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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“Leave it to Peter Heller to imagine a postapocalyptic world that contains as much loveliness as it does devastation. His hero, Hig, flies a 1956 Cessna (his dog as copilot) around what was once Colorado, chasing all the same things we chase in these pre-annihilation days: love, friendship, the solace of the natural world, and the chance to perform some small kindness. The Dog Stars is a wholly compelling and deeply engaging debut.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
 
A riveting, powerful novel about a pilot living in a world filled with loss—and what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace.

Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and to pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life—something like his old life—exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return—not enough fuel to get him home—following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face—in the people he meets, and in himself—is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.

Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.

This ebook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.

Excerpt

i

I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than almost anything.

My name is Hig, one name. Big Hig if you need another.

If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one. Brookies, rainbows, browns, cutthroats, cutbows, every one.

The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.

Melissa, my wife, was an old hippy. Not that old. She looked good. In this story she might have been Eve, but I’m not Adam. I am more like Cain. They didn’t have a brother like me.

Did you ever read the Bible? I mean sit down and read it like it was a book? Check out Lamentations. That’s where we’re at, pretty much. Pretty much lamenting. Pretty much pouring our hearts out like water.

They said at the end it would get colder after it gets warmer. Way colder. Still waiting. She’s a surprise this old earth, one big surprise after another since before she separated from the moon who circles and circles like the mate of a shot goose.

No more geese. A few. Last October I heard the old bleating after dusk and saw them, five against the cold bloodwashed blue over the ridge. Five all fall, I think, next April none.

I hand pump the 100 low lead aviation gas out of the old airport tank when the sun is not shining, and I have the truck too that was making the fuel delivery. More fuel than the Beast can burn in my lifetime if I keep my sorties local, which I plan to, I have to. She’s a small plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut. Cream and blue. I’m figuring I’m dead before the Beast gives up the final ghost. I will buy the farm. Eighty acres of bottomland hay and corn in a country where there is still a cold stream coming out of the purple mountains full of brookies and cuts.

Before that I will make my roundtrips. Out and back.

*

I have a neighbor. One. Just us at a small country airport a few miles from the mountains. A training field where they built a bunch of houses for people who couldn’t sleep without their little planes, the way golfers live on a golf course. Bangley is the name on the registration of his old truck, which doesn’t run anymore. Bruce Bangley. I fished it out of the glove box looking for a tire pressure gauge I could take with me in the Beast. A Wheat Ridge address. I don’t call him that, though, what’s the point, there’s only two of us. Only us for at least a radius of eight miles, which is the distance of open prairie to the first juniper woods on the skirt of the mountain. I just say, Hey. Above the juniper is oak brush then black timber. Well, brown. Beetle killed and droughted. A lot of it standing dead now, just swaying like a thousand skeletons, sighing like a thousand ghosts, but not all. There are patches of green woods, and I am their biggest fan. I root for them out here on the plain. Go Go Go Grow Grow Grow! That’s our fight song. I yell it out the window as I fly low over. The green patches are spreading year by year. Life is tenacious if you give it one little bit of encouragement. I could swear they hear me. They wave back, wave their feathery arms back and forth down low by their sides, they remind me of women in kimonos. Tiny steps or no steps, wave wave hands at your sides.

I go up there on foot when I can. To the greener woods. Funny to say that: not like I have to clear my calendar. I go up to breathe. The different air. It’s dangerous, it’s an adrenalin rush I could do without. I have seen elk sign. Not so old. If there are still elk. Bangley says no way. Way, but. Never seen one. Seen plenty deer. I bring the .308 and I shoot a doe and I drag her back in the hull of a kayak which I sawed the deck off so it’s a sled. My green sled. The deer just stayed on with the rabbits and the rats. The cheat grass stayed on, I guess that’s enough.

Before I go up there I fly it twice. One day, one night with the goggles. The goggles are pretty good at seeing down through trees if the trees aren’t too heavy. People make pulsing green shadows, even asleep. Better than not checking. Then I make a loop south and east, come back in from the north. Thirty miles out, at least a day for a traveler. That’s all open, all plains, sage and grass and rabbit brush and the old farms. The brown circles of fields like the footprint of a crutch fading into the prairie. Hedgerows and windbreaks, half the trees broken, blown over, a few still green by a seep or along a creek. Then I tell Bangley.

