“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.



“The Moment Happens”: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312”

20121227-222730.jpgIn a recent interview with the New Statesman, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s Front de Gauche, argued that, “There is only one ecosystem compatible with human life. In that, we are all equals.” This intersection of radical politics, environmental concern and human community is the centre of gravity around which Kim Stanley Robinson’s memorable new novel, 2312, revolves.

I use that word ‘memorable’ advisedly. It’s not quite true that 2312,which is set in the year of the title in a solar system fully inhabited but not entirely formalised, is remarkable, or excellent, or fabulous. In many ways, it’s not a novel at all – or, if it is, it’s a disastrous one. There are many sentences, for instance, which make explicit the obvious: “Her combination of Chinese ancestry and Indian name,” we read of one character we meet on Venus, “resembled that of some others he had met; he had been given to understand it marked Venusians who wanted some separation from the old country, with the name being a way of saying they were more Venusian than Chinese.” [pg. 280] Robinson seems unable to believe we may work this out for ourselves, and it’s perhaps this insistence upon reiteration which leads to the novel’s curiously circular plot – time and again, we return to Earth and learn the same things about its surviving late capitalism, or its irreversibly altered climate; the two protagonists, the former designer of asteroid habitants named Swan, and the emissary from Saturn’s moons named Wahram, revolve endlessly around a question first asked in the novel’s opening pages, and, in an at times divertingly transgendered romance, around each other.

In part, this attenuated plot is forced into its flattened shape by the necessary bloat of pages – 2312 is primarily a portrait of a potential future, a form conspicuous by its absence in much modern science fiction, and it finds its finest moments in the gaps between plot tokens. There are descriptions of the environments engineered within hollowed-out asteroids, or dissections of the mechanics of a city which endlessly traverses the surface of Mercury, forever out-running its too-hot sun; there are glimpses of a new kind of politics based on mutualism and shared interest, and of how our planet might first be affected, and then react to, the runaway climate change which now seems our fate. In this 2312 might be Robinson’s most exciting, most relevant, most visionary book. Here he is on the fate of Earth, our own “planet of sadness”:

[…] the new sea level could not be substantially altered. And it was much the same with many of their other problems. The many delicate physical, biological, and legal situations were so tightly knitted together that none of the cosmic engineering they were doing elsewhere in the solar system could be fitted to the needs of the place. […] Human time here was simply wrenched; the centre had not held; things fell apart and recombined to create feelings that did not cohere inside one. Ideas of order became hopelessly bogged down in ancient stories, webs of law, faces on the street.” [pp. 304-6]

In other words, the Earth of 2312 is our own: in dire need of a new means of doing things, but powerless to devise them. It is a planet too entwined in its own past, in the centuries of accretion which have calcified its structures, to rise again. This vision would make 2312 a bleak novel were it not for the wider solar system: as in Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass, also published this year, humans have escaped old earth for the stars; unlike the sumpolloi of that novel, Robinson’s non-Terran humans have broken free of the old systems. “No generally agreed-upon system of governance in space was ever established,” we learn in one of the many ‘extracts’ from fictional textbooks which pepper this narrative (the author acknowledges John Dos Passos’s influence in his notes, making the novel oddly old-fashioned in form for one so interested in futurology); this means that, on Mars and elsewhere, non-aligned worlds give rise to political movements and thought which expresses an ideal almost inexpressible even in our own sluggish culture. “There’s no solution but justice for everyone,” Swan realises. “It’s the only thing that will make us safe.” [pg. 356]

It’s not just Adam Roberts whose work this optimism sets 2312 against. M John Harrison, too, has in this year’s Empty Space more or less thrown up his dextrous hands when it comes to imagining a possible medium-term future for humankind. As I wrote in my review of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award, much current science fiction seems to be slouching towards Bethlehem – aware that something must soon be born, but not sure what or how. The xenophobia of some of the stories in Rocket Science, a recent fiction collection expressly devised to face up to the realities of current human expansion into the solar system, also emphasises how stuck we are in our own mud. It is exhilarating to read a piece of science fiction which dares not just to engage with our moment – as Harrison and Roberts both do to considerably more polished, affecting and successful literary effect – but also to imagine the space beyond. 2312 offers a thoroughly convincing world, a quite astounding breadth of science fictional vision; from its considerations of terraforming to its understanding of how human genders might shift and change, it is a heterodox and wise work. Robinson deserves unceasing praise for this valuable feat of imagination.

Alas, 2312 is, novelistically, a fairly naive piece of writing. Where in Galileo’s Dream Robinson seemed to approach fusing sensawunda with something approaching ‘traditional’ characterisation, in 2312 he seems entirely to abandon structure and psychology. Plots repeatedly loop back on themselves, spooling like tape run free of the spindle – “Interesting,” muses a police inspector, “I’ll have to think about that”, before taking hundreds of pages to do just that [pg. 228]. Swan, who has grown up in the solar system, has to ask why their might be a minimum detection limit for micro-asteroid sensors – “Usually to keep warnings from going off all the time,” replies her interlocutor, for the benefit not of the person Swan might really be, we suspect, but for 21st-century readers rather slower on the uptake [pg. 220]. Digressions – a trip, for instance, to a chamber music recital – feel slack, whilst adding little to our understanding of the characters. Wahram, for example, loves music, but he never comes clearer into focus as a result, remaining like all the other characters a blank-ish chess piece positioned on a beautiful board. “We live an hour and it is always the same,” he intones at one point [pg. 162], but one would hope this wasn’t meant as an epigram for what becomes a disappointingly recursive novel.

The mystery of the novel – that Swan’s grandmother had set in motion, and for a time before her death led, a secretive movement aiming to reshape the solar system – is established in the opening pages, and takes a clear shape rather quickly. Nevertheless, Robinson spools it ever outwards, into a diffuse conspiracy of the quantum computers many 24th-century humans keep on their person, and towards a repopulation of Earth with species it has long since lost in a series of ecological catastrophes. Increasingly, events are narrated explicitly from a point further on in the timeline than 2312, and cast as a kind of prelude to a new golden age – humans “were stunted by life [… on] their own harsh planet” we are told, implying that the expansive future offers something fuller [pg. 413] – and this optimism becomes the only means of dragging the story, as distinct from the setting, forwards. The reader wants less to know what happens to the characters than what happens to us.

Perhaps this is the point. A theme of 2312 is that the essential nature of humans will stay forever the same: “People hunger for time both ways. Certain things we want to come faster: the terraforming of a new world we have come to love, the arrival of universal justice in human affairs, a good project. Other things we want to go slower: our own lives, the lives of those we love.” [pg. 535] If 2312 aims to teach us perspective, it does so; if it also aims to encourage our patience, it tries more than it succeeds. It is full of bravura imagination, particularly in its first half; as a novel, however, it circles and shimmies over-much, a picture rather less pretty than its frame (or, depending on your emphasis, vice versa). It’s a book worth reading – but, for writers looking to more seamlessly fictionalise their futurology, perhaps an encouragement more than an exemplar.