“Took the end of the world to make us kings for a day”

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (2012)

Why write about the end of the world? I suppose one of the attractions, for some writers at least, must be the capacity to strip the world back to its bare bones, and focus all on the subjects one wants to explore. These thoughts crossed my mind on reading Peter Heller’s first novel, because The Dog Stars leans so far towards certain issues that the book as a whole gets pushed out of shape.

It is the near future, after a vaguely defined pandemic  that did away with most of the people, and a side-order of climate change that (it seems) did away with much of the wildlife (Heller is sketchy on exactly what happened, but the point is that it was the end of the world). Our narrator, Hig, is one of the small number of humans who were immune to the sickness and are now eking out a living as best they can. Hig’s sole companions are Jasper, his ageing dog; a little Cessna aircraft that he nicknames the Beast; and Bruce Bangley, the only other human for miles around. There’s not much to be done beyond surviving, as other people invariably tend to be hostile, and hence need to be dealt with before they deal with HIg and Bangley. But the loneliness gets to Hig, and eventually he is driven to jump in the Beast to see what, or who, may be out there.

Hig’s narrative voice is what keeps The Dog Stars together: the spare, weary voice of someone resigned to the possibility that there may be nothing left worth saying, but who feels compelled to carry on speaking as it keeps the silence at bay. Hig feels guilty because he survived when his wife Melissa did not – and because he was the one who helped her through death’s door when she asked. In contrast with the much more hard-headed survivalist Bangley, Hig would be happiest just spending time fishing and flying; but Bangley’s disdain for such “Recreating” is hard to ignore. The gulf between the two men is underlined by a sequence where Hig attacks a drinks truck for its bounty and thinks he’s done well – until Bangley tears his pride to shreds by pointing out all his careless mistakes.

If the novel were just Hig, Bangley, and Hig’s introspection, I suspect that The Dog Stars would be a perfectly decent read. But there’s a world beyond them, and I’m with Nina Allan in thinking that Heller falters whenever he turns his focus towards that outer world. I’m willing to overlook the sketchy background, because the foreground interests me more (though it seems odd for hostility to be the norm amongst the survivors when there appears to be enough food and other natural resources to go round). But I can’t ignore the issues with plotting (the closing encounter is far too silly); or the way that Cima, the only living female character, is objectified and generally exists only to serve as an adjunct to Hig.

But perhaps my most nagging doubt over Heller’s book is the thought that it doesn’t really need its post-apocalyptic setting, and might even be better off without it. Hig remarks on the first page:

The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water. (p. 3)

This is the sticking point: Hig pines for his wife and his trout. He’s not so completely self-absorbed that he dismisses the wider world; but his personal losses are far more important to him than any broader ones. As a result, the novel doesn’t feel nearly as emotionally invested in its end-of-the-world elements as it is in Hig’s personal reflections. Despite its flaws, The Dog Stars is not a bad portrait of someone coming to terms with loss and finding a way to move on. But add in everything else, and the book just unbalances.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.

1 Comment

  1. I think I picked up the idea from Walker Percy, but the reset feature of apocalyptic novels is very similar to the reset feature in “amnesia” novels.

    Both give you a clean slate to work with, but if there is a difference, the “amnesia” novels tend to reintroduce the world as some point, while the collapse novels reintroduce complexity by rebuilding.

    Where The Road differs is that it keeps to its stripped down theme.

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