“Dust” Hugh Howey

Dust is the last book in Hugh Howey’s post-apocalypse trilogy. I read the first two last year (Wool and Shift) and had to wait till this year for the final book because the reservations list at the library was that long. Wool introduced us to a post-apocalyptic society living in an underground bunker after some unspecified disaster had made the Earth uninhabitable – and as the book went on it was clear that there was something rotten at the core of that society. Shift then took us back to the beginning to a near future world, and showed us how we get from there to the world of Wool. By the end of Shift we get to see the events of the end of Wool from a different perspective. So having got both narratives up to the same place we now move forward in Dust.

It’s really difficult to talk about this particular book without giving away the various reveals and I think that would spoil a lot of the pleasure of it. So much so, in fact, that I’m not sure how much re-read potential these have. In Dust Howey continues to reveal exactly what is rotten at the centre of this world, and manages to bring the story to a satisfying ending, with just enough hope for the future combined with doubt about the long term success (and loose ends).

The trilogy as a whole feels very well constructed. As I just said a lot of the pleasure in reading it comes from the unfolding story of what is really going on. There’s a constant stream of revelations, but each feels obvious in retrospect (this is a good thing) – you get there and it’s a sense of “oh of course that’s what those bits meant earlier”. I also liked the characters. The protagonists were interestingly flawed, and the mistakes and missteps they made felt like inevitable consequences of the sort of person they were & the situations they were in. The antagonist is actually mostly the world/society itself but we do get to see something of the man who conceived of it and set it up – and I did get the sense that if he was telling the story then he’d be the hero of it, if you see what I mean. He’d feel he’d made difficult choices and sacrifices for the greater good – it’s just that from our perspective both his intentions and his methods are very much not good.

Overall I’d say it’s a good trilogy, and I’d recommend it. But I don’t think I’ll be re-reading them because most of the draw for me was finding out what was going on.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why hadn’t I got round to reading A Canticle for Leibowitz before? Not only is it one of the classics of the genre, it’s also right up my street – a post-apocalyptic novel written in the late 1950s about the recovery of society after a nuclear holocaust. And I’ve no idea why I’ve only just got round to reading it, should’ve done so long ago.

The narrative is centred on a Catholic monastery in the southwest of the USA (although by the time the story opens this is an anachronistic description of its location). It’s told in three sections (originally published separately then put together and modified into this novel). The first one is set about 600 years after the Flame Deluge, the nuclear holocaust which happened in the 20th Century. A backlash against technology and learning in the aftermath of the Deluge had left monasteries once again the storehouses of knowledge in a Dark Age. The story here centres round a novice who discovers relics of the blessed Isaac Leibowitz, beatified for his role in saving the knowledge of the world after the Deluge. His canonisation is being considered by the Church and there’s a tension between joy at the discovery of the relics and fear that this might jeopardise the canonisation if the Pope in New Rome thinks they’re faked. The protagonist for this part (the novice) is a sort of Holy Fool character – he believes, and he copies the knowledge of the ancients, and even understands some tiny part of it, but it’s all in a mystical way and he’d no more fake relics than fly in the air. Other monks are much more cynical, as you’d expect. And no-one really understands the knowledge they’re keeping, they are keeping it because that is their sacred trust.

The second part is around 500 years after that. New states are growing, and in conflict with each other – and the Church is no longer the only place for people who want to learn about the knowledge of the ancients. The story centres round a man who’s trying to rediscover the lost knowledge (in particular physics & electricity), and his visit to the monastery where he reads the books, debates philosophy with the monks. And meets a monk who has a knack for engineering and built a generator to power a lightbulb – the first since the Deluge. If the first part is the Dark Ages, this is the Renaissance or the early Englightenment – reading the old works and doing experiments and new work. Understanding not just preserving.

The last part is another 600 years later – the world has changed again, they have had space travel for over a hundred years and the spectre of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is rising. The world is organised into two superpowers, bristling at each other, and there have been “weapon tests” or maybe they’ve been fired in anger. Both sides have propaganda about how they didn’t do anything wrong, but the other side did and so retaliation etc etc. The story is partly about the Abbot sending out a group (with all the knowledge of the world) on a starship to join one of the colonies – to keep the Church and knowledge alive in the worst case scenario. And quite a lot of it is taken up with the Abbot’s fight against the secular authority’s regulations about permitting euthanasia for those who’ve been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Suicide is a sin, you see, so the Abbot is against ending one’s suffering early because he believes that will consign the soul to eternal damnation. The book ends with a hint that the escaping monks made it off planet in time, and a hint that much of life on Earth has been killed in the conflagration. Just enough of a glimmer of hope to stop it being completely bleak, but that’s all.

The book isn’t just a “what might happen next” it’s also about knowledge and history. About how what we know now affects how we interpret the past, and about how chance and politics and circumstance affect what we have of the past to even interpret in the first place. How the events of one era can become the history of the next and the fables of the one after. And about faith (in this case in the particular form of the Catholic Church) and science – neither of which is shown as the One True Way and neither of which is without flaw. It’s also about cycles – and I guess about the question of is some knowledge just too dangerous for humankind. Miller is asking are we doomed to nuke ourselves back to barbarism or worse every couple of thousand years. That specific worry has retreated somewhat, but the more general form of it is still a disturbing one to contemplate. Are we just too curious and too prone to meddling for our own good?

One other thing I wanted to talk about was how much I appreciated the way Miller’s three parts show not only great changes over this large sweep of time (a thousand years between parts 1 & 3), but also continuity. And while the three eras were clearly analagous to periods in our own past & present, it wasn’t a case of recapitulating history exactly the same all over again. Basically the history felt real and solid, and plausible.

