Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hugh Howey's DUST

"The idea of saving anything was folly, a life especially. No life had ever been truly saved, not in the history of mankind. They were merely prolonged. Everything comes to an end."
Readers of Hugh Howey's Silo series are by now prepared for a certain degree of bleakness, but there are moments of downright agonizing despair in Dust, its final installment. Moments that made me cry out to my lodger "Who does Hugh think he is, George R. R. Effing Martin?" to which my lodger replied "No, because then you would have had to wait seven years and then you'd only have gotten half the story."

True, true.

I've taken quite a series of emotional beatings at the authorial hands of Mr. Howey as I've read these books. I've come to care deeply about their characters, especially the engineer-turned-leader Juliet and the kid who came of age to become a silo's sysop, Lukas, only to go through the wringer with them as they've weathered bout after bout of horrific social and psychological turbulence. I've come, too, to pretty much despise architect-turned-politician-turned-overlord-turned-half-assed-saboteur Donald, and to loathe his manipulator and master, Thurman. It's fun every once in a while to have clearly defined heroes and villains to cheer and to hiss at.

Which would hint that there's a certain lack of complexity at work in the Silo books, if that was all that could be said about them. But that would be a mistake, because these works are actually all about complexity, about dynamic, chaotic messiness versus imposed order, about the overthrow of a particularly odious form of generational tyranny, about individuals setting out to out-think a system minutely designed to prevent them from thinking at all, except about meeting basic survival needs and keeping running the intricate machine that lets them meet those needs in an environment for which they are evolutionarily ill-suited.

The world of the Silo series has been gradually revealed as one of layers and layers of horror and sadness, albeit one in which families and friendships and the quotidian pleasures of daily life still, in some fashion, prevail. As the Wool and Shift stories have unfolded, the nature of Silo life is revealed as even more sad and horrible than it had at first seemed: the Silos are not merely survival machines, but part of a rather twisted and terrible effort to warp all of humanity to conform to one man's imperial will, a captive breeding program of sorts, to produce perfectly obedient and docile subjects. It's generational tyranny writ large, with the added horror of the original generation still being around to inflict it from afar, enabled by super sci-fi technological advantages denied to the ordinary Silo dwellers. The generation -- the man -- that killed the world still holds the power of life and death over the people he "saved."

But even the most tightly controlled breeding program has its sports, its throwbacks, its tall poppies. Dust is a celebration of those tall poppies; even as some of them get mowed down, the rest stubbornly refuse to conform to the imperial will, to remain ignorant and powerless and acquiescent to the expectations of their masters. Juliet, Lukas and their friends, with a little help from a belatedly aware and rebellious Donald, are determined to think their way out of and around the limitations imposed on them, to turn, if necessary, their elaborate machine for survival into a machine for revenge. Or for liberation.

The tension between the will to revenge and the will to freedom is a major theme of Dust, as Juliet struggles between rage at what she has learned about the nature of her world and hope that she and hers can transcend that world. She has been given strong reasons to yield to either impulse*, and the reader is kept speculating about what she will choose for most of the novel. This tension coupled with that of Howey's vast talent for cliffhangers that are never tacked on but always naturally evolve from situations make Dust a page-turner even for the die-hard Silo fan who is devastated that it's the last of the series and doesn't want it to be over yet.

Meanwhile, Donald's story and character also develop satisfyingly. Belatedly taking on an agency that it's pretty much criminal for him to have rejected for centuries of alternating Shift work and cryosleep,** Donald finally becomes a hero of sorts, though still in a bit of a half-assed way. I will confess to rather enjoying the punishment his new agency earned him, a little. But what really saved his story was the introduction of his sister Charlotte, whom he awakens against all the rules of the master Silo, in which the crew's female family members are kept in cryosleep indefinitely so they don't cause any fights or problems. Charlotte, formerly an Air Force drone pilot, is everything that Donald is not, and it's largely through her, and the need to keep her a secret, that Donald finally gets some steel in his spine, enough to become as important to Juliet's storyline as he is to his own.

Going into Dust, I was really wondering how Howey was finally going to knit Donald's and Juliet's stories into any kind of satisfying whole, especially since he was going to have to do this within the larger framework of wrapping up the series. I'm happy to say he pulled it off splendidly, by letting his characters be who they are, think for themselves, and experience fully the consequences of their decisions (or indecision). Dust is a satisfying conclusion to a powerful and deeply moving series. One wishes Ronald D. Moore had somehow come across Mr. Howey a few years ago. Cough. Disappearing Starbuck. Cough. Howey could have finished BSG right.

He finished the Silo series right. And for that, he deserves all the applause and accolades we may give him.

*And let's just say that it's probably a good thing that she is kept ignorant of one key aspect of life in the master Silo from which Donald (and his illicitly revived sister Charlotte) surreptitiously help her, that of the situation in which members of her gender find themselves -- or would find themselves, if they were ever allowed to awaken -- for the greater good. Had Juliet ever learned of the Senators No Girls Allowed at the Top Because Breeding and Sexual Tension rule, there would have been no stopping her on the quest for revenge.

**Especially criminal since his one-time-girlfriend, the Senator's daughter Anna -- the only woman besides Charlotte to have ever been conscious in the master Silo -- pretty much had to die to finally provoke this agency.


  1. Hello, i just finished the series . Can you help me understand why the people in the silo"s were lead to believe that the world was devastated by a terrorist attack by nanos? .. Was that not the case ? Was it just that area that was poisoned ?

    1. My interpretation -- and I reserve the right to be totally wrong on this -- is that the original nano attack that happened in First Shift: Legacy did pretty much take out the whole world, but it had recovered since then during the generations of silo life, only Thurman et al had engineered the silo/cleaning system to keep dosing the local area with the nanos so that the silo populations would continue to stay where they were and fear the outside world.

  2. But why do you think Thurman had in mind by keeping the silos going for longer than needed by some 200 + years ? I just don't get that

    1. Like I said, I think he was running a captive breeding program, trying to turn humanity into something more governable. He might have even had altruistic/idealistic motives for this once, but it wound up being a big ol' power trip.


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.