(2012) Peter Heller, Headline Review, £7.99, pbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-0-755-39262-9
Forty year-old Hig loves to fly his 1956 Cessna plane and this he now does most days. But he does so not just for enjoyment but to survive!
Nine years ago a flu-related, SARS-type virus has wiped out the vast majority of the population and in North America there are just a very few survivors trying to get by in a desolate continent that is beginning to return back to the wild. With his plane he can leave his isolated, rural airfield scout for resources. Eight miles away in one direction are the first trees and then mountains. Eight miles is not much to traverse but the mountains provide a barrier. In the other three directions there are 30 miles of open plain. This would take a full day to cross on foot and so a daily air patrol provides a safety check. Still there are visitors. The visitors usually come at night and though the visits are becoming increasingly infrequent Hig is always prepared.
With Hig is his dog Jasper, and with them both is Bangley. Bangley is older and a survival enthusiasts who has an arsenal of weapons. Hig patrols and scavenges. Bangley provides cover. It is a partnership born of necessity and one that works.
Then, one day when out on patrol, came a brief radio signal. It was an intercept from a plane requesting landing permission: just a brief half of a conversation amidst a sea of static. There was another flyer out there. The problem was that the airport in question was beyond the Cessna's fuel point-of-no-return and so going there was not an option: unless, that is, Hig did not mind the likelihood of not being able to refuel and get back. So Hig let the months and years pass without going. But the memory of that radio message remained…
Peter Heller is a US writer who has made his mark with adventure novels but more notably with non-fiction outdoor, explorer books: his Kook won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award. Now, I have to say that I am always a little wary of non-SF/F/H writers who choose a well worn SFnal trope, and there is little more SFnal than post-apocalyptic novels. However I have to say that he has, with The Dog Stars, given us a very readable SF novel. That he is known in the mundane fiction world and that Headline Review is not and SF/F imprint will mean that this novel is likely to appeal to a mainstream readership as well as SF fans.
The Dog Stars has a solid plot arc, excellent characterisation (Hig and Bangley would not under normal circumstances have become friends but are now bound by the mutual need to survive) and the narrative successfully conveys a sense of potential impeding unknown menace from beyond the airfield, not to mention playing on readers' suspicions that the veneer of civilization wrapping our technological society is all too thin and one that could not unimaginably be stripped in a comparative blink of the eye to leave us floundering. Here, in real life the authorities do warn us of flu pandemic risks (for one example and another), and I have even included this in our site team's future predictions. In this sense the back cover blurb quote from The Guardian (its 'Book of the Year' column no less) of it being 'an airborne version of The Road' is apt but, SF readers make no mistake, Heller's treatment of its SFnal trope is far more robust than The Road's.
So, you may ask, given that this is so good, why has this novel not received SFnal acclaim? Well it has. In 2013 it was short-listed for the Clarke SF Award. OK, so it did not win, but the past couple of years the Clarke jury has been on form and some very fine novels have been short-listed including this one: so short-listing is in this case accolade enough. The reason for it not winning are obvious: the post-apocalyptic trope is a well-worn one in SF and, though Heller's book is a fine example of this sub-genre, it actually offers little new and certainly nothing hugely special in the way of SF excellence. But make no mistake, it is a solid read. I suspect that Heller may not write much more SF, though his 'outdoor' writing does lend itself to post-apocalyptic tales (not to mention stories of survival in exotic landscapes) and should he ever return to this theme (or related SFnal ones) then you may well want to check him out. Meanwhile I commend The Dog Stars to you and very timeously for, though this book came out last year, the paperback has only just (2013) been released.
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