In addition to talking about Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself with my Other Realms book group, I also recently led a discussion for Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. I will confess that I was a hold-out on reading the latter book, perhaps unfairly, as I find myself irked by “literary” dystopian novels that get heaped with praise and attention while those written by sf authors get ignored or overlooked by mainstream reviewers. So, like many readers, I read it because the book group made me.
The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a desolate America after a flu pandemic has ravaged the population. Hig, his dog Jasper, and his cantankerous neighbor Bangley carve out an existence in a mountainous valley in Colorado where they shoot and kill anyone who comes across their path. Hig is less zealous about the shooting necessary for survival and he regularly flies his Cessna plane to a small camp of survivors afflicted with a blood disease so he can bring them supplies.
The discussion started with a round-robin of impressions of the book’s style. Heller, a poet, constructs the novel in vignette-like fragments. Some readers found this disruptive and were annoyed by the anomalies in punctuation, while others thought the style matched the way Hig thought in the absence of much human companionship. Readers connected to Hig’s dog, Jasper, but one reader questioned whether pets inhibit our connection to other people. For Hig, Jasper is a remnant of the life he shared with his wife before the world he knew imploded.
Like many readers, I read it because
the book group made me.
I asked the group how many had read books like The Dog Stars—dystopian novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower—novels about the collapse of civilization as we know it due to some named or unnamed disaster, with survivors left to carry on in a barren landscape. Most had not. But one reader said that these novels, while bleak, are hopeful to her—she went on to say that in a world gone to smithereens the main characters have to learn to live for something, to find those little things in life worth savoring. She said that dystopian novels like The Dog Stars remind us to not take those small moments for granted, to savor the simple pleasures of life. Many in the group agreed that Heller’s book was more thoughtful than other dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels in that it was less about action and more about rumination on life and human connection. While some readers thought it ended with only temporary hopefulness, I was impressed with just how much there was to discuss in The Dog Stars.