I cover the eight miles dragging the empty sled in two hours, then I am in cover. I can still move. It’s a long way back with a deer, though. Over open country. Bangley covers me from halfway out. We still have the handsets and they still recharge with the panels. Japanese built, good thing. Bangley has a .408 CheyTac sniper rifle set up on a platform he built. A rangefinder. My luck. A gun nut. A really mean gun nut. He says he can pot a man from a mile off. He has done. I’ve seen it more than once. Last summer he shot a girl who was chasing me across the open plain. A young girl, a scarecrow. I heard the shot, stopped, left the sled, went back. She was thrown back over a rock, a hole where her waist should have been, just about torn in half. Her chest was heaving, panting, her head twisted to the side, one black eye shiny and looking up at me, not fear, just like a question, burning, like of all things witnessed this one couldn’t be believed. Like that. Like fucking why?

That’s what I asked Bangley, fucking why.

She would have caught you.

So what? I had a gun, she had a little knife. To like protect her from me. She maybe wanted food.

Maybe. Maybe she’d slit your throat in the middle of the night.

I stared at him, his mind going that far, to the middle of the night, me and her. Jesus. My only neighbor. What can I say to Bangley? He has saved my bacon more times. Saving my bacon is his job. I have the plane, I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle. He knows I know he knows: he can’t fly, I don’t have the stomach for killing. Any other way probably just be one of us. Or none.

I also have Jasper, son of Daisy, which is the best last line of alarm.

So when we get sick of rabbits and sunfish from the pond, I get a deer. Mostly I just want to go up there. It feels like church, hallow and cool. The dead forest swaying and whispering, the green forest full of sighs. The musk smell of deer beds. The creeks where I always pray to see a trout. One fingerling. One big old survivor, his green shadow idling against the green shadows of the stones.

Eight miles of open ground to the mountain front, the first trees. That is our perimeter. Our safety zone. That is my job.

He can concentrate his firepower to the west that way. That’s how Bangley talks. Because it’s thirty miles out, high plains all other directions, more than a day’s walk, but just a couple of hours west to the first trees. The families are south ten miles but they don’t bother us. That’s what I call them. They are something like thirty Mennonites with a blood disease that hit after the flu. Like a plague but slow burning. Something like AIDS I think, maybe more contagious. The kids were born with it and it makes them all sick and weak and every year some die.

We have the perimeter. But if someone hid. In the old farmsteads. In the sage. The willows along a creek. Arroyos, too, with undercut banks. He asked me that once: how do I know. How do I know someone is not inside our perimeter, in all that empty country, hiding, waiting to attack us? But thing is I can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book I have read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one. I know.

I know, I think: if I am going to die—no If—it will be on one of these trips to the mountains. Crossing open ground with the full sled. Shot in the back with an arrow.

Bangley a long time ago gave me bulletproof, one of the vests in his arsenal. He has all kinds of shit. He said it’ll stop any handgun, an arrow, but with a rifle it depends, I better be lucky. I thought about that. We’re supposed to be the only two living souls but the families in at least hundreds of square miles, the only survivors, I better be lucky. So I wear the vest because it’s warm, but if it’s summer I mostly don’t. When I wear it, I feel like I’m waiting for something. Would I stand on a train platform and wait for a train that hasn’t come for months? Maybe. Sometimes this whole thing feels just like that.
Peter Heller|Author Q&A

About Peter Heller

Peter Heller - The Dog Stars

Photo © Tory Read

Peter Heller is the best-selling author of The Dog Stars. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry. An award-winning adventure writer and a longtime contributor to NPR, Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook, The Whale Warriors, and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Author Q&A

A conversation with Peter Heller
Author of THE DOG STARS
 
Q: You've set out to master surfing in a year (as described in the book Kook), traveled with eco-pirates taking down Japanese whaling ships (Whale Warriors), and were part of what has been called one of the greatest river expeditions in history through Tibet’s notorious Tsangpo Gorge (Hell or High Water). And that's not counting exploits recorded for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men's Journal. THE DOG STARS is your first work of fiction. Were you looking for a new adventure? What drew you to fiction now? 
 
