Peter Heller – The Dog Stars

Those of us who were children during the 1960s and 1970s will undoubtedly remember Robinson Crusoe, a French-made serial dubbed into English, and accompanied by a haunting signature tune. While Crusoe’s self-excoriation about his sinful past sailed straight over my head I was fascinated by the way he set about making a life for himself on the island, using whatever he could salvage from the shipwreck and what he found on the island itself. It was, I suppose, an early lesson in self-sufficiency, reinforced in part by the endless reshowings of the series.

Ever since, I’ve been particularly drawn to sf stories about people surviving some sort of catastrophe and building new lives for themselves, scavenging, growing food, and so on, the so-called Robinsonades. It is no coincidence that John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids has long been one of my favourite novels, particularly the portions when he describes going back into a mostly empty London to scavenge, though I also have a soft spot for Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Forgotten Enemy’, with its protagonist holed up in a library: this always seemed like the perfect notion to me. Insofar as I ever had a survival plan when I was young, it always involved a library.

But I grew older and began to realise, as if Wyndham hadn’t already made this plain, that survival was a dangerous business. Indeed, it became clear, too, that survival was a man’s game (though Wyndham was very clear that women needed to learn skills as well, if they didn’t already have them). The role of women was going to be to keep house and restart civilisation by having more babies, because of course there is nothing more sensible when in the middle of a catastrophe, with limited resources, than to start planning for the resurgence of the very political systems that got one into trouble in the first place (and Wyndham had one or two things to say about that as well).

This in turn led me to suppose that carving out a life in the wilderness, going it alone with a few chickens, a dog, a cat and a garden, was probably a better way forward than being part of a group that wanted to annex my body for its own grubby imperialistic reasons. And yes, I’d probably die of starvation in a couple of years but what the hell … it would be on my terms (and I hadn’t even read Thoreau at that point). Obviously, my attitudes have shifted as I’ve grown older and had more time to think about it. I understand now why so many people kill themselves at the beginning of The Day of the Triffids, faced with the realisation that there is no way they will be able to cope. The way forward becomes less clear-cut as the possibilities for social annihilation multiply. It was always going to be a nuclear strike, simple, sudden, but with devastating consequences but nowadays it seems more as though we will be undermined by a mix of illness and infrastructure collapse. Though the great swine flu epidemic of 2009 turned out to be anything but, speaking as one of those who did catch it, was incapacitated for a fortnight and has never felt 100% well since, it was brought home to me then just how quickly things can fall apart. Couple an epidemic with fuel shortages brought on by a lack of tanker drivers, and before you know where you are, chaos and collapse. Think about a unvaccinated generation with no immunity to, oh, how about measles?Peter Heller – The Dog Stars

All of which is a long preamble to thinking about Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award. This is set in the near future, a future so very close it might as well be today as everything looks pretty much as we might expect. Some sort of flu epidemic has wiped out most of the population of North America, and probably beyond as well. Many of those who did not die of influenza died subsequently of other diseases, less easily identified. It’s not clear what happened to the rest of the world as communications failed generally as people succumbed to the epidemic. To all intents and purposes North America is cut off from the rest of the world.

Hig, the novel’s first-person narrator, lost his wife and unborn child to the epidemic – in fact, it will turn out, at the end his wife asked him to smother her rather than prolong her suffering – and as the world descended into chaos, he and his dog, Jasper, took refuge at the airfield where he kept his small plane, and stayed. Over the years since the epidemic – now about seven or eight years ago – he has established a life of sorts, defending his patch from marauders, maintaining a few crops, supplementing vegetables with what he catches by hunting and fishing and what he manages to scavenge. He flies regular patrols to maintain the perimeters of his world and keeps an eye on a struggling Mennonite community nearby, helping out when their technology fails. The community isolated itself after it became clear they all had a mysterious blood disease, as a result of which other hunters and scavengers, fearful of contagion, have left them alone.

There is distinctly something of the Thoreauvian about Hig, with his house, his bean rows and his dog, a little social commerce with the neighbours, and the journal, though this is balanced by an acute sense of territory rather than place. While Thoreau welcomed visitors, for the most part, and at worst was irritated when they interrupted him, for Hig, visitors represent danger. We’re in a world where good fences emphatically make good neighbours; people want to live with a lot of space around them, so they can see the scavengers and marauders coming. Bangley, who arrived on the scene, bringing with him a small arsenal and a keen appreciation of military tactics, is constantly trying to teach Hig to think more strategically, to plan ahead, to look for weaknesses, whereas Hig is shown as being purely reactive.

Yet, to be blunt, Hig and Bangley, the Apocalyptic Odd Couple, are living in what might charitably be called the world’s biggest man-cave, with enough solar-driven bits and bobs to keep them self-sufficient for as long as they want. Hig may mutter about fuel going off (and actually, I was glad to see a certain amount of practicality seeping in) but he’s pretty much got enough to keep him flying for as long as he wants, while Bangley, the surrogate father and protector polices the boundaries of their world. All of this enables Hig to get on with his main task in life, which seems to be to mourn the loss of his wife and the world as it once was. Again, this is where the Thoreauvian ideal stumbles. While Thoreau was acutely aware of the way in which the modern world was intruding on the old ways, and was not necessarily happy about it (though he did admit that the coming of the railway made it a good deal easier to visit further-flung libraries), neither did he indulge in a pityfest. Thoreau had an acute understanding of what he needed to do in order to survive and did it. Hig, on the other hand, seems to be constantly on the brink of a sighing complaint about how difficult it all is, even though he is clearly a competent man. Hig’s argument might be, I suppose, that he has nothing to live for, whereas for Thoreau, the living itself is the thing.

