Shortly after The Dog Stars opens, we find the novel's hero, the abruptly named Hig, mourning the eternal passing of the humble trout:
If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I'm not saying I did, it's because the trout are gone, every one. Brookies, rainbows, browns, cutthroats, cutbows, every one. (p. 3)
Some time later, we learn that the reason the trout died out is because the waters of the mountain streams they once swam in have become too warm for them. It is rather jarring, therefore, a hundred pages further in, to find the narrator paddling around in a brook so cold it numbs his circulation:
I'd been wading all afternoon and the current was cold where it pushed up against my knees and thighs but my feet were long numb with that kind of dead warmth. Starting to get chilled. (p. 101)
This rather thoughtless inconsistency is not the only problem with The Dog Stars, but it does serve as a kind of leitmotif for the novel's irksomeness. I've seen a number of reviews comparing Heller's novel with Cormac McCarthy's 2006 classic The Road. If you think Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music bears a similarity with Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, there's a chance you might grant this comparison some weight, but surely not otherwise.
The events of the novel take place in Colorado, nine years after a flu pandemic has wiped out a large proportion of the world's population, followed more or less immediately by "the blood," an auto-immune disease that goes on to pick off most of the survivors. Our narrator, Hig, is one of the less than one percent who proved immune. Following the death of his wife Melissa in one of the predictably nightmarish public flu wards, Hig takes himself off to his local aerodrome, where he teams up with a gun-crazy loner named Bruce Bangley. Hig patrols their perimeter in his 1959 Cessna, Bangley sits in his attic stronghold, picking off any "visitors" with his lovingly nurtured personal arsenal of deadly weaponry and tinkering with his latest project, a homemade grenade launcher, just in case the assault rifles and custom-made handguns aren't enough. When he's not on patrol duty, Hig walks the mountain trails with his faithful dog, Jasper, fishing for carp and hunting deer. But Jasper is old—Hig doesn't like to calculate just how old—and one cold night on the mountainside he dies in his sleep. The death of Jasper triggers an outpouring of grief in Hig—for his lost wife, his lost world, for everything. He loads up the Cessna with supplies and, bidding a temporary farewell to Bangley, sets off in search of a mysterious airfield from which once, some years previously, he heard someone briefly answer his call sign through the static.
The Dog Stars is not badly written and in a sense that's part of the problem, because it would be much easier to dismiss it if it were. Heller's prose is both economical and poetic. Playing itself out entirely in short paragraphs, many of them just a single line in length, the narrative unfolds almost as a series of snapshots, each one distinct, immediate, rich with emotional tone color and linguistic dexterity. There are no bad sentences here, and Heller's voice is direct and open, speaking straight to the heart:
We stayed in a little white clapboard cottage in the village with a view of Noomark from the sleeping porch. That's a little Adirondack mountain that looks like a parody of a mountain, peaky like the Matterhorn but tiny. The little mountain that could. We climbed it often on Saturdays after sleeping in. Trotted happily up the ledgy trail to a rocky top just out of the stunted firs. And in the long evenings we'd take the two single-gear bikes up the paved road to a stone pothole with a little sluicing waterfall, the water always freezing, and we'd strip and jump in. This was our ritual while we waited for our lives to truly begin and I think now that true sweetness can only happen in limbo. I don’t know why. . . . Like it needs that much room, that much space to expand. (p. 210)
Indeed, Heller is absolutely most comfortable when he's describing the natural world, the mountain trails and streams, the mechanics of hunting, fishing and flying, shooting a gun. Heller is already known as a writer of non-fiction narratives of adventure and outdoorsmanship, and when he's writing the thing he cares most about his words pulse effortlessly and convincingly off the page. Heller shows us a world we can lose ourselves in, be mesmerized by. But when he steps outside that comfort zone, things begin to come apart badly.
For a start, Heller seems unable to ascertain the exact nature of the catastrophe he is trying to write about. Is it a flu pandemic or global warming? HIV-type infection, or forest die-back? When a few essentially fit and hardy survivors inherit a flourishing ecosystem teeming with game and crying out to be farmed, why do they feel the need to roam the countryside in motley bands, gunning each other down like renegade marines fighting for survival in a hostile territory? If Hig is shooting venison and catching carp virtually every day, why should poor old Jasper be forced to dine off the flesh of the summarily executed visitors?