A: Fiction is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.  Great fiction and poetry are what I always most admired.  When I got out of college I worked on them both—short stories and poems—while I did every other job under the sun.  Cutting wood, lobster fishing, teaching kayaking, guiding river trips.  Pizza delivery.  When I started writing about expeditions and the outdoors for a living I thought I’d found the dream job.  It was.  So I was happily diverted into non-fiction, explored some of the wildest places on earth on assignment, and the non-fiction books grew out of these experiences.  Two years ago I took a deep breath.  I had money saved, I had some time, and I felt that I might come to, at last, what was for me the greatest adventure of all: writing a novel.  The Dog Stars grew out of this sense of excitement.
 
 
Q: What were some of the challenges (and maybe the joys?) of writing your first novel after years as a successful non-fiction author? Were there any surprises?
 
A: It was like coming home.  My spirit just sang.  One thing I knew was that I never wanted to know what was going to happen next, what the ending would be.  With all the non-fiction books, of course I always knew.  There is this incredible sense of adventure when you kayak a river that has never been done.  Or that was maybe run but never well described.  You come around a tight bend in a walled canyon and you have no idea what you’ll see around the corner.  It might be a waterfall.  I wanted that experience again in writing.  I wanted to be surprised, shocked, thrilled, awed.  Maybe terrified.  I called my old friend Carlton Cuse, who was the showrunner and producer of the TV show Lost.  We’ve been best friends since we were fifteen.  I said, “Carlton, do you know any novelists that just start with a first line and have no idea where it will lead?”  He didn’t hesitate.  “Oh, yeah, lots.  I’ve worked with a bunch.  Stephen King, for one; Elmore Leonard.”  I was jazzed.  It kind of gave me permission.  I sat down and wrote a first line and it was Hig talking and he spoke The Dog Stars.  Of everything I’ve ever done, that was the most thrilling.
 
 
Q: The core of THE DOG STARS is Hig, who is living in an abandoned airport with his beloved dog, Jasper, when we first meet him. How did you first "meet," imagine, conceive of Hig?
 
A:  I was sitting in my local coffee shop, where I like to write—and incidentally where I met my wife, whom I was too shy to talk to and so wooed with a note written on a napkin—and I set down the first line of the book.  Then the second and third.  The fourth and fifth lines were: “My name is Hig, one name.  Big Hig if you need another.”  That’s how I met him.  I knew immediately that this was a voice worth listening to.  The depth of heartbreak and trauma were evident, but so was this formidable toughness combined with a huge love of the world, a generosity of spirit and the sensitivities of an artist.  I was transfixed.  The story is told from his point of view, first person, so all I had to do was get out of the way.
 
 
Q: Hig's story takes many twists and turns, including some near death encounters and, perhaps equally panic-inducing, a potential love affair. Without giving away too much, can you talk about the journey you wanted Hig to take and why a rather dark near-future was the setting you chose?
 
A:  I have a good friend, Kirk, who is one of the world’s leading paleobotanists. He studies seventy million year old plant fossils, so you might say he has the Long View.  One of his areas of expertise is the “K-T Boundary”, the geologic layer that represents the line between when there were lots of dinosaurs and when they all went extinct about 65 million years ago.  Kirk is an aficionado of extinction.  We go to breakfast now and then and one of the topics that always comes up is how we’re now in the middle of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction, this one caused by us.  This often leads to imaginings of what the apocalypse will look like when it comes, which it surely must.  The eco-sphere as we know it is unraveling so fast.  The odd thing is, these are not depressing discussions.  To us, they are exciting, riveting.  Scary, too.  But the prospect that the earth may try to shrug off Homo sapiens after what he has inflicted on millions of other species does not seem unjust.  What would you do when everything really hits the fan?  How would you reckon the losses?  How do you reckon the losses that are occurring now?  I think that when I came at last to writing a novel this is the subject that was most on my mind.  And in my heart.  I am, if I am moved by anything, profoundly moved by nature.  Have been since I was the smallest child.  And moved by her struggles right now.  These themes had to be central to this book.
 
 
Q: Another main character and great love of Hig's is the Beast, his 1956 Cessna plane. It just so happens you own a 1956 Cessna and are a pilot yourself. For those of us who don't (and can't) pilot a plane would you tell us what it's like to fly?
 
