(2014) Hugh Howey, Arrow, £7.99, pbk, 372pp, ISBN 978-0-099-59515-1
The back cover quotes the Guardian: 'Howey can really write'. Hardly great praise as, if he really could not write, this book would presumably not exist. Opening the front cover one then finds three pages of quotes praising Howey's earlier works. This left me somewhat underwhelmed; I should not need to be psyched up before starting a novel: the narrative should be able to engage my interest for itself! I therefore started this book with a certain amount of trepidation; if it required that much trumpeting would it prove worth the effort?
The story is set somewhere in the future and sand covers the world, or at least the bit of the world where this story takes place. The wind blows continuously from the east and the sand moves with it, slowly swallowing up everything. The town of Springston is protected by an old concrete wall hundreds of metres high, with a vast dune building up behind it, but the sand still gets into everywhere. On the other side of town, merging with it, lies Shantytown, less protected and home to the less well off; houses become consumed by the sand, each becoming in turn the foundation for the next.
The inhabitants are living in a what appears to be an endless dessert, water is extremely valuable, and most commodities are scavenged from the ruins of towns and cities buried long ago. The scavenging is done by sand divers whose diving suits generate fields that allow them to control the sand around them, to make it flow or stiffen, thus allowing them to descend below the surface and navigate through it. They have visors which act like radar so they can see through the sand, thus enabling them to locate objects and each other. A skilful diver can reach a depth of maybe three hundred meters though, as with diving in water, the pressure becomes a problem the deeper one goes. A diver's greatest fears are that his air tanks empty before he resurfaces or that his suit runs out of power and leaves him stranded down there, unable to move.
Life is hardly pleasant for anybody much, forty is considered old, and for everyone it is very much a matter of survival in a hostile world. To make matters worse, there are various factions who happily bomb each other, and anyone else, in an attempt to avenge past wrongs long ago forgotten.
As the story starts, Palmer and his friend Hap have been hired to dive on behalf of a dubious band of brigands from the north. At great depth they discover the ruins of the legendary lost city of Danvar, which should make them immensely rich. However, the brigands have other motives and it is not Danvar they want but the nuclear bombs which are located nearby. They kill Hap and leave Palmer for dead, trapped in the city deep beneath the sands.
Meanwhile, Palmer's younger brother Conner has taken Rob, their youngest brother, on the annual camping trip out into the desert to commemorate their lost father. He walked out on the family years ago, ventured east into No Man's Land, and never returned. As Conner himself ventures a short distance into No Man's Land he is surprised to find an exhausted young girl crawling towards him, a girl who claims to be his half sister and bearing a message from their father.
Not far away his sister Vic, also a sand diver, hears the rumour that Danvar has been found and pilots her sarfer (a sort of sand yacht) back to town.
By now we are half way through the book and little else has happened. The pages turn easily but mostly they just flesh out the scenery, describe day-to-day life, and bring us up to date with the family history and everybody's angsts (and several times at that). It is nicely written but seems to be going nowhere very much, a triumph of padding at the expense of story line.
Fortunately the pace picks up a bit at this point, though it hardly gallops away; it is still mostly repeated introspection. We follow Palmer as he rescues himself and returns to Shantytown and, as he does so, comes to realise for himself that the brigands' plans are much worse than merely keeping the treasures of Danvar for themselves. We also follow Conner as he takes his siblings back to Shantytown to see their mother, who runs the local inn (and brothel - the source of a lot of the angst). Vic finds out the hard way that the brigands, having discovered that Palmer survived, are on his trail and intend to silence him and anyone he might have spoken to. She too finds herself heading for her mother's inn. Once gathered as a family they piece together something of what is going on, of what lies beyond No Man's Land and how the world works beyond their boundaries. They set out to stop the brigands' plans and gain vengeance for their actions.
I was left wondering about the details of how Springston and Shantytown work. From the map at the front, they form nothing more than a very small town. They appear to know nothing of the rest of the world and seem happy to assume that there is nothing else - just their small town and they are the only people (apart from a few (unexplained) brigands to the north). There are no trade routes, no visitors or neighbouring towns, no roads or trails in or out, just sand forever in every direction. The only slight exception is No Man's Land to the east, the direction from which the wind and the sand come, and from which there is a continuous sound of far distant thunder, and from which no one has ever returned. I wondered how the population of a small town could sustain the losses of divers (a very dangerous occupation with a high mortality rate) and of the bombings between factions (indeed, how could such a small place have so many factions?). And apart from diving (nearly all young people seem to be at dive school), what other occupations or employments are there?
The people have the ability to build dive suits with complex visors yet how does a small town, without apparent raw materials or manufacturing capability, produce such equipment? The sarfers utilise a similar technology for their skids to run through the sand, but again where do they get the technology made? Is it all scavenged from below? Are they dependent on, and therefore limited by, what they can recover from those who lived before them? The suits include wiring and the sarfers' hulls are made of aluminium, but from where did such materials come? And where did the town get the concrete to build a protective wall hundreds of meters high?
There were other points on which I wondered. Vic's sarfer is evocatively described as having rusty rivets but since when did aluminium rust? Surely the rivets were not made of iron as they would react electro-chemically with the aluminium? And if they were of iron, how could they rust in such a dry environment where we have been told it never, ever rains? When Palmer (one of the best) dived down some five hundred meters to the lost city, he was at the top of a 'sandscraper' hundreds of meters high and could make out the shapes of cars on the roads below; those cars must have been the best part of a thousand meters below the sand - how many years (centuries? millennia?) must it have taken for the sand to build up that deep yet Palmer still knew the outline of a car when he saw one, even though there were no such things in his world?
In the end I would have to say that this book is pleasantly written and the pages turn very quickly and require little thought (indeed, you really do not want to think too deeply). Overall the story is simple but it has been considerably spun out with lots of easy-to-read detail and introspection. I felt that the whole scenario had been insufficiently thought through and it required more work. It might have a lot of sand but it is no Dune! As such it did not really work for me - though I did like the idea of sand diving. It is an OK book to pick up at the airport if whiling away the hours of travelling or for easy reading whilst lying by the holiday poolside, but it is not exactly challenging or thought provoking. In days of old this story would have been wrapped up a thin paperback of maybe a hundred and fifty pages having been told equally well but considerably more concisely.
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