Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller

Reviving a blog is always a bit of a challenge: does consistency in theme or style really matter if the blog hasn’t been used in years?  I’ve decided that the most important factor is having something worth sharing, whether or not it fits with the blog’s history, and the first work of fiction I’ve read in years is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the last page.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was a “hot” title, coming in to our library system with patron requests already piling up.  I can honestly say I do not know this author, and so do not know if it was the author or the topic of the book that created the demand.  The title was intriguing to me because I wondered if there might be some aspect of astronomy to the story.  Short answer: not enough.

This is a story about living in a post-Apocalyptic Earth, not so much with the fashionable zombie motif, but certainly with the “every man for himself” mentality we all expect civilization to devolve into once some cataclysm strikes.  In this book, it is brought on by a pandemic — a flu — and our narrator is a mostly-intact survivor of this scourge.

The brain damage resulting from an extended fever of 105 is the explanation for the narrator’s disjointedly fragmented sentences and, presumably, for the author’s complete failure to obey traditional rules of punctuation.  Stylish as that might be, I found it to be my second-greatest disappointment with the book.  The author knows who has spoken which line, but the reader does not, so the “he said” or “she said” notes can really help a great deal in watching a story develop.  I hated that I had to stop and re-read dialogue passages to get a clear sense of who (might have) said what.  It interrupts the story, and I feel that is never a good thing.

In a book such as The Dog Stars, the author has to create a new reality in which the story will take place.  The reader needs to be put there and kept there, in that new reality, in order to have the experience.  If the writing makes the reader stumble and re-read for clarity, that means the reader has been tossed out of the story, back into his or her own reality.  I would prefer that my fiction be presented well enough to engross me, to put me into the new world and let me stay there with the characters and see what transpires.  Punctuation, properly employed, can allow that to happen.  And while breaking the rules can help to create an effect — in this case, perhaps, to show us the narrator’s disjointed thinking — the fragmented sentences and tangential directions achieved that well enough.  Proper punctuation would have been a kindness to the readers that allowed us to stay in the story, stay with the character.

That said, the dystopia Heller created was not the best I’ve encountered.  In some ways, it was a pale shadow of Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon: we encountered pockets of near-normalcy, adjusted to the dangerous new times in both books.  However, Frank gave us many examples of how the survivors reacted to the new reality, how they learned to cope, and how they dealt with those who could not.  Heller had a lot of the solutions already figured out, told us how it was, and expected us to be fine with that.  Perhaps this suited some readers, but I’ve been a science fiction fan for decades, and my favorite authors have respected my curiosity about the survival aspects — the science and engineering tidbits — that help to bring me into the new world.  Anyone who has read Robert Silverberg’s expansion on Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, David Brin’s The Postman, the aforementioned Alas, Babylon, or even Rober C. O”Brien’s Z is for Zachariah — a YA book! — will be disappointed with Heller’s weak effort here.

There were stars, yes, and there was a dog.   For all the role this dog, Jasper, had, I’d say this could have been the last-ever episode of Lassie.  “Gee, I really liked Jasper and how he’d growl and warn me about threats even though he was stone-deaf and really no help at all but I made doggy treats out of the people we killed and that made him happy so I was sad when he died.”  There you have it, as if it were quoted from the book — which it wasn’t, but the punctuation was about right.

Would I recommend The Dog Stars?  No.  Perhaps Peter Heller has better books out there, so I will try to read something else he’s written before I decide he’s just not an author I can enjoy, but this book would not make me a fan of his.  However, it is worth noting that, although I did not like the story, it still left me thinking about it, if only in terms of how I might have written it myself.  And, any book that gets the reader thinking can’t be all bad.