A:  Flying!  Pulse quickens just talking about it.  Like Hig, I came to it as something that I’d been meant to do my whole life.  To see the world from the air, the way landscapes, topography fit together, how the creeks thread, the rivers unwind.  You get this sense flying a small plane not too far from the ground that the world below is perfect.  Neat.  Everything in its place.  And you are detached from it.  It’s like flying through a landscape painting.  All the earthly problems, sickness, poverty, death, they vanish, they can’t touch you.  Then you get hit by turbulence and you are jolted sideways and you stop being all poetic and right the controls and get an adrenalin rush like nothing else.  So fun.  I got my pilot’s license in twenty days in northern Montana with crazy bush pilots.  It was an assignment for Men’s Journal: How to Be a Bush Pilot in Three Weeks kind of thing.  When I showed up I didn’t even know what a flap was, a rudder.  It was like drinking from a fire hose.  And I was not a natural.  Dave Hoerner, my instructor, turned to me after one of my landings in the first week and said, “You came in like a sick goose.  That was atrocious!”  He had been a logger all his life.  To haul out and use the word “atrocious” was a very special circumstance.  I loved it.
Q: Can you tell us about the title, THE DOG STARS, and why you chose it?
 
A: It came from Hig’s proclivity to make up constellations when he sleeps out under the stars every night.  He used to have a book of the stars, but now he doesn’t.  So he makes them up.  His are almost
always animals, and his favorite being at this point in his life is his dog Jasper.
 
 
Q: The world Hig inhabits is fully formed and packed with details, from scenes of gardening to mentions of poetry to excitement about the best gun for a particular shot. Was there any research or outside expertise you called on during the writing of THE DOG STARS?
 
A:  Most of the details in the book come from the things I love to do.  But I did get my Navy SEAL friend to take me out to shoot a couple of sniper rifles, which I had never done.  That was eye opening.  And I’ve had a garden over a couple of different summers, but I’m a bad gardener, so I called a friend who is an incredible, prolific, obsessive gardener and had her make sure my details in that piece were correct.
 
 
Q: The book is full of the outdoors and nature – fishing, hunting, camping, even farming. Did you bring your passions to the book or did the demands of the story introduce you to any new passions?
 
A:  Every passion is in here--all things that have brought me great joy.  Well, not farming.  I’ve tried it, and like Bangley, don’t like it much.  I hunt deer and elk out the back fence of our place in western Colorado.  Like Hig, I love to hunt and hate to kill anything.  The off-the-grid living piece came from building a small adobe house out there, off the grid, solar powered, and it took a long time because I’d never built anything on my own.  I love to fly fish.  Really love it.  And to be out in the mountains, on rivers.  I have been on extreme kayak expeditions all over the world and that sense of being on the edge, of not really knowing if you will live through the day or the next, and being somehow okay with that, informed the story and Hig’s situation.  The verdant box canyon in the book is an actual place.  I spent a week there with a master survival instructor—no food, no sleeping bags, tents, or matches.  He taught me to catch trout by hand and start fires with a sage bow and drill.  Five of us slept on piles of pine needles and huddled for warmth.  It made a big impression on me. 
 
One thing, though, that the novel introduced me to was the complete joy of being able to make it all up.  A story, I mean. 
 
 
Q: Who are some of your favorites writers?
 
A: The T.S. Eliot of The Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday, Li Po, Rilke, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Neruda, Haruki Murakami, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, the Marilynne Robinson of Gilead.  The David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest.  Italo Calvino.
 
 
Q: What are you working on now?
 
A: Another novel.  There is no going back.
 
 

Praise

Praise

“Extraordinary. . . . One of those books that makes you happy for literature.” —Junot Díaz, The Wall Street Journal
 
“This end-of-the-world novel [is] more like a rapturous beginning. . . . Remarkable.” —San Francisco Chronicle 
   
“For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again. . . . Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” —Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf
 
“Heart-wrenching and richly written. . . . The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A dreamy, postapocalyptic love letter to things of beauty, big and small.” –Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl 

"Heartbreaking" —The Seattle Times
 
“A brilliant success.” —The New Yorker
 
“Beautifully written and morally challenging” –The Atlantic Monthly

“A book that rests easily on shelves with Dean Koontz, Jack London or Hemingway." —The Missourian

