The Dog Stars: terrific book about life after 99.9% of humans are wiped out

I never get tired of reading novels about life on Earth following a disaster that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. Earth Abides and I am Legend are two of my favorites in this sub-genre. I like these stories fro several reasons: I'm fascinated in seeing how people figure out how to survive after their modern conveniences have been taken away from them. It's also interesting to see why the remaining inhabitants struggle to go on with their lives, and to read about their encounters with people who might or might not want to eat them.

After reading The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, I'm adding it to the top of my twilight-of-the-human-race-novels list. The story takes place about 30 years in the future, nine years after a deadly flu has killed almost everyone on Earth. Hig is one of the survivors. He lives near a small airport in Erie, Colorado (I know the place well, having grown up a stone's throw from the small town east of Boulder). He's teamed up with a no-nonsense, survivalist type named Bangley who is armed to the gills, but seems to be somewhat unhinged. Hig, who lives in fear that Bangley might consider Hig to be a liability rather than an asset, owns a small plane that he uses to patrol the flatlands for invading hordes of starving people armed with knives, broken bottles, and crossbows, who would happily kill Hig and Bangley to take their food stockpiles, garden produce, and ammunition. They have to constantly look over their shoulder to make sure no one is sneaking up on them. Fortunately for Hig, Bangley is a good shot. He and Hig have had to shoot quite a few people in their years together. Hig has learned how to make human thigh-meat jerky to feed his elderly, but useful, watchdog Jasper.

Hig and his dog sleep away from Hig's house, outside behind a berm, covered in quilts. Whenever invaders are lured to the house's LED porch lights (which run on solar-charged batteries) Jasper wakes up and alerts Hig with a low growl. Hig, in turn, gets on the walkie talkie with Bangley, who shoots the trespassers with a sniper rifle.

The scenes where Hig and Bangley encounter other people (who are almost always "Not Nice," as Hig says) raised the hairs on the back of my neck and sent my pulse racing. Hig freely admits he doesn't have the survival skills or the take-no-prisoners attitude that Bangley possesses, and when I read Hig's descriptions on these intense encounters I know I'd make the same potentially deadly mistakes that Hig makes.

It's a grim life, and that explains why Hig likes to get away from the airport to go fishing and hunting in the mountains west of Boulder. Bangely doesn't approve because it puts both of their lives at risk, but Hig can't help himself. He's sad that the trout have died off due to global warming, but there's carp. They don't put up a lively fight like the trout did, though.

Written in the first person from Hig's point of view, the text is fragmented, and almost poetic. I was a bit put off for the first 15 pages or so, but I got used to the writing style and grew to appreciate it.

There's no reason to describe what else happens. I'll just say that there's a plot, and it's a good one. There's also humor and hopefulness, which make the story, more, not less interesting.

The Dog Stars


  1. The cover art immediately made me think of “Stars” by H.A.Rey.  It’s a book I cut my teeth on 40+ years ago.  Now I want to look at it again through a different set of eyes…

    The story also sounds really good.  I’m sold.

    1.  You can read the news from the comfort and safety of your room, surrounded by Civilization. Let’s talk again in thirty years.

  2. One thing I’ve never understood about depopulated future dystopias is why people don’t just get busy farming instead of killing each other over 30 year old Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee.  I mean sure, 99% of us have lost that skill set, but the knowledge is still there in books, and in some scenarios the farmers will be the survivors anyway.  Stupid protagonists.

    1. Because it’s much easier to take something than it is to produce it. I think that’s the primary reason why civilization took such a long time to get started in the first place.

    2. It’s cultural bias from our overpopulated Earth. (Am I the only one who finds most of those books, especially recent ones, to be clandestinely misanthropic and even wishful?) I am sure that once the period of initial savagery is concluded, the drive for civilization would again take over. In that respect I consider “Canticle for Leibowitz” the best of the lot, with “I am legend” a close second with vampyros themselves settling for a nice civilized existence as time goes by.

      1. “Earth Abides” covers this explicitly, how the survivors “knew” they should be making themselves independent, but that it always came down to being so much easier to scavenge (in their case, from abandoned stores, rather than via conflict and theft).

        It was a fascinating, depressing novel.

      2. Am I the only one who finds most of those books, especially recent ones, to be clandestinely misanthropic and even wishful?

        Maybe after 99.9% of people are dead, killing the remaining 0.1% with guns becomes plausible.

    3.  Most folks can’t keep their houseplants alive let alone deal with the months long process of plowing, planting, irrigating, dealing with pests and animals, and then if the weather cooperates, harvest. If you add to that the lack of fuels and farming implements designed to be used without engine power, survival would be a real crapshoot for an inexperienced farmer.

