February 09, 2013

Not With a Bang, With a Whimper (Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller)

The Dog Stars by Peter HellerThe Dog Stars
Peter Heller
Knopf 2012

Where do you imagine yourself after the fall of civilisation? Are you a Mad Max, simply fighting for your own survival in a world gone feral? Or are you the lone scientist trying desperately to reverse whatever grim fate befell your fellow man? Do you batten down the hatches in your personal fortress, keeping the mutated hordes at bay with your private arsenal? Or do you strike out into the unknown, desperate to uncover some other fragment of your seemingly lost race? We've all played this game, at least in our minds, after an enjoyable slice of post-apocalyptic entertainment. Here's the kicker though - we don't get to choose. Life deals your hand, and in a world gone to hell it's not likely to be a good one.

This truth finds Hig, protagonist of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, and never lets him forget it. Not long from now the world is subject to a hideous plague, unimaginable in its virulence. One by one the population drops away, victims of the bad blood. Precious few were granted the gift of natural immunity; Hig was fortunate, his wife less so. Seemingly abandoned by the rest of the world, Hig finds himself drifting from one day to the next on an abandoned airfield. A former pilot, he makes regular excursions in search of other survivors - friendly or otherwise - in The Beast, his trusty Cessna. His sole companion on these missions is Jasper, an ageing but loyal beagle.


Hig's universe is shrunk to the size of the Cessna's fuel range. The occasional interlopers into his territory are invariably unfriendly, bandits looting the remains of the ravaged world. Warnings of plague emitted from the plane's PA are usually enough to deter them. Those foolhardy enough to press on find themselves dealing with Bangley.


Gentle dreamer Hig is no Mad Max. His survival would have been drastically curtailed were it not for the other inhabitant of the airfield. Bangley is a perfect stereotype of the survivalist. Rugged, no-nonsense and with an encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, carpentry, electrics, plumbing and the rest. Thrust into an unlikely partnership the two of them settle on a deal. Hig performs reconnaissance from above while Bangley deals with trouble on the ground. Hig is the early warning system, Bangley the one-man minefield.


The Dog Stars focuses on Hig's attempts to adjust to his loss, not only of his wife but of the world at large. His present and future in tatters, he struggles to get through every hour. Bangley's brusque nature leaves Jasper as his only companion. In this stark setting even the most pedestrian of happenings becomes major news, anything to relieve the tedium of a daily grind with no end in sight. Before long a major development in Hig's life causes him to re-evaluate his situation and decide once and for all whether to continue being a passive observer of an uncaring world.


Heller pulls no punches in his treatment of Hig. The Dog Stars is the first book I have read in years which has had me on the verge of tears, yet at no point did this deter me from pushing on. Hig's desperate situation forces you to get behind him, even in the darkest moments. By refusing to dwell on the gorier details of the plague or its aftermath, Heller forces us into Hig's mind. In this world there in barely anything left with one's thoughts, a dangerous state of affairs. You either dedicate yourself entirely to a task like the unpleasant Bangley and his survival or you risk losing yourself forever to dwelling on the world you've lost. Hig's tale is one of trying to find the balance, trying to recover the sense of self and purpose he once had.


The Dog Stars isn't a cheerful book, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's full of setbacks, unjust punishments and cruel twists of fate. It takes a likable character and subjects him to torments both violent and subtle. In the end, however, its positive message comes to the fore. The simplistic and stark way in which Heller paints this grim world lends it a beauty seldom seen in other post-apocalyptic fiction. It's a reminder that it doesn't all have to be zombies, floods and fireballs - the end of the world has a human face too.



This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Dog Stars is available now.


2 comments:

Denise Boyd said...

Can I read it next? Denise

Denise Boyd said...

Can I have it when you are done?