"Dark, poetic, and funny." —Jennifer Reese, NPR

“Terrific. . . . Recalling the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy and the trout-praising beauty of David James Duncan, The Dog Stars makes a compelling case that the wild world will survive the apocalypse just fine; it’s the humans who will have the heavy lifting.” —Outside

“A post-apocalyptic adventure novel with the soul of haiku.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“An elegy for a lost world turns suddenly into a paean to new possibilities. In The Dog Stars, Peter Heller serves up an insightful account of physical, mental, and spiritual survival unfolded in dramatic and often lyrical prose.” —The Boston Globe

“Take the sensibility of Hemingway.  Or James Dickey.  Place it in a world where a flu mutation has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the population. Add in a heartbroken man with a fishing rod, some guns, a small plane. Don’t forget the dog. Now imagine this man retains more hope than might be wise in such a battered and brutal time. More trust. More hunger for love—more capacity for it, too. That’s what Peter Heller has given us in his beautifully written first novel.” —Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins

“With its evocative descriptions of hunting, fishing, and flying, [The Dog Stars], perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero’s zombie flicks.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

 “The Dog Stars can feel less like a 21st-century apocalypse and more like a 19th-century frontier narrative (albeit one in which many, many species have become extinct). There are echoes of Grizzly Adams or Jeremiah Johnson in scenes where Heller lingers on the details of how the water in a flowing stream changes color as the sun moves across the sky.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Full of action and hope…. One you’ll not soon forget.” — The Oklahoman

“A heavenly book, a stellar achievement by a debut novelist that manages to combine sparkling prose with truly memorable, shining, characters.” —The New York Journal of Books

“Gruff, tormented and inspirational, Heller has the astonishing ability to make you laugh, cringe and feel ridiculously vulnerable throughout the novel that will have you rereading certain passages with a hard lump in the pit of your stomach. One of the most powerful reads in years.” —Playboy

The Dog Stars is a wholly compelling and deeply engaging debut.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

“Beautiful, haunting and hopeful. . . . Makes your breath catch and your heart ache.” —Aspen Daily News

“At times funny, at times thrilling, at times simply heartbreaking and always rich with a love of nature, The Dog Stars finds a peculiar poetry in deciding that there’s really no such thing as the end of the world—just a series of decisions about how we live in whatever world we’ve got.” —Salt Lake City Weekly

“What separates Heller’s book from other End of Days stories is that it doesn’t rely on the thematic fail-safes to tell the story—The Dog Stars is quite simply the story of what it’s like to be alonet.” —The Stranger

“Proves a truth we know from our everyday nonfictional lives: Even when it seems like all the humans in the world are only out for themselves, there are always those few who prove you absolutely wrong—in the most surprising of ways.” —Oprah.com

“Heller has created a heartbreakingly moving love story. . . . It’s an ode to what we’ve lost so far, and how we risk losing everything.” —Cincinnati City Beat
 
“A stunning, hope-riddled end-of-the-world story. . . . Bound to become a classic.” —Flavorwire

“Heller’s writing gives you a heartbreaking jolt, like a sudden wakening from a dream.”  —The Seattle Times

“Heller is a masterful storyteller and The Dog Stars is a beautiful tribute to the resilience of nature and the relentless human drive to find meaning and deep connections with life and the living.” —Julianna Baggott, author of Pure

“Terrific . . . With echoes of Moby Dick, The Dog Stars . . . brings Melville’s broad, contemplative exploration of good and evil to his story.” —Shelf Awareness

“Heller’s surprising and irresistible blend of suspense, romance, social insight, and humor creates a cunning form of cognitive dissonance neatly pegged by Hig as an ‘apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell’—a novel, that is, of spiky pleasure and signal resonance.” —Booklist (starred)

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion Peter Heller’s novel about a pilot and his dog trying to survive in a world filled with loss, The Dog Stars.

About the Guide

A novel of extraordinary depth and power, The Dog Stars is narrated by Hig, a pilot who has taken refuge in an abandoned airport in Erie, Colorado, with his beloved dog Jasper and a gun-nut neighbor appropriately named Bangley. Nine years ago a devastating pandemic ravaged the globe, killing off everyone Hig loves, and taking much of the plant and animal life as well.
 
