Stories. In conversation with other stories. Always. This is the heart of Benjamin Percy’s 2015 post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands (Hodder & Stoughton). It’s a good heart.
“They’re [books] so comforting…
“Because they feel so fateful. In them people do things for a reason. They are following a predetermined pattern, often one established long ago by another writer, or another hundred writers, or another thousand writers, so that every story might seem unique and particular but is actually recurring, in conversation with others. That’s how history works too. That’s how life works. We’re all characters caught in a cycle of ruin and renewal” (372).
The Dead Lands could have been just another generic post-apocalyptic story about some dystopian communities, rebellion, violence, and a cross-country road trip, but instead it rises above its peers by engaging the genre—and American history—at every turn. From the Neil Gaiman quote on page one to the character’s names to the references and quotes from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There is even a metal bird that might be a Viriconium reference.
Hey look! Some damn fine commentary on the America myth:
“People believe in America, but America is a myth. It has been since 1776. People believed in the country’s greatness because it promised them greatness. Hold a gold coin just out of reach and say, ‘This could be yours.’ One percent of the population controls everything. One percent. That’s how it is here. That’s how it was all over the world. That’s how it has always been throughout human history. America sponsored the appearance of freedom” (153).
This is far from the only interesting political/social/historical commentary contained within The Dead Lands, but most stirring of all for someone studying the genre was the hint of a critique of the apocalypse myth itself. I’m spoiling the punch line of another essay I’m writing right now, but it is worth repeating: there is no apocalypse. The apocalypse is a myth.
Until the planet Earth is completely destroyed, something goes on, though maybe not as we know it. The biggest lie the post-apocalyptic genre tells is that the end of your world is the end of the world. While this works as an emotional simile, its existence belies it as fact. If it was really the end, The END End, there would be no stories left to tell, and no one left to tell them. Until the Earth is swallowed by the sun, there will always be someone or something for whom the world has not ended. The idea of the apocalypse is a fallacy born of a desire to have neat endings, born of fear, born of power fantasies about being given a clean start and a semi-automatic, born of a desire to create nostalgia for our present while we are still living it.
In addressing this in The Dead Lands, however quietly, Percy begins to subvert it. Good for him. Good for the genre.
“The world is not evolving. The world stays the same. The circumstances change but not the matter. The world has not destroyed itself. The world has always been destroying itself, a perpetual apocalypse” (379).
The Writing: I was struck from the first page by the beauty of the prose. Then I read Viriconium by M. John Harrison and found myself, as I switched back and forth between the books, less struck. Still, Percy can write. And how.
The Story: So many apocalyptic novels fail because they zoom in on the apocalypse like it is a plot. In their fervor to consider the details of how the world ended and how people are surviving, many post-apocalyptic authors forget about story entirely. Percy does not. While he includes elements common in the genre, he keeps the story alive and kicking with multiple strings of conflict. He turns over a few tropes and sprinkles generously with revolution.
However, I didn’t care for the ending. I loved that The Dead Lands refuses to wallow in nostalgia, refuses to prioritize the immediate recreation of the pre-apocalypse status quo. The ending veers in that direction. Bah.
Type of apocalypse: Killer flu. Once most of humanity is dead, the death of the world is exacerbated by the melt down of every now-unmanned nuclear facility. This story takes place about 150 years later.
Survival tips: If you want gun powder to last for 150 years, store it in a cool, dry place.
Four out of six shotgun shells.
Where I got it: Sent by the publisher for review