Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dog Stars

How will the world end? Or at least humanity's part of it? War? Resource depletion? Pandemic? Asteroid? Of course I don't know. I hope we can learn to take better care of this world, and of one another, so we can  carry on here for a very long time. I also hope we can develop space settlements similar to what is described in the novel 2312 that I read recently. It would be nice to have an off-site backup for humanity. SpaceX and Curiosity* notwithstanding, that's probably going to take a while.

Meanwhile a lot of authors are thinking and writing about the end of the world in one form or another. I have read a fair amount of post-apocalyptic fiction in my time. Not sure why. I like a good story, and I'm curious about how things might turn out if things go bad for a lot more of us than is the case now. In the last two days, I read what may the best post-apocalyptic novel ever (for me anyway). The Dog Stars takes place in an unspecified but very near future, about 9 years after an especially vicious flu pandemic has wiped out over 99% of the human population. It seems totally plausible.

The narrator, Hig, lives at a small airport in Colorado. His only neighbor is a heavily armed survivalist, and together they manage to survive the occasional attacks by bands of desperate survivors looking for food and whatever else they can find. They are armed and prepared and they do not negotiate with these people. Hig flies patrols of their "perimeter" in his 1956 Cessna to spot trouble early, while Bangley handles the "ground war." Hig's best friend is his dog Jasper, and with his wife and everyone else he knew dead in the pandemic, his bond with Jasper is an important part of why he is still around. There are some other survivors who live a few miles away, a small group of Mennonites who are infected with "the blood," a wasting disease that is thought to be highly contagious (it somehow became common among survivors of the flu pandemic). Hig lands his plane on their farm sometimes and helps them out in various ways, without direct contact for fear of infection. He is a kind and caring person who is also an excellent hunter, able to take down a deer or a marauding human when the need arises.

That sets up the story, and I won't give away any more of the plot details, because it's a great story with vivid characters and a lot of interesting twists (no zombies, no monsters, no space or sciencey stuff, though there is a hint at one point that the virus that wiped us out was engineered in a lab - in California - but no one knows for sure). There's also a fair amount of "flying lore" built into the story which appealed to my pilot side. But the real appeal is Peter Heller's use of language. Heller is a poet who has written a lot of non-fiction. This is his first novel. The writing style simulates to some extent Hig's stream of consciousness, and at first you may be bothered by the lack of quotation marks and other "navigation aids." And also the incomplete sentences and even fragments. But. It seemed natural to me after a dozen or so pages.

The real beauty is in how he observes and connects things. He loves the woods, the mountains, the birds, the streams, the sky, everything in nature. And his dog. And his airplane. And his late wife. And poetry. And fishing. Somehow all of these things connect to create a personality that seems vividly real. Hig builds an inner world out of these parts, and you can see why it is worth fighting to go on as one of the few people left alive on earth. But what if one more thing is taken away?

I will say that this is the most uplifting post-apocalyptic novel I have ever read. Not a feel-good story exactly. But a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and to the beauty of the world, in spite of almost anything. Post-apocalyptic fiction for people who don't like post-apocalyptic fiction. Maybe.

* This week the Mars Society sent members an email talking about the relatively low cosmic radiation levels that Curiosity has measured in its first first few days on the surface of Mars, saying that this level (about the same as astronauts experience in low Earth orbit) bodes well for human exploration of the Red Planet.

1 comment:

Craig H Collins said...

Bruce, I'd like to share your (and perhaps Heller's) sense of optimism. Life on earth has existed about 1 billion years. But in another billion years "according to Wikipedia" the increase in the Sun's energy output will likely raise Earth's temperature to the point where liquid water cannot exist. Working backwards from that point, there will be some "last people who are able to inhabit Earth as we know it." That point in time will probably be generations and generations away -- in fact, we may not even recognize those final beings as human, given time and evolutionary pressures. My point is this: what responsibility do I have to make sure that beings a billion years from now (who may be nothing like me) have a future?

Now, just to be the devil's advocate, I will reduce this responsibility time period to a million years. Then to a thousand years. Then to a hundred years. Then to a number of years just beyond the expected lifetimes of anyone living on Earth right now.

My point is that there is a continuum here, but it is hard to worry about our oceans boiling away when there is so much other injustice in our here and now. I don't know what the answer is.

Nonetheless the book sounds like an interesting read, and I think I will order it.