Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars” is a novel that presents a vision of apocalypse and its protagonist’s attempt survive it. The novel presents a situation in which an epidemic has wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population and in which scattered survivors are forced to contend with barbaric raids made by individuals who have entirely regressed to a state prior to that of what would be considered to be civilization. As such, it can be argued to possess two key tropes of contemporary interest. The first of these is a fascination with possible ecological catastrophe and the second is the threat of social regression and the fear of large groups of individuals manifesting brutal characteristics when they are no longer under the sway of civilization. What it important about the novel, however, and what allows it to be especially relevant to the contemporary world is the fact that it does simply manifest a dominant paranoia about these two things, but that it also actively suggests that the collapse of civilization may provide a space for spiritual and political renewal.
The potential for this renewal is presented throughout the novel, both in terms of explicit discourse on the nature of civilization and also in terms of its descriptions of the pastoral behaviours that its protagonist, Hig, engages in in order to survive. Chapter four opens with descriptions of these behaviours which are evidently reminiscent of a state of being close to the natural world which is denied those who currently in live in large cities and who are beholden to the demands of modern life. Hig lives with his dog, Jasper, and states that he “judged the threat of night frost over and furrowed and strung the rows of the garden, and drilled and planted under a benign sun which warmed the back of my neck and turned the fur of Jasper’s back pleasantly hot under my hands” (2013, 52). This sense of pastoral closeness and routine can be compared with descriptions of other survivors who commit rape and cynical murder for enjoyment. Early in the novel Hig distinguishes himself from these individuals by claiming that he is “Nice” and that they are “not Nice” (21). The violence that Hig must engage in in order to defend himself against those how are not Nice is viscerally described throughout the novel however it is also made clear Hig himself is able to withstand falling into the same state as those against whom he must defend himself.
As such, the novel both presents a situation which manifests contemporary fears regarding mob-rule and the collapse of civilization, but it also demonstrates the manner in which these may be resisted. Indeed, in the final sections of the book it is clear that Hig undergoes a process of spiritual renewal in which he is able to put behind him the violence that he has experienced before and to begin to move forward past a mindset that is dedicated to mere survival. Indeed, it is strongly suggested that the closeness that Higs experiences with regard to nature and to his own self-hood is predicated on the previous collapse of civilization.
In conclusion, therefore, the novel can be taken to argue that the contemporary fear of a collapse of civilization should not simply be read as a fear of a descent in barbarism, but also as a fear of the fact that civilization is itself already barbaric and that it must be removed in its current form progress is to made in society.
- Heller, Peter. Dog Stars. New York: Vintage, 2013.