There was also a mystical thread running through the story – someone who is strongly implied to be the Wandering Jew of our own legend shows up in all three parts, and is even involved in nudging events at times. Knowingly? Is it really the same man? There are even hints this might be Leibowitz tho he himself denies it. I have a thought I’m struggling to articulate about how including this is intended to remind the reader that we aren’t all knowing gods – some things are still beyond our ken and who are we to say “impossible”.

I sort of think I might like to read a commentary on the book, if such a thing exists – I’m sure I’ve missed allusions to things both inside and outside the book.

“Shift” Hugh Howey

Shift is the sequel to Wool which I read earlier this year (post). In Wool we saw a few months in a post-apocalyptic world where what’s left of humanity is cooped up in a great underground complex (a silo) with a hidden rottenness somewhere at the centre of their society. When I wrote about that book I said it was clear that despite the reveals we hadn’t quite got to the heart of it yet, and Shift gets there.

It starts before, in a world that’s almost our own, a future only 50 or so years away. In the middle of a familiar world there’s a few technological advances that matter to the story – nanotech is a reality, cryogenics too & there are drugs that make you forget traumatic events. Through the book we mostly follow Donald Keene, who’s a newly elected Congressman pulled into a top secret project designing & building an underground bunker – he’s told it’s a safety feature to go next to some nuclear waste disposal facilities. His story is interspersed with other stories of events between this near future and the time of Wool. At the end of the book we see some of the events from the end of Wool from the other side – and they look different form this perspective. So I think we now know what’s rotten at the centre of this world, and book three is going to be what our protagonists from both Wool & Shift do about it.

Shift continues to have interestingly flawed characters. Front & centre is Donald – one of the characters later on says that “good men” like Donald should be in charge. But I don’t think that’s a particularly good description of Donald – he’s certainly not a bad man, but good would be stretching it. He’s very self-centred, on more than on occasion not looking past his own concerns to the wider picture and doing the wrong things because of this. He’s also prone to willful blindness, there are definitely hints even before he’s told what’s going on – and once he’s told he would rather forget than face it until it’s nearly too late. Rather do his job & think about the career opportunities, rather than face up to an unpleasant truth. Equally, he’s still someone I’d rather have running things than the people who were – he’s not a good man, he does things that are morally wrong & does selfish things, but he’s not ruthless and he still sees people as people instead of pieces on a board.

One of the themes running through the book is that if you set up a system and protocols for situations then people follow them – it ends up with the system in charge rather than an individual. This thing happens, do what it says here. And everyone does their little bit, acts like a cog in the machine, and even if no-one knows the whole plan it will still get done. Another thread running through both this book & the first one is that if your information stream is faulty/censored then so are all your conclusions. That’s rather obvious as a statement, but Howey shows us it working out over & over – he even does it to us. As I said above there’s a bit of overlap with the end of Wool, only this time we see a few conversations from the other side. Knowing what we know by the end of this book changes things.

Book 3 doesn’t come out till August – just need to remember about it nearer the time to get hold of it from the library! 🙂

“Wool” Hugh Howey

This book pushes so many of my buttons (in a good way) – it’s post-apocalypse, it’s not a generation ship* but in many ways it’s the same as a generation ship. And it’s got that thing that hooks me into Sherri S. Tepper’s books (but without the Moral) – there’s something rotten deep in the centre of the society and half the fun is figuring it out as the characters do. (Not quite as straightforward as it being a dystopia, something about the way the rottenness is set-up/revealed.)

*J points out that he didn’t know what I meant by generation ship, so perhaps I should explain 🙂 I mean a spaceship travelling to another star at below light-speed, and all the people in it are awake, so over the time of the journey there are several generations and gradually the society stops believing in anything other than the ship. Normally in these sorts of stories there’s also some disaster (contrived or natural) that means records are lost.

The whole world that the protagonists know consists of an underground bunker, which has just one set of observation screens on the top floor out of the hundred or so floors. Society has stratified – engineers are in the lower levels and keep the place running but aren’t really appreciated for it. IT are important, and it’s not quite clear why to start with, and they’ve got a whole floor/suite of floors to themselves. The middling floors have the middling people. And up the top are people like the mayor, the sheriff and other officials. And the viewing screens, showing the dead dead world outside.

Resources are limited as you’d expect in that sort of scenario – they might as well be in a spaceship. If you want to have children you & your spouse need to win the lottery after someone dies. And expressing any interest in the outside world is firmly squashed – if you dare say it out loud then you are sentenced to “cleaning”. Out you go in a suit to clean the cameras for the view screens, and die in the toxic atmosphere when the suit inevitably gives way. Everyone who’s sentenced says they won’t clean, and then they do … and the first part of the book ends with an explanation of that, from the point of view of the man doing the cleaning. But there’s something rotten in the centre of this society and we haven’t found it yet, just the first hints.

Not going to spoil the book, that would be a shame. But it does make it a bit hard to talk about 🙂

I liked the way the various characters felt nuanced and real. The character I was least keen on was the chap who seemed to be there just to be the love interest, but thinking about it a bit more he’s actually also doing something useful in the book in terms of showing us what’s going on. So not just the love interest. And the antagonist isn’t a moustache-twirling villain, you can see he’s the hero of his own story even if what he does is repugnant. You can even sympathise with the aims of some of the rottenness – this is a resource limited pressure-cooker environment and wide-spread disorder could be completely fatal. But the methods are not something I can sympathise with even as I can see that it’s being done out of a sense that this is the best way to do it.

There’s an excerpt for the next book in the series (trilogy?) at the end, and it looks like it’ll go back to the beginning and tell us how the world got to the state it’s in in this book. There’s still something rotten at the centre, and we haven’t got there yet. I’ve got that reserved from the library now. (Thinking about buying these, but I think I want to know if the next book is as good first.)