Exactly why the end of the world is back in vogue is an interesting question. Presumably, it’s because of the growing respectability of science fiction, and also the way science fiction has changed in recent years, the way the vistas of deep space have given way to the possibilities of our increasingly science-fictional present.
But the rise of the apocalypse is also the expression of a deeper anxiety about what lies ahead, and our powerlessness to control it. Certainly, it’s not coincidental that so many contemporary dystopias are the result of environmental degradation or pandemics.
Peter Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, gives you both for the price of one.
Set in the aftermath of an epidemic that has wiped out more than 99 per cent of the population and left the rest at the mercy of a rapidly warming climate, it focuses on a man called Hig, who has managed to survive in the backblocks of North America.
As the novel opens, almost a decade has passed since the flu, years that Hig has spent holed up in an old airport with his dog, Jasper, and Bangley, a prickly survivalist with an often-vital taste for guns.
Although they’re alone, Hig, Jasper and Bangley don’t have it so bad. Using materials from the abandoned McMansions beside the airport, Hig has cobbled together a system of gardens and, while many of the animals have disappeared as the summers have warmed, presumably killed off by a lack of water, there are enough left to supply meat and fish.
Thanks to Bangley’s guns and strategies, they are comparatively safe from intermittent attacks by other survivors, many of whom are, as Hig puts it, ”mostly not nice”.
And although Hig knows that it will not last forever, there is enough fuel for him to occasionally fly his beloved Cessna.
Yet while he is alive, Hig – a man still riven by the loss of his wife and unborn child – is not really living, something that becomes painfully clear when a crisis convinces him to abandon his refuge and set off in search of the origin of a mysterious radio message.
It’s not the most original set-up, but The Dog Stars has a clarity and force that many novels like it lack. Partly, this is about the integrity of the detail: Heller is an experienced outdoors journalist and it shows in the way he understands both the terrain and the equipment.
It’s also about the writing. Despite his roughness, Hig is, or was, a poet, a man fascinated by the poetry of Li Po and Li Shang-yin, and the prose of the novel reflects that, capturing in its broken rhythms not just something of the spareness and clarity of Chinese poetry but the quality of Hig’s attention to his surroundings and his barely sublimated grief.
These qualities, and the novel’s occasional hints at the degree to which events have altered Hig – not always for the better – mean The Dog Stars is, despite occasional implausibilities and overly familiar devices, never less than affecting, and occasionally deeply moving.
Yet, it’s difficult not to wonder whether it isn’t a little too consoling. There is more than a whiff of the cosy catastrophe about The Dog Stars, in particular the intimation of hope that comes in its final pages. More deeply, though, it – like many contemporary dystopias – seems more interested in romanticising our powerlessness in the face of a changing climate than trying to imagine our way past it.
THE DOG STARS
Headline, 320pp, $29.99
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.