The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012) 311 p.

Civilisation has collapsed. A superflu killed off a huge chunk of the population and a blood disease wiped out some more not long after. The planet is warming, drying up the rivers and snows and killing off some of the fish. Hig, our noble protagonist in this familiar post-apocalyptic world, lives in a fortified airfield in Colorado with his loyal dog Jasper and his aggressive, semi-trustworthy neighbour Bangley.

Hig is a hunter, fisher, builder and a pilot. Bangley is an ex-military survivalist gun nut. Hig scouts the land in his ageing Cessna while Bangley keeps them safe with his formidable arsenal of weapons and his shoot-first mentality. One of the first tip-offs that this is going to be a really good book is how skilfully Heller sets up the relationship between the two: they have little in common but depend on each other for survival, with an uneasy edge of mistrust, as Hig somewhat suspects Bangley might one day kill him and has contemplated doing the same.

Hig’s skills and interests reflect the author’s own, and you can tell Heller knows what he’s talking about. There’s lots of hunting and fishing and flying and poetic descriptions of the landscape, and I couldn’t help but be envious of Heller – in true Hemingway style, he’s not just a great outdoorsman, but a great writer too. (It occurred to me several times throughout the book, as Hig and Bangley built sniper platforms and fixed engines and grew crops, that for all my post-apocalyptic reading and writing habits, in the event of the real thing, my sheer lack of technical knowledge would leave me dead within months.)

Bangley protects them from other survivors, rag-tag clans of wanderers and killers who roam the post-apocalyptic wasteland looking for victims and supplies. Bangley is entirely hostile, while Hig sometimes tries to negotiate, usually to his peril. (One particularly intense scene details Hig trying to get back to the airfield after a hunting expedition with nine pursuers after him, Bangley guiding him on the radio.) Hig holds out some faith in the goodness of others, still, and when he picks up a faint control tower transmission from the airport at Grand Junction, beyond the range of a two-way trip in the Cessna, he decides to risk everything and sets out to investigate.

The Dog Stars is a beautiful book, told in a semi-stream of consciousness manner with lots of paragraph breaks and sparse punctuation, memories of the past combining with wistful reflections on the present. I often find this irritating in novels, but here it works – although Heller does employ my pet peeve (originated I believe by Cormac McCarthy) of dropping quotation marks for dialogue. It’s as enjoyable to read about Hig fishing up in the Rocky Mountains as it is to read about a heart-pumping, adrenaline-filled escape from murderous pursuers. He’s a likeable character and you quickly come to care about him.

What I felt prevented The Dog Stars from being great rather than merely good was that it follows the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction fairly predictably. It’s interesting to note that every post-apocalyptic tale always brings with it limitless hordes of brutal, violent men – call them raiders or bandits or scavengers or whatever – who are unflaggingly hostile. (I suspect this was taken directly from Mad Max 2 and absorbed into the genre without close examination, but if you can think of an earlier example, let me know). Now, I have no naivete about human nature, and I’m well aware that in most cases the collapse of civilisation would lead to human beings killing each other for a can of beans. But in the event of a superflu – which, in The Dog Stars, is said to have killed off more than 99% of the population – there would be canned goods and bottled water aplenty and no need to fight over them. I’m not saying people would band together into utopian communes, but nor do I think literally every single person you met would be out for blood. I always find it annoying when – as in, say, The Road – the main characters are presented as Good People who would never kill for resources, and who luckily never have to make the choice. In both The Dog Stars and The Road the only killing the main characters ever do is in self-defence or vengeance, always against those bandits/marauders/scavengers who have magically turned into Bad People. The only book I’ve encountered thus far where the characters realistically have to choose between killing for resources or dying themselves is John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. It seems an underutilised area of examination for a genre that’s supposed to be all about hardship and brutality.

That doesn’t, mind you, prevent The Dog Stars from still being a really good book. Heller clearly leans more towards literary fiction than post-apocalyptic fiction, and the issues I have with The Dog Stars are my problem, not his. Highly recommended.