    4. Probably the leftover remains would act like a raw material.  Sort of a form of hunting and gathering in their own way.  For instance, it would be far easier to look for scrap iron than to try to smelt it from raw ore.  Once the easy pickings were gone then people would have to move on to farming.

  3. If this genre interests you, let me recommend one of my favorites from the 1980s – ‘Emergence’ by David Palmer.  There is a sequel which was published in serial form called ‘Tracking.’

    1.  Emergence is also one of my all-time favorites.  Is Tracking (serialized in Analog magazine) available online anywhere?

    2. Thanks…I’ve just finished ‘Wool’ and can recommend that too.  (Grab it soon so you can say you read it before the film came out!)

  4. So let’s do some math. There are about 5 million people living in Colorado, according to the US Census. A plague that wipes out 99.9% of humanity would reduce that population to about 5,000 people. 

    I am having a real hard time imaging any serious competition for resources, let alone marauding hordes.

  5. Sold me too!  And I am going to look into Emergence as well, thanks! 

    Any other suggestions in this sub-genre?

  6. Well, I’ve never read any of these.  For starters, I just added Earth Abides to my Wish List.  Amazing that someone who reads as much as I do missed these. Looking forward to fixing that problem.  Thanks for the tips!

  7. Glad to see this get mentioned. The audio version is superb as well–given Heller’s fragmentary style, it might even be better than the print experience. Mark Deakins does a great job narrating. I’m almost finished with it, compelled to listen but not wanting it to end quite yet.

  8. I found this book to be engaging, if somewhat simplistic. The writing style and plot are so similar to The Road though that it was seemed derivative  Not that it’s a bad thing, but it was hardly original or genre-defining.

  9. For anyone who is interested in a great analytical thought experiment, there is a non-fiction account of the world without us entitled… “The World Without Us”, by the amazing Alan Weisman. He examines the decay and return of nature to abandoned areas like Prypiat (Chernobyl) and Cyprus and projects what this would be like on a large scale to a city like New York.

    1.  I found that one to be rather comforting, for whatever reason. And it was surprising to read just how quickly the earth will swallow up our leavings.

  10. the scenario as described doesn’t make much sense. sure, some resources  will become extremely rare, especially pharmaceuticals, but those are the same resources where there will be little competition.

    food? enough canned food for multiple lifetimes.  and most of that stuff is good for deades.

    fresh meat? even in central europe deer and rabbits will make a spectacular comeback.

    fish too.

    seeds for farming aplenty.

    it would be good to pull people together, so pockets of civilisation can be maintained more easily.  me, i’d look for places with hydroelectric power. these things *last* 

  11. I’ve got this to read after finishing David Weber’s Honor Harrington series.

    Ever read Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Salt and Rice?  It’s an excellent alternative history novel in a world where the Black Plague kills 99% of Europeans during the beginning of 15th Century.

  12. It probably won’t ruin the book for me, but in my experience your average carp will put up a much better, longer fight than your average trout. They are so clever and wily. 

  13. I don’t read much of this genre, but these three books were interesting as the location was where I live. I liked them.

     Dies the Fire (2004) shows the effects on the planet of something called “The Change”. Electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines, and steam power no longer work. The series mostly deals with the Willamette Valley area of Oregon, with some description of the United Kingdom. After describing how people in those places survive the loss of 600 years of technological progress, the primary focus of this series turns to a conflict between a Portland-based neo-feudal dictatorship created by a sociopathic history professor, and the free communities of the Willamette Valley, most notably the Wiccan Clan Mackenzie and a group led by a former Marine, the Bearkillers.

    by S.M. Stirling
    . Dies the Fire
    . The Protector’s War
    . A Meeting at Corvallis

  14. As described, the book seems to miss one big, important factor: most people want to be with other people, and I don’t mean just one other person but as many people as can survive off the available resources using whatever level of technology (medicine, defense, agriculture, etc.) is available to them. They want simple companionship, mutual defense, decent choice of available mates, and the ability to specialize skills for the more intelligent ones. The Stand got that much right, even if much of the plot is driven by mysticism. 

  15. That would not be a paradise.

    The 99%ers would be gone. (There go the worker bees and the sheeple.) 

    The 1%ers would be gone (Okay nobody needs their “my shit don’t stink” atitude, but some do have managerial skills.)

    That would leave the oligarchs who would be at a complete loss because their money and power would mean nothing. (Their “thousand year” problems of “What would their distant descendants do with their pile of cash” would mean nothing. They would be kings without subjects and quite unprepared for life.)

    Might as well go back to the soil and farm.

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