I saw the title of Benjamin Percy's new book Dead Lands and I immediately thought, Oh, another zombie book. I read the synopsis — super-flu, nuclear bombs, a post-apocalyptic re-telling of the Lewis and Clark story — and I thought, yeah, but there's gotta be zombies in it, right?
But no. There are no zombies in Dead Lands. And I think it says something important about the state of our genre fiction in general (and our entertainment expectations in general) that at several points during the course of the book, I totally expected Percy to finally roll out the zombies ...
... and was stunned when he didn't. Because I believe we have reached a point of Peak Zombie in our geeky cultural zeitgeist, and where once a shambling horde of corpses was shocking in its inclusion, now they are only surprising in their absence.
None of this is to say that Dead Lands is without monsters. No, there are mutants, slavers, enormous albino vampire bats and all sorts of other terrible things haunting and scrabbling around Percy's blasted landscape. He actually falls back on some old monster movie tropes here — critters that we haven't seen skittering across the pages of our stories for a long time.
I mean seriously, when's the last time you saw characters fighting off giant spiders? Because a giant spider is some straight-up Cold War, Saturday matinee imagery that Percy uses very deliberately to walk in three different mythological ages at once: The historic years of American Manifest Destiny, the sepia-toned alt-history of 1950's atomic monsters and the fictionally unavoidable post-apocalypse.
Some background is necessary here. In Percy's world, pretty much everyone died, either from the pandemic flu or the nuclear bombs mentioned above. But the brave and resourceful people of St. Louis had a plan. They erected massive walls, killed anything that came close, declared themselves the guardians of the American Way, and essentially shut themselves off from the world in hopes of weathering the catastrophe. Which they did — right up until the start of the book, when we meet the citizens of Sanctuary (a.k.a. Old St. Louis) being abused by a tyrannical mayor, terrorized by crooked police, baked by an unforgiving sun and running quickly out of water.
To Percy's credit, Sanctuary is no insta-dystopia. He goes to great and detailed lengths to describe the rise and fall of the place — the terror in which it was conceived, the expediency with which it was built, the ruthlessness with which it was maintained, and the eventual (arguably inescapable) corruption of the 1% which is in the process of bringing it down. There's dissent brewing among Sanctuary's 99%. A feeling that their foothold on civilization is becoming untenable. And when a rider suddenly appears outside the walls, bringing news of rain, food and salvation waiting in the Pacific Northwest, obviously someone is going to grab a map and go looking.
Some of Percy's bad guys are a little bit mustache-twirly. The plotting is a little heavy on the set-up and light on the epic voyage from St. Louis to Oregon. And sure, Lewis is a cocaine-addicted old hermit with magical powers, Clark is an alcoholic female ranger with rage issues, and Aran Burr (Aaron Burr, get it?) spends most of the book as a hallucinatory figure from Lewis's drug-addled dreams, and then enters the plot as a kind of fascist wizard with only the loosest grasp on the low points of American history. But honestly, once you swallow the giant spiders and accept the fact that, in this world, the entire Mississippi River has apparently dried up, none of the rest of this presents much of a problem.
Percy is a good writer who, though a bit over-dependent on repetition and long, list-y sentences, gives surprising depth to both his characters and his world. The weirdness he plays with is doled out slowly, and the dead world he brings us to feels believably dead. His two-line description of a television set with the screen smashed in, dolls and action figures set up among its innards like a diorama, did more to root me in his broken world than any 20 pages of nightmare scene-setting done by a lesser writer.
The voyage of Lewis and Clark is America's Lord of the Rings — our great and foundational quest narrative. And even with all the giant spiders and ghostly ex-presidents, the bones of that tale are in good hands here. Percy has some literary ambition. He wants very badly to make this a fable about environmental stewardship, the punishing lash of class division and the dangers of American exceptionalism. But his story of broken weirdos wandering a dead America in search of a better life is a great read no matter how you approach it.
Even (or maybe especially) without the zombies.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.