The apocalypse ain’t what it used to be.
That’s not to say it’s dropped all its end-of-the-world, doom-and-gloom garb in favour of bright summery colours and a jaunty gait, but an increasing number of writers are beginning to ask themselves, in ways usually poetic and insightful – once the apocalypse has exhausted its first violent civilisation-ending burst of energy, what happens then?
Once upon a time, all literature served us up was the grim certainty that the world had ended and survival, if fate was so generous as to hand you that prize, was about the best you could hope for.
Ah yes, hope. Forget about that, and happiness, and fulfilment and contentment and satisfaction. Anything that reeked of the good things lost in the apocalypse were long gone, a relic of a bygone era where takeaway coffee and lazy vacations held sway before death and privation.
But then writers like Peter Heller came along and gave us The Dog Stars, a story about one man, Hig, who survives a vehemently aggressive flu outbreak that wipes out 99 point whatever of humanity, leaving the survivors to shoot at each other, to scrabble for the survival scraps that fate absentmindedly drops off the table.
A recreational pilot back in the day before things went horribly pear-shaped and he lost his beloved wife Melissa who succumbed to the disease from which genetic predisposition had spared him, he retreats from his home in Denver to a remote airport where his Cessna, which becomes a key to his survival in a new brutal age since it allows him to fly around and see if enemies are incoming and to gather luxuries like soda pop, is parked.
He is joined in time by gun-nut Bangley, who cares for his ammunition and little else, a rough, taciturn man who nonetheless grudgingly falls into a partnership and friendship of sorts with Hig, their joint task to see off acquisitive, violent interlopers and stay alive long enough to justify living through the hell of the apocalypse.
But like other characters in hopeful books about the aftermath of the end of the world such as those in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, and even the oft-blighted denizens of The Walking Dead, Hig begins to question whether simply surviving is enough.
It’s not something he gives a lot of thought to since growing food, going hunting for deer, and simply staying alive consume a lot of his time.
There is also his faithful dog Jasper, who unlike the elephants and the elk, survived the mini mass extinction that accompanied the flu-accompanying uptick in climate change, proof that the earth was earnestly intent on ridding itself of its Homo Sapien pestilence.
Hig describes Jasper as “Little brother. My heart.” and with Melissa gone, Bangley only offering grudging friendship and the simple act of survival about the best he can wish for, his dog and constant companion is his main attachment to the real business of living.
What is transportively wonderful about The Dog Stars is that Heller manages to infuse Hig and his oft-benighted existence with an enduring sense of quiet optimism. Despite everything, all the loss and the terror and the sadness, Hig still takes solace in the majesty of nature, in the possibility that being alive can mean more than simply putting one foot in front of the other and not dying.
It helps that in the old days Hig was an amateur poet, a man who wrote many poems, many for his wife, and who even at the end of the world takes pause to lyrically muse on the world around him.
“The moss I wonder how old. It is dry and light to the touch, almost crumbly, but in the trees it moves like sad pennants.”
He likely wouldn’t describe himself as happy but he is cautiously, poetically hopeful in quiet, understated ways and after an unexpectedly traumatic event sends him fleeing the airport in search of somewhere unknowable and unspoken that offer him the fulfilment of that reckless hope, he meets Cima (and her gruff father) who after trying to kill him, end up as his unexpected family.
While the love story is a little slender and under-developed, it does a nice job of bolstering the idea that holding onto hope in the apocalypse, something that ever-practical Bangley regards with palpable disdain, might not be a quixotic undertaking after all.
The Dog Stars is funny, poetic, insightful and heartfelt, a sparsely-elegant tribute to the human spirit which can, even the darkest and bleakest of moments hold onto the idea that there might be something more, even when all the something mores of the world seemed to have completely disappeared from sight.
In a lot of ways injecting hope into an apocalyptic situation gives a far more rounded view of the human condition that most bog standard end of the world tales; yes humanity can be gobsmackingly brutal, nasty and cruel, and no doubt civilisation would fall; but we are also capable, and Hig is the poster for this sentiment, of beauty, expectation and hope, and while no one wants to test this out thank you very much, this deeply-meaningful, poetic book offers hope that even when all appears lost and there is no reason to expect anything good from a now-blighted world, that perhaps fate is not completely vindictive after all and tomorrow might just be worth sticking around for, come what may.