Women don't fare too well in the world of The Dog Stars, either. For a long time we don’t see any—unless you count Hig's dead wife Melissa, who smiles radiantly from a series of gauzy flashbacks before begging to be mercy-killed with a pillow over the face, the pneumatic "chicks with guns" in Bangley’s calendar pin-ups, and let's not even talk about the "cunts on a string" on page 85. Then we meet Cima, who with her apple-firm breasts and "sweet butt" seems typecast from her first entrance as a kind of Levis-wearing Eve to Hig's bearded Adam. Indeed, we have to suffer two dozen swooning pages detailing their caring, sharing mutual seduction and transformative coitus. Cima is portrayed for a while as a kind of eternal feminine for the apocalyptic age: she's a fully trained medic, knows how to handle a gun, and cooks a mean shepherd's pie. But when the chips are down and the killing starts, she's suddenly in desperate need of manly protection:
Cima sat. Hadn't unbuckled. I had never seen her like this. She seemed in shock. She was in shock. I walked around to her door opened it. Her long hand pressed against the panel over the oil pressure gauge and a new bruise spread along her forearm. She turned. Her eyes were bleary. (p. 278)
Discovering that the mysterious radio signal is actually a snare, luring unwary pilots down to a booby-trapped runway, Hig and Cima's ex-navy-SEAL dad decide to enact a bit of summary justice on the perpetrators, a psycho granny and granddad with a disturbing line in odd collectibles. The denouement of this episode, a riff on all those serial-killer thrillers that end with the cops breaking into the villain's secret chamber, stuffed to bursting with the hoarded trinkets of his victims, I found so ludicrous as to be comedic, which I'm sure is not the effect Heller intended:
In the room that would have been the living room, where the TV might have been, one wall was pegged, and on a hundred pegs the caps, mostly baseball caps with the logos of FBOs, aircraft service centers, aviation specialists of all types. . . . The rest of the walls were covered with shelves. On the shelves, alternating, were pairs of spectacles – sunglasses, reading glasses, bifocals, everything—and crudely stuffed birds of every type . . .
Hobbies still going strong, Pops said. That's a relief.
Fuckin A. (p. 286)
And that's before you get to the blood-drinking cats. The marauders "dressed like goddamn Mongols" (p. 304)? Don’t get me started.
The sad truth is that every scene of what passes for apocalyptic drama in The Dog Stars feels unconvincing. This is unmistakably that kind of novel where SF is merely a stage dressing, a bolt-on, a way of marking the novel out from all the other earnest first novels about finding yourself in college or in the big city or in the backwoods. In the hastily sketched, derivative images of mass panic and burned out cars, desperate final phone calls and hospitals in the terminal stages of overload, every line feels uncomfortable with itself, redolent only with the sense that the author has no genuinely heartfelt interest in what he is writing. He's aching to get back to telling us about how to calculate the maximum take-off weight for a 1959 Cessna from an inadequately makeshift runway, or why an old-fashioned side-loading hunting rifle turns out to be your surest weapon when you’re in a siege situation.
In comparison with the staring-eyed and gaunt-cheeked, mercilessly crushing claustrophobia of The Road, Heller's homespun apocalypse is laughably escapable, and if The Dog Stars reminded me not at all of McCarthy's masterpiece, it did very much recapitulate some of the problems that so incapacitated Karen Thompson Walker's "slow catastrophe" The Age of Miracles. That book, also published in 2012, also a debut, seemed similarly hamstrung, fatally suspended between the science fictional and the quotidian and doing no service to either.
Heller as a writer is not without talent. His attention to small details, the thoughtful control he has exercised over the structure of his novel and above all his clear love for language is ample proof of that and is to be commended. My advice to him for next time, however, would be to employ more honesty in communicating the story that truly interests him. The Dog Stars contains altogether too many apocalypses. Why Heller should wheel out this confused and confusing jumble of half-cooked ideas, this unoriginal use of too-familiar SF tropes, when it seems obvious that what he really wanted to write was a book about a man, his plane, his dog, and the truth he finds in nature, remains a mystery to me.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28 and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in 2013. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.