cosmic 'reset' button, but refuses - even in his darkest hour. Lewis, Ella and Simon are similarly motivated. However bleak things become, they keep trying. Even if they can never picture the better future, they are brave in their discontent - willing to assert that the 'now' isn't good enough.
The Dead Lands is also deeply American, in a way that's difficult to express - and I can't help but think that, as much as I was struck by the book, the British audience may find it difficult to grasp the significance - and with it, the book's powerful call to action. Lewis and Clark are woven into the American cultural subconscious. Sent by President Jefferson as part of his fledgling "Corps of Discovery" - they were a shot in the dark: an attempt to map the out there; the wilderness that flanked the new United States. When Lewis and Clark set out, the United States was less than twenty years old. It would be hard now to even imagine the all-permeating sense of risk - of glorious potential, but also probable disaster. On top of everything else, The Dead Lands is an excellent case study in using genre fiction as a means of translating the emotional context, the feel, of a different time or place. Even though the early 19th century is very different from the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Dead Lands, the book captures and expresses that sense of fragility.
Ironically, Lewis and Clark were then forgotten for almost a century, until they were resurrected in the 20th century as reminders of the heady early days of the nation. Since then, they've been part of a small pantheon of America's mythic figures, made all the more important by the United States' relative youth as a country, much less a concept or a culture. They represent the age of discovery and blind, relentless optimism - the physical counterparts to the political exploration of the 'Founding Fathers', including Jefferson himself.
By featuring Lewis and Clark as the protagonists, and by mirroring their exhibition in a futuristic landscape, The Dead Lands creates provocative connections between the past, the future and the present of a nation. The explorers represent that belief in progress - of the fearless quest for the better, both at home and in the wild. They are set against ignorance and indolence, opposing the complacency that masks a decline. The Dead Lands reminds us of past bravery and shows us a possible future where, no matter how grim, that heroism still exists. It is that middle bit - the now, that it asks us to fill in ourselves.