The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I have come to understand that I have rather a penchant for reading post apocalyptic fiction. I try to not waste too much time worrying about whether this is a sign of a healthy mental state or not and simply accept that I read both what I enjoy and what stimulates my emotions. I find that the dark themes explored in the genre frighten me a great deal, and this leads to great fascination in how the survivors will cope with their situation. Civilisation is a very fragile construct that could break with a few key occurrences - I’ve always wondered what would happen and in the UK, over the last few years, there was a mini petrol and bread shortage and the behaviour of the populace in general (stockpiling) showed how worryingly thin the line between chaos and order actually is.

Hig, bereaved and traumatised after global disaster, has three things to live for - his dog Jasper, his aggressive but helpful neighbour, and his Cessna aeroplane. He's just about surviving, so long as he only takes his beloved plane for short journeys, and saves his remaining fuel. But, just once, he picks up a message from another pilot, and eventually the temptation to find out who else is still alive becomes irresistible. So he takes his plane over the horizon, knowing that he won't have enough fuel to get back. What follows is scarier and more life-affirming than he could have imagined.

The Dog Stars is the type of post apocalyptic fiction I enjoy to read most. It is written very well, in a thoughtful and unrushed voice that bears comparison with Le Guin, Attwood and McCarthy. Heller had a story to tell and he would neither be rushed nor take too long about it. When I first read McCarthy’s The Road I had never encountered a writing style like it: no quotations to indicate dialogue and a minimalist narrative. The Dog Stars benefits from a sparse prose (I am sure  McCarthy is an inspiration to Heller) and I liked that some sentences end unfinished with a full stop, just like a thought that is stopped mentally - I thought this device worked very well.

I loved this book from the very beginning,  the way it was written, the themes it explored, the story it tells and the memorable few characters that populate it. The story is simple, an influenza type virus has wiped out almost the entire population of North America, probably the world. There are not many survivors and we find the central point of the story, Hig, his faithful dog Jasper and the unnerving and possible sociopathic/psychotic gun-loving Bangley. Hig is an endearing lead (despite his ability to kill other humans and then feed them to his dog - this is not the horrific thing it might sound and more a necessity). Bangley is unnerving, yet written with depth and so as a reader I began to feel occasional warmth towards him.

The pacing of The Dog Stars is perfect, mirroring the pace of life of the survivors. Gone is the rush of modern life we currently know and each day is simply about survival, keeping oneself fed, warm and safe. Hig likes to cook and plant crops and he finds joy in the companionship of his dog, Jasper, defending his territory only if there is no other option. Bangley however appears to relish this new life, a life which gives him free reign to use his guns killing all who near their airport base. Them or us in his mind.

I’ve read a great deal in this genre over the past 30 years and I’ll put The Dog Stars up there with the best. And what makes it a more fulfilling read for today’s audience is that it is current and all the more believable for it. I guess the easiest (and arguably laziest) comparison I can make is to like this book to a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand. I should point out that its length is very much the former and not the mammoth size of the latter.

If you have enjoyed either of these I believe you will like what you find within these pages. Definitely one of the best post apocalyptic novels I have read.

Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2013

“The Road crossed with a post-apocalyptic romance… [engages] deep emotions to spine-chilling (and suspenseful) effect” Lawrence Norfolk, Guardian Books of the Year

9/10 One of the best post apocalyptic novels I have read

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