“Nothing Is Something Somehow”: Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”

the-dog-stars-by-peter-hellerI’ve already reviewed two of the six shortlisted contenders for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award. Of those, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion seems to me more perfectly formed than Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, if perhaps as a function of a decidedly narrower imaginative palette. That latter book has a lot to recommend it – breadth of vision, unabashed ambition, memorable images – but may be defeated by the impossibility of its self-appointed task: as Vandana Singh has written, the novel trips over its own assumptions as it pushes its frame of reference ever outwards; Intrusion may be slighter, but it also plays more consistently to its own considerable strengths.

Caught almost dead-centre in this dog fight is Peter Heller’s appropriately titled The Dog Stars. The story of Colorado man Hig, it is set in the near future, following an apparently multi-causal apocalypse: there are references to both disease and climate change, and there also seems to be an ongoing confrontation with ‘Arabs’ in the background of this world. Nina Allan’s review of the book at Strange Horizons is very much in line with my own opinion of it, and when she writes of Heller’s “thoughtless inconsistency”, this seems just right. There is little in the worldbuilding of The Dog Stars that stands up to any sustained scrutiny. Indeed, at times the set-up at the heart of the novel – Hig lives with his dog and his light aircraft in a disused country airport, protected in part by his own native cunning and in part by the survivalist expertise of his gun-toting neighbour, Bangley – rather resembles the mise en scene of Sam Taylor’s rickety The Island at the End of the World. In both novels, and in Taylor’s explicitly, the backstory feels something like an excuse.

This lends The Dog Stars the air of the ‘cosy catastrophe‘ which MacLeod’s novel does so much to complicate. Hig’s lifestyle is best characterised by Bangley: “we keep it simple, we survive,” he insists [pg. 21], and yet there is none of the associated enervation present in the superficially similar – and also Clarke-nominated – Far North. In that novel, an apparently multi-causal apocalypse has led to the collapse of civilisation, and those who survive it gather around them the still-functioning relics of the old world, in an attempt to persevere in the long shadow of complexity. Far North painted a vivid and haunting picture of a survival so constituted, but The Dog Stars, which at one point name-checks John Wyndham, resembles far more closely the famed retreat, in The Death of Grass, to the convenient farm in the Lake District. Hig hunts with abandon, even though at first we’re led to believe there has a been a Road-like hollowing out of the planet’s biodiversity; towards the end of the novel, when all is, in the words of the dust jacket’s blurb, “life-affirming”, “The buffalo are moving down to their old range.” [pg. 286]  Give me a home indeed.

It should perhaps not come as a surprise that in this brave new world there is little room for women. There are two in Hig’s narrative: Melissa, blissfully remembered in sepia-toned flashbacks to the world before the fall (and smothered at her own request with a hospital pillow when the plague strikes her); and Cima, the daughter of another doughty survivalist (there aren’t many character times to go around in The Dog Stars), who exists primarily to be caring – she was once a doctor – and sexed – she has a “sweet ass” (although, when she asks Hig for oral sex, he complies only because “duty calls” [pg. 263]). This is a narrow story – indeed, one of its most interesting aspects is the manner in which much of the apocalypse has happened and continues to happen off-screen (the novel ends with planes other than Hig’s, and ones of unknown origin, patrolling the skies once more). But a function of Hig’s partial perspective is this failure of imaginative empathy.

On the other hand, Hig’s voice is the novel’s great strength. Heller masters a sparse, economical prose which speaks both to the protagonist’s character and his context. If the consistency of the style contributes both to the novel’s narrowness and to the reader’s suspicion that the otherwise inconsistent world has been conjured merely as a means of bringing into life Hig’s particular kind of male fantasy, it is nevertheless true that its clipped, pragmatic, insistent qualities lend a great deal of force to what is otherwise a schematic tale: man has dog, man loses dog, man goes on journey, man returns the better for it. What’s curious about the spareness of Hig’s voice is that, before the fall, he was a published – albeit obscure – poet. The collapse of society, however, seems to have led Hig, even in describing loss and grief, to a kind of apostasy: “Getting all poetic on its ass, when what it is is I miss you. I really fucking miss you.” [pg. 112]   Hig’s voice makes The Dog Stars eminently readable, but also forces it to retreat from any real engagement with depth. Hig passes through his apocalypse, makes do and mends.

Indeed, the final scene of the novel features Bangley and Cima’s father – best of friends, of course – playing chess with each other in the idyllic proto-village to which Hig has returned, “in some apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell” [pg. 309]. Perhaps Heller imagines he can thus head his critics off at the pass, but simply being aware of your weaknesses does not help rectify them. Neither as ambitious as 2312, nor as robust or ambivalent as Intrusion, The Dog Stars emerges as rather empty: deceptively well-written, smooth and superficially satisfying, but ultimately lacking somewhat in courage, conviction – and complexity.




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