Which is perhaps a good moment to stop and think about this account that Hig is keeping. Before the epidemic he was a building contractor in the summer, a writer in the winter. It’s not clear what Hig wrote or how much was published, though we do learn that he loves poetry, which he still reads and quotes in his journal. Yet, when I started the novel, the story felt to all intents and purposes as though it was being told by someone who had, for whatever reason, decided they must keep an account of their experiences for posterity, but for whom writing didn’t come easily. Which seems odd if Hig is supposed to be a writer. How much more wish-fulfilment is at play here, we might wonder, alongside the Robinsonade. Even Hig’s nature writing seems to be a little … wonky, maybe, as if he looks but doesn’t really see.

But perhaps that is the point about Hig; nothing really comes naturally to him, as he notes later, when talking about learning to fly. He’s had to work for everything, and that includes the writing. Yet, given how much he has presumably written already, one might assume that, as with the flying, as with the hunting and the fishing, he’d have it figured out by now. But Hig is no Thoreau, nor indeed is he Saint-Exupery, for all he tries to describe what it means to fly, “freed from the sticky details” of daily life. And yet, given Heller’s own track record of adventure writing – he has several works of “literary non-fiction” to his name – and given the fact that Hig is clearly intended to be an expert hunter and fisherman, one might have expected something a little less … trite, perhaps.

This does, however, point towards a more significant problem with this novel, its narrative structure. When writing an account of an expedition, one is inevitably writing after the event, aware of what happened, and in what order. The story has, in effect, written itself as the participants went along. As a way of writing a novel, however, this is an approach that is apt to create problems rather than solve them. As a consequence, the reader is almost halfway through the novel before the first heavily signalled significant event finally occurs, precipitating Hig into something that might be a midlife crisis, requiring him to fly off into the blue, leaving Bangley behind to mind the shop on his own, thus heavily signalling another significant event.

It is the death of Jasper, Hig’s elderly dog, that prompts him to go in search of the airfield from which he once heard a call sign, just to see if anyone has survived, although three years as elapsed since he last heard it. Why now, so far into the novel, when this would have been a wonderful hook for an adventure. As it is, Hig merely exchanges a stale idyll, with Bangley, for a new and exciting one, involving another old man, Pops, and his daughter, Cima, with whom, perhaps inevitably, Hig falls in love, because without someone to love, he is nothing, and this is really what it’s been about all along. Stripped first of his attachment to his wife, Melissa, and then his dog, Hig is one big emotional hole, looking to be filled, and this occurs at length. It’s hard to overlook the desperate convenience of meeting the perfect woman in the middle of nowhere, with her ornery but fundamentally decent father, who just coincidentally also has a military background, taking up the slack while Bangley’s absent.

It’s not too long before it’s decided that they will all return to Hig’s airfield, going via that mysterious airport he was originally heading for, to pick up fuel and just check what was going on. This short section turns out to be the most compelling and yet most infuriating portion of the book. We can never know for sure what motivated the old couple who have booby-trapped the airfield but it’s pretty much academic once Pops has blown them both away. For someone who is apparently rather squeamish about killing people, Hig is very apt at aligning himself with people who have no compunction in doing so whatsoever, and indeed is perfectly capable of doing so himself, but requires that slight hesitation to show he’s essentially decent, that he worries before he shoots.

It’s not too difficult to guess what the second significant event will be, given that Bangley has been left on his own for several months, and that Cima turns out to be a doctor. In fact, the only real surprise, given Pops is pretty much Bangley all over again, is that Bangley in fact survives to tell the tale and everyone lives happily ever after, freed of their ghosts, with Hig having acquired himself a wife and two surrogate fathers into the bargain.

But what to make of this novel as a whole? In terms of structure, it’s not a terribly good or interesting novel, unless you have a taste for the maudlin and underplotted; it’s the kind of novel you might hunker down with if you were feeling miserable too but the life-affirming portions of it read like the fantasies of a self-diagnosed sensitive adolescent boy rather than the supposed  thoughts of a man who has, allegedly, turned dead human beings into jerky for his dog.

As science fiction? It isn’t, not according to any criteria I’d care to exercise, and as long-time readers of this blog will know, I have a very flexible definition of science fiction. On the other hand, the mere fact of its appearing on the Clarke Award shortlist has effectively made it into science fiction, at least in the short term, which I find mildly alarming.

What we have here is nothing more than a guess at a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a flu epidemic and subsequent disease mutations, with a bit of climate change thrown in for good measure, all of it really little more than vague hand-waving that might have been culled from the headlines of a broadsheet newspaper. I have little sense of the author having seriously thought through what this world might look like. It just is, because he needed it to be. As so often in these situations science-fictional tropes provide a spot of window-dressing for something else the author wants to say; so long as you don’t look too closely, it might just about pass muster, but all it takes is a mild breeze of scepticism to set the scenery swaying.

In the end, the science-fictional elements in this novel exist simply to strip the landscape of people so that a favoured few survivors can play out a fantasy version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with a better outcome – apocalypse-lite. As to how it came to be on the Clarke Award shortlist, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but I’m having trouble seeing anything in it that suggests “best”, “radical”, “innovative” or any of the other assorted criteria that have attached themselves to the Clarke Award. On the other hand, even if it is as various people have suggested, this year’s ‘what were they thinking?’ candidate, it is better than Sheri Tepper’s The Waters Rising or even Drew Magary’s The End Specialist, which seemed to occupy a similar ‘this needs an sf backdrop to make the point” niche. Where it really belongs is on a shelf alongside Jonathan Livingston Seagull, fiction to make you feel good, assuming you can survive the associated dental caries from the sweetness of it all.

Nina Allan reviewed The Dog Stars, at Strange Horizons. She was also unimpressed..