The Dead Lands is, as far as dystopian future novels go, an excellent read. It’s chock full of all of the survival drama one expects of an adventure story set in a lawless, post-catastrophe future. It’s set in St. Louis about 150 years after a worldwide flu pandemic wiped out much of humankind and brought global civilization to its knees. St. Louis, now greatly reduced in size and population, now really nothing more than an outpost known as the Sanctuary, survived the pandemic by walling itself off and keeping everyone out. It’s been run for 150 years by a fairly successful system of democracy, but enough time has now passed since the disaster that ruined the world for the current generation to have no memory of why the wall remains necessary. There is a general sense of fear of what lies beyond the wall, but no one really knows what or who is out there, and curiosity—and lack of water—is beginning to get the best of folks.
Enter our two principal protagonists, Meriwether Lewis and Mina Clark. After the arrival of a strange emissary named Gawea from an alleged thriving society in what was Oregon led by a mysterious figure named Aran Burr, Lewis and Clark put together a small team of folks, including Clark’s half-brother York, a man named Reed, a doctor, and eventually a bad-ass dude named Jon Colter, and join Gawea on a wild and dangerous expedition from the Sanctuary to Oregon in an attempt to rebuild civilization, so to speak.
Now, most of you certainly recognize the historical significance of all of these details. The famous expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark in 1804-1806 took our two adventurers from St. Louis to Astoria, Oregon and back again. Clark owned a slave named York who traveled with them. The pair famously met with Sacagawea during their trip. John Colter, history’s original mountain man was also part of their expedition.
Point is: The Dead Lands is a fun dystopian adventure set in the future that has the added feature of sort of poetically mirroring a real historical event.
In addition, though, The Dead Lands has something else that many other dystopian novels lack; specifically, it involves some real-world consequences of the collapse of civilization that other such novels often frustratingly ignore. In the universe constructed by Percy here, he discusses the fact that there are various nuclear power plants that are hemorrhaging radioactive waste into the environment, which are causing all manner of wild mutations to appear in animals and humans. This piece actually plays a pretty significant role in the narrative that unfolds, but I’ll refrain from saying anything more for spoilage avoidance reasons. Additionally, there’s a whole swath of the journey our protagonists undertake that occurs under the ashy and noxious presence of massive oil fires in the region of North Dakota, because the vast oil supplies in that region have caught fire and there’s no one to put them out.
While reading The Dead Lands, I often thought about Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, perhaps one of the most memorable nonfiction works I’ve ever read, an utterly fascinating, detailed, and very serious look at what would happen to all of our things—our homes, our skyscrapers, our cities, our nuclear power plants—if all of humanity just up and disappeared one day. So I was not entirely surprised to read Percy’s mention of Weisman’s book in his Acknowledgements section at the end of The Dead Lands.
One more aspect of the novel I want to mention—which I view as both a strength and a weakness—is that it’s written in these very short chapters, each a self-contained scene, which gives the entire thing the effect of feeling like you’re watching a film. But add this to the fact that it’s written entirely in present tense, and it gives you the sensation that you’re reading a film script. I view it as a strength because it all creates this lovely cinematic atmosphere that permeates the entire adventure, but I also view it as a weakness because it feels, with all due respect, a tad cheap. When I cracked the thing open, I wanted to read a novel, not a movie (even a riveting one) dressed up as a novel.
All that being said, it was a fine book, but truth be told, in spite of its unique successes, I nevertheless found it to pale in comparison to other recent works in the dystopian future genre, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Chang-rae Lee’s fabulous 2015 novel, On Such a Full Sea, and perhaps my favorite in recent years, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.