Post-apocalyptic novels can be hard. If done well, they are strong and powerful, getting at what authors think will be left, or worth rebuilding, when all of the infrastructure and connections of daily life have been stripped away. When I'm reading one, I'm always particularly looking for how the author handles women in whatever post-apocalyptic setting they are exploring.
Particularly, I'm interested in looking at whether or not the author has anything more to say than "they get raped and treated as possessions!"
The Dog Stars is better than that, by about a hair. It is primarily a book about isolation, not community or connection. It's hard not to keep comparing it to Station Eleven, which I loved a lot, and I think treads very very similar territory a lot better.
In The Dog Stars, we're many years out from a flu outbreak that killed most of the world's population (as far as we know) and a blood disease that followed in its wake. No one seems to be afraid of the flu anymore, but they are afraid of the Blood. Which is weird - we're in a world that has so utterly broken down that there are no communication methods yet, and yet the main character says things confidently about how other survivors treat those with the Blood - how would he know? He has a few interactions with a group of Mennonites who all have it, but how can he make blanket statements from that?
He has a dog. He has one male friend/survival buddy, who comes off as nothing so much as a war-crazed MRA. (Later, the author tries to add more depth and backstory to him, but it doesn't really change the "kill it before it moves" mentality.) The two of them fend off anyone who comes near, never trying to talk or communicate - it's all about killing first.
Which...not really tenable as a long term plan, is it? If there are maybe fifty total people you're going to run into in your life, any chance people have of surviving isn't really going to happen if murder takes care of 48 of them. But, whatever, this is about isolation and those others who would definitely try to kill you if you didn't act fast. (I much prefer the more nuanced view of Station Eleven, where some of the settlements they enter may be dangerous to the travelling players, but people have banded together for survival and don't necessarily shoot first. )
So by the time we finally meet a female character, or get to know another human being, it's fairly apparent that she's been introduced to be a love interest for Hig, the main character. Named Cima, she is fleshed out, but as far as the story goes, she's there to introduce that sense of heterosexual hope into the world that is otherwise populated by savage rapists. And we all know how much I love that as a way to denote villainy, don't we?
The world that remains, as Heller sees it, is almost barren of the possibilities of connection, where in a world where honestly, it doesn't seem a struggle to find enough to eat, men are still killing each other whenever they cross territories. (There are a few women too, but we don't get to know them.)
Hig has lost the world, loses his dog, goes out to find himself in a small plane, finds a love, and returns. It's not a complex story. But it irritated me - the first half of the book with nary a woman in sight, although there are plenty of small references to raping women, every time Hig and his survivalist partner run into other men out there.
It's not terrible, but given that much of the world feels similar to Station Eleven, I find it hard to give this book a pass. It's nowhere near as good. It's about isolation, but I don't buy the necessity for such extreme isolation.