The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is set in a post-apocalyptic near future where a virulent and aggressive strain of the flu has taken the lives of most of the population of the world, leaving the rest in fear of one another and desperate for survival. The survivors are few and usually those with some combination of combat and survival skills. Hig, who lost his wife and unborn child in the pandemic, has found an uneasy partnership with Bangley, a difficult person with good tactical skills, and the two get by on a solar powered farm near a former airfield.
Heller avoids getting into the nitty-gritty details that often feature prominently in post-apocolyptic fiction: how the situation developed, how the virus really works, why it spread so aggressively or what measures were taken to prevent it, etc. Instead, he paints them over with a superficial brush, letting you know that there was a disease and it won while everyone else lost, and focuses on the real story he wants to tell; The Dog Stars is about the drive to survive and need for connection, impetuses that are sometimes competing and other times complementary. It’s a sad but otherwise pretty unremarkable occurrence that finally unbalances the careful harmony that has allowed the two to survive, or at least subsist, for a number of years.
I enjoyed The Dog Stars, but it turned out to be a different type of book than I was expecting. It is a gentler, kinder story than you might imagine and not as high-octane as you might think a post-apocalyptic story would be; when the book opens, the turmoil of the pandemic has already been settled for almost nine years, and Hig is just taking things day by day. It is introspective, somewhat slowly paced and often poetic.
Read it or Skip it?
Whether The Dog Stars turns out to be a pleasant surprise or a let down depends what you’re looking for or whether you’re able to let go of your expectations for the story. When this book was released, there were a spate of apocalyptic-slash-dystopian novels that were being churned out, and I don’t think this book is much like most of them. I would recommend keeping an open mind and letting yourself take things a little slow if you want to enjoy this book.