Milton Bass: A dystopian gem



When I was in high school, nearly every evening of the week, after I ate supper, I would trek to the Berkshire Athenaeum in case a new science fiction book had just come in. I was obsessed by this type of fiction, especially those relating to intergalactic combat, which was the modern equivalent of good fighting bad. It was also exciting to read about space travel and time warps and colonies on Mars and aliens so different from ourselves.

This was not "Mork and Mindy" but serious stuff. There was also the extra added thrill of these impossible depictions being possible and that someday those giant ships would descend from the skies belching death and we Americans would be fighting for our lives, our nation and everything we cherished on Mother Earth.

Times have changed, of course, and so has science fiction. I stopped reading it when the women, most of them brilliant writers, entered the field and were more interested in people than scientific and mechanical breakthroughs. It was more like anthropological history than future worlds where time travel was quicker than a click of red shoe heels and weapons could take out Ecuador by the push of a button rather than a sword or a spear. I was interested in reading about future Utopias on other planets and the stories were closer to Arthur and the Round Table than to slave states and good people in bondage.

The present generation, which starts its serious reading in middle school, seems more interested in dystopias than utopias and "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, plus global warming, have taken over the past, the present and the seeming future. I encountered snatches of what is going on by skimming books in grandchildren's bedrooms.

All of them had "The Hunger Games" so I concentrated on that. I would quiz adults on whether they had checked on the books before allowing their children access and the answer was usually yes. Not only that, but the parents usually commented that they were well written and often had good points to make. The world wide gross for the film was figured to be between $500 million and $700 million. The movie was rated to be as good as the books.


Consequently, when a video of the movie became available, I asked my wife to set it up for me (technically I am just below Luddite status) and watched the film all the way through and thought it was just OK. Derivative in many ways, cruel in many more, but OK. It did not inspire me to go back to science fiction, either utopian or dystopian, and I decided to leave the field to the children and their exploiters.

And then it happened. I picked up a book in the Richmond library titled "The Dog Stars" (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp., $24. 95) by a writer named Peter Heller. I usually read the first page of an unknown book and this one had me from the very first paragraph. I took it home and spent the next three days reading it. My inability to just keep on going straight through was frustrating and each time I was able to return was a moment of sincere joy.

The book, of course, is dystopian and it displays a world that has been practically wiped out by an unknown flu. The man known as Hig, or Big Hig as he likes to be called, has lost his wife, family, friends and nearly all the other people who crowd in on you during an ordinary life.

He has established his new home at a tiny former airport where he houses his 1956 Cessna airplane, his dog and a neighbor, a grizzled gun-toter and superb marksman. Hig flies his plane on a regular basis to scout for intruders and he and his neighbor have been skillful and heart-harded enough to kill off any marauders. Hig kills animals for food and grows a vegetable garden so that these two self-sufficient men get by even if not too nicely. They are able to provide necessities such as gas and bullets and local electricity by hard work and ingenuity. But there is always the question of who else is out there and what can be saved after such a universal disaster.

Mr. Heller wrote this, his first novel, at the age of 53, He has four non-fiction adventure books to his credit plus innumerable magazine and NPR credits. The writing come close to stream of consciousness, but it is so gripping that your mind takes it on gladly and intuition fills in where bald-faced reason comes up a little short. Heller is a poet as well as a fiction and non-fiction writer and I hope we have his voice and talent available to us for many more years.

If the kids are into dystopia, then this book will someday show them how it can be beautifully done. If you are into good writing and reading, look up at the dog star. It's the brightest one in the night sky and that is exactly what this book promises and delivers.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.


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