There was a time when the world was teeming with humans and all their assorted paraphernalia. The earth's face was splattered with universities and shopping malls, highways and hospitals, Wal-Marts and 7-Elevens. Most important, there were the people; people were everywhere, in all that exasperating majesty. You'd never have realized how much you needed all those people around you, never that is, unless one day they were suddenly just gone.
Hig realized how much he'd needed the people, indeed he did, because they were gone. Almost all of them had disappeared within months, disappeared with a whimper instead of a bang; billions succumbing to a super-flu bug that had raced across the planet like wildfire. No one escaped infection, only a tiny minority, like Hig, managed to survive it. As the final remnants of civilization crumbled around him, Hig left behind the little house he’d once shared with his wife Melissa near downtown Denver, and moved out onto the prairie. He settled into a little airport in the tiny town of Erie where he’d been keeping The Beast, his beloved 1956 Cessna. His only company at Erie were Jasper, the blue-tick hound he and Melissa had raised from a puppy, and the man called Bangley. Bangley just showed up one day hauling a trailer full of weapons, a mean attitude, and a survivalist streak a yard wide – all of which apparently good things to have in a post-apocalyptic world.
In the nine years after the last victims of the super-flu died, the company of three had settled into a comfortable routine: each day, Hig gassed up The Beast and flew out to survey their encampment's perimeter, Jasper beside him lying on the right-hand seat. Every night, Hig slept beneath a pile of blankets with Jasper snuggled at his side as a sort of a combined alarm clock and early warning system. After sunset, he stared into the empty sky. As a kid, Hig had owned a book of the constellations, but it was long since gone. During the years spent at Erie, he’d defined his own star formations; most prominent among which was the group he named "Jasper, Son of Daisy": The Dog Stars.
The three survivors lived a comfortable, if not necessarily idyllic life. At night, Hig dreamt of Melissa while Jasper, Hig assumes, dreamt of fish. No one thought to ask Bangley about his dreams.
When a string of disturbing events disrupted Hig’s settled routines, he determined that he needed a change of scenery. He climbed into The Beast to chase a long-ago radio signal, a call he’d received years ago from Grand Junction - 300 miles away on the opposite side of the Rockies. That short hop over to the Junction, however, just might involve a few detours.
Although The Dog Stars is his first novel-length work of fiction, Peter Heller is by no means a stranger to the best-seller lists. The Denver resident, a licensed private pilot himself, is the author of a recent non-fiction book written as he accompanied a band of crazy kayakers on their descent from the roof of the world in the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean (Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River). His previous book chronicled a season he had spent on a pirate ship touring the Pacific Ocean as the pirates hunted for Japanese whaling ships (The Whale Warriors). Based on a reading of The Dog Stars, Heller certainly deserves kudos for the way he he manages to make the transition to fiction look easy; because this novel in no way reads like non-fiction (other than, perhaps, a lack of quotation marks around passages of dialog).
Post-apocalyptic fiction tends to be a crowded genre of speculative fiction: off the top of your head, you might immediately think of Stephen King’s The Stand or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That stellar pair of novels is merely the tip of the iceberg, however; joining Pat Frank's Alas Babylon, Larry Niven's Lucifer’s Hammer, Neville Shute's On the Beach and myriad other (mostly lesser) efforts. The genre posits a range of apocalyptic events from celestial collisions to nuclear war to mutant virus attacks, and offers visions ranging from the merely dark to the stygian blackness of McCarthy’s novel. Heller joins King in the nasty flu school of catastrophe, while on the scale of darkness he is well into the medium gray most of the time.
Heller’s novel describes a post-apocalyptic world familiar to fans of such speculative fiction: the two heavily-armed heroes handily manage to live off the land by scavenging, hunting and farming; but must constantly remain on guard to prevent their home from being overrun by bands of less fortunate, nomadic survivors. That’s a standard trope of the genre, with King’s supernatural visitations from Mother Abigail perhaps the only true exception, and Heller plays the defense card for all it’s worth - right down to mortar strikes and a homemade RPG-launcher.
Unlike McCarthy’s incredibly dark and depressing vision of a future, however, The Dog Stars is not an unending saga of gloom and doom. The relationships among Hig, Bangley and Jasper are comforting and strangely tender – especially that between Hig and his dog, his last living connection to a vanished world. Despite leading a life in which he is constantly looking over his shoulder, Hig still manages to find the occasional happy moment, whether it’s fishing with his dog or the joy of flight. Heller’s vision of life after the apocalypse is not a novel of dread and despair – it is one of hope with fleeting glimpses of joy tempered by moments of sorrow.
If you ask me, joy beats the heck out of despair any old day.