Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
(This article first appeared at blogcritic.org on 9 May 2013)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller was one of Oprah’s 2012 ‘books of the month.’ It belongs to that increasingly popular genre known as ‘post-apocalyptic fiction’ which uses the crucible of a global catastrophe to examine what it is that is really important in life.
In Heller’s story a deadly flu-pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population. In the chaos that ensues, the world descends into warring savagery. This post-apocalyptic world holds moral virtues in scant regard and forces the survivors to ask themselves what they are prepared to do in order to survive.
The hero of the The Dog Stars is a man called Hig. For nine long years big Hig has done the terrible things he needed to in order to survive, but it has taken its toll on his soul. There comes a time when he questions the point of living in such a world—and as such a man—and eventually he decides it is better to leave the relative safety of the fort he has built for himself and search for something better: some love and compassion left in the world, even though it might cost him his life.
The Dog Stars is therefore the story of Hig’s quixotic journey, and it is a story that has resonated deeply with readers around the world.
The idea that humanity will one day face a day of reckoning is obviously far from new. Armageddon, The Apocalypse, Judgement Day, and the Rapture are all terms well known to religious and secular thinkers alike. The Bible for example records Christ teaching that there would come a time when humanity would appear before the Lord and our true condition would be exposed. Moreover Christ taught that this moment could come at any time “like a thief in the night.”
We are all fearful of having the secrets of our soul laid bare. Possibly ‘progress’ has made this worse; it appears to have resulted in our society—and if we are honest, ourselves—becoming more and more superficial and self-centred, and so it follows that the prospect of a reckoning has become a more and more fearful one. Perhaps Hollywood is tapping into this subconscious fear because it seems a week does not go by without another apocalyptic ‘disaster’ movie being foisted upon us, with the latest offering being Tom Cruise’s Oblivion. Alongside the ‘normal’ threats of nuclear holocausts or unleashed biological weapons, we are given films where asteroids threaten to pulverise the Earth; the sun grows too hot (or too cold); the core of the earth misbehaves; volcanoes erupt; climate change runs amok; and, of course, aliens attack—and even on occasion, bizarre combinations of the above.
As something of a corollary, Christian literalists are prone to interpreting the Apocalypse in similar terms to these disaster movies. The success of the ‘Left Behind’ book series is an indication of just how widespread this literal interpretation is. The ‘Left Behind’ series is based on the idea of ‘the Rapture,’ when God will devastate non-believers and believers will be physically ‘beamed up’ into heaven. It is a disaster movie where the ‘disaster’ is God made. An estimated 65 million copies have been sold.
Such literal interpretations threaten to obscure the real meaning behind the concept of a Day of Judgement, which is that we are all, in a sense, false, and that one day we will be revealed as we truly are. Indeed the word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek apokalyptein, to uncover—meaning revelation—not catastrophic destruction.
Science and religion are normally uneasy bedfellows; however, the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has explained how with the arrival of consciousness a clash broke out between that emerging consciousness and our pre-established instinctive orientation. As a result humans have had no choice but to defy their instinctive selves, which has left us ‘alienated’ from our true selves. Here is a scientific theory that explains the gulf between who we present ourselves as, and who we really are, but importantly, it is a compassionate judgement, not a damning one. As Griffith says;
“the arrival of understanding of the human condition unavoidably brings with it truth day, honesty day, transparency day, revelation day—exposure day. Indeed, it is the arrival of the historically feared, so-called ‘judgment day’—although that is an unfortunate term because this breakthrough is all about bringing dignifying understanding, not condemning ‘judgment.’ As an anonymous Turkish poet once said, judgment day is ‘Not the day of judgment but the day of understanding’ (National Geographic, Nov. 1987).” (www.worldtransformation.com/freedom-book1-the-solution-to-exposure)
My personal view is that Griffith’s theory does bridge the divide that we have historically kept between science and religion, which means that humanity as a whole has reached a ‘day of understanding’; but whether you believe that Griffith's theory does explain the human condition, or you believe that revelation is granted to us through divine intervention, or comes at the end of our lives, the point that Christ appararently went to such pains to make still holds: there will come a time when we are revealed as we truly are, and though we will be found to be imperfect, essentially we are all loved or worthwhile. Safe in this knowledge, we can leave the fortresses of selfishness we have imprisoned ourselves in, and venture forth with a heart made humble by knowledge of our imperfection, and a mind full of excitement at the freedom from the human condition this brings.
Perhaps this is the reason The Dog Stars has resonated so deeply and touched so many people; Hig’s journey out of his fort is in a sense, just such a pilgrim’s journey.