by Peter Heller


What on earth has happened to the world? There’s mention of a flu, and climate change. Peter Heller doesn’t say if the two are connected. Whatever flu it was, was pretty peculiar: it’s killed most of humanity. It’s killed some fish – not all the fish, but most of the kind Hig likes to catch. It’s finished off the tigers and the elephants. It’s killed all the geese and most of the elk – but that doesn’t stop Hig killing them anyway; the shooting of the mother Elk is a peculiarly cold, cruel, unpleasant passage in a book over-flowing with such things. The flu seems to have left the deer, rabbits, bears, coyotes wolves and rats untouched. I’m not sure what sort of a disease or manner of climate change would have this effect, it feels kind of pat, a device to make Hig emote, which he does often, when he’s mourning the animals he used to enjoy hunting, that aren’t there for him to kill any more.

There’s a lot about hunting in The Dog Stars, a great deal of violence, a delighted obsession in weaponry of all kinds; the book is a hymn to hunting and killing – What’s with all the killing? A society decimated by some type of flu (this bizarre flu that kills certain specific mammal species but leaves biologically-related others entirely untouched) and – just like In every other end-of-the-world book – everyone is fighting and killing each other, and over what? If the population is a fraction of what it was, wouldn’t there be more of what’s left to go around? Wouldn’t the urge to survive bring people together? There are rarely any communities in these books, just addled loners intent on staying alive by making sure everything around them ends up dead. I just don’t get it.

There’s not as much violence here as in some other apocalyptic fiction – The Road is one example, but in The Road, the violence was understandable, it was hideous but it had a point; the violence in The Dog Stars really doesn’t, or isn’t explained in any way that makes sense. Cormac McCarthy also had the good sense not to detail what went wrong in his dystopia, there’s an attempt at an explanation of the nature of the disaster in The Dog Stars, but it’s illogical, it doesn’t work.

The writing is what saves it. The style is experimental, at times beautifully written, poetical and original, but the characters all left me cold, there was not one human I was able to connect to or care about in the slightest. The dog is the only character I wanted to survive. The plot is the same as every other post-apocalypse, dystopian, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it book you’ve ever read.

In short, the violence is sickening and relentless, the plot is unoriginal. There is some cringingly badly written sex. It was an interesting reading experience, but for me, not a very enjoyable one.