I am always looking for good science fiction.
Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars sounded like my kind of book. I am a fan of what Jane Rogers in the Guardian calls “cozy catastrophes,” post-apocalyptic novels in the tradition of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor.
The Dog Stars is not in that class, but if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, this survivalist novel might be for you.
Set in Colorado, The Dog Stars is narrated by Hig, a poetry-loving pilot who lost his wife in a flu epidemic nine years ago. Much of humanity died of the flu, and those who didn’t were killed in an unspecified holocaust that burned cities.
Hig lives with his dog, Jasper, in an airport, and flies a small Cessna 55 airplane in search of supplies and human beings.
The other human being in the area, Bangley, a rugged survivalist, watches the road from a tower fitted with weaponry and keeps Hig and Jasper alive by military strategies involving guns, grenades, and killing everybody in sight.
The survivors are generally not good people. They are roving killers.
There is a peaceful Mennonite community out in the country, afflicted by the Blood disease, something similar to AIDS. And their sign announcing it keeps the gangs away. Hig brings them supplies.
The first chapter is horrifying and tragic. Heller writes:
In the beginning there was Fear. Not so much the flu by then, by then I walked, I talked. Not so much talked, but of sound body–and of mind, you be the judge. Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105, I know it cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else.
(It seems a coincidence that I just wrote about Will Self’s novel Umbrella, which is about an epidemic of encephalitis.).
Hig is gentle, but when Bangley tells him to shoot, he generally does. He stops and takes a minute, but somehow Bangley is right about these things.
Jasper is my favorite character. He loves Hig, flies in the plane with him, and goes hunting with him.
But Jasper, too, has to survive. He eats jerky made from the human beings Hig and Bangley kill. The men do not eat it themselves.
There are beautiful descriptions of the world from the sky, and there is much thoughtful writing about environmental catastrophe, loss, and poetry.
But after Part One, the writing goes downhill. The novel becomes a very strange combination of violence and schmaltz. Hig finds other human beings, which development should make the novel more interesting, but either an editor told him to put schmaltz in, or should have told him to delete it.
It is a good read, but is basically a Y.A. novel like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. ( Heller, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a smart writer who has employed a formula to sell a book.
It is one of the most, if not the most, violent novels I’ve ever read. And that did make a little sick after a while.
I haven’t read any classics lately, and I think that’s making me cranky about contemporary books.
Perhaps Heller’s nonfiction would be more interesting. He has written books about surfing, kayaking in Tibet, saving whales, and numerous articles for outdoors magazines about fly fishing and other athletic activities.
I’ve only read one other review of The Dog Stars.–stellar–but now must go and see what others thought.