Hig misses the world that’s gone, his wife, Melissa, and all the trout wiped out by the rising temperatures in mountain streams. Bangley, on the other hand, seems born for just this kind of life. He enjoys nothing more than picking off marauders from the sniper tower he and Hig built. He’s a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of guy. “Never, ever negotiate,” he tells Hig repeatedly, advice which Hig frequently ignores, to his own peril.
 
They exist in an uneasy alliance. Bangley needs Hig to secure the perimeter, grow vegetables, and hunt deer. Hig needs Bangley to cover his ass and bring out the firepower—machine guns, grenades, mortars—when things get especially dicey. They don’t entirely trust or like each other but they make it work, like a difficult marriage. But Hig wants more than a life devoted to mere survival and fending off murderous intruders.
 
He visits a village of diseased Mennonites, dropping off supplies and helping them in whatever way he can. He takes frequent trips, with his copilot Jasper, to the high country to fish and bask in the brisk, clean air. He longs for human connection, so much so that he risks flying beyond the point of no return—the point beyond which he won’t have enough fuel to get back—looking for something or someone.
 
From there, the story takes some surprising turns, some of them tender and some of them treacherous. Indeed, the tension between compassion, lovingness, and the desire for human connection on the one hand, and self-protection and a merciless kill-or-be-killed instinct on the other, is one of the novel’s major themes.
 
As well as being a thrilling page-turner and a vivid imagining of life after global catastrophe, The Dog Stars offers a thought-provoking exploration, alternately hopeful and terrifying, of the essential features of human nature—what humans are, or what we may become after the protective veneer of civilization has been stripped away.

About the Author

Peter Heller holds an MFA from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry. An award-winning adventure writer and longtime contributor to NPR, Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook, The Whale Warriors, and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Discussion Guides

1.

The prose style of The Dog Stars is clipped, terse, often fragmented. Why would Heller choose this way of writing this particular story? In what ways is it fitting?

2. At the beginning of Chapter III, the narrator wonders why he’s telling this story. What might be his motivations? Who does he imagine his audience will be?

3. Hig says that Bangley “had been waiting for the End all his life. . . . He didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving” [p. 71]. He also clearly enjoys killing people. In what ways is Hig different from Bangley? How did “the End” affect him? How does he feel about killing?

4. How and why does Hig’s relationship with Bangley change over the course of the novel?

5. Jasper’s death is a turning point for Hig. How and why does it affect him so powerfully?

6. When Cima’s father asks Hig why he came to their canyon—why he flew beyond the point of no return—Hig can’t find an answer. What might have prompted Hig to take that risk? What was he looking for?

7. When they decide to take a ewe and a ram with them on the plane, Hig says, “Like the Ark. Here we go” [p. 273]. He says it jokingly, but does the novel offer a sense of hope that life on the planet might continue, postapocalypse? What other biblical references occur in the novel?

8. The Dog Stars is a serious book about a devastating subject, but what are some of its more lighthearted moments? Why is it important that the book have this mixture of tenderness and violence, anxiety and peace?

9. What has caused the end of human civilization in the novel? Why have the scattered survivors become so savage? Does the postapocalyptic world Heller presents seem accurate and likely, given the state of the world today?

10. Why is Hig’s relationship with Cima so important in the novel? What makes it particularly touching, given what each of them has suffered?

11. The novel’s ending is ambiguous. Cima, Hig, Bangley, and Pops have formed a kind of family, the spruce and aspen are coming back, eagles and hawks are flourishing, but the trout and elk are gone, water is disappearing, and mysterious jets are flying overhead. What might happen next, or in the next ten years, for these characters and the world they live in?

12. Why does Heller conclude The Dog Stars with Hig’s favorite poem “When Will I Be Home?” by Li Shang-Yin? Why is this a fitting way to end the story? In what ways is the novel about the longing for home?

13. What does the novel imply about human nature, after the constraints of civilization have been removed? What does it suggest about the possible consequences of the way we are living now?

14.

What similarities does The Dog Stars share with other recent dystopian novels like The Hunger Games and The Road?  In what important ways does it differ from them?

Suggested Readings

J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World; Max Brooks, World War Z; Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games; Justin Cronin, The Passage; Cormac McCarthy, The Road; Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz; Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore; Mary Shelley, The Last Man; Alan Weisman, The World Without Us.
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Peter Heller describes The Dog Stars

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