HUGH HOWEY Dust. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
A huge and occasionally chaotic canvas does not diminish the achievement of this dystopian trilogy.
Dust is the long-awaited conclusion to the saga that started with Wool. If you have not read Wool, or Shift, the previous books in the trilogy, don’t start on Dust (and don’t read this review yet). Sometimes it is possible to glean enough from the later books in a sequence to fill in the story, but not in this case. There is simply too much detail and there are too many characters to get a grasp on the extraordinary richness and complexity of the whole.
In Wool we found a silo that contained many thousands of people – Silo 18, a rigidly stratified and controlled world with no escape and with one of the most chilling and vindictive tricks played on those who were sent to their deaths outside. They walked into a poisoned environment with a visor that convinced them that they were in an Eden, and once outside, they cleaned the windows of the silo in the vain hope that they could convince those inside that they were being fooled by their view of a barren landscape. Metaphorically, there was wool over their eyes. Juliette, a very appealing heroine, defied the brutal death planned for her and set the subsequent rebellion in motion. She was a mechanic – a vitally important role – and a visionary. Her experience of escaping death and finding Silo 17 gave her enough insight not to be a dupe.
Shift was a collection of three novellas that gave us the backstory and explained the reasons why there were so many silos, all controlled by Silo 1. Here we met Thurston, a man corrupted by his arrogance, who had taken it upon himself to construct the future and preserve the world of the mid-21st century on his terms. He feared that a rogue terrorist would destroy the world with nano-technology so he attempted to create a world free from such technology. There were other characters of importance introduced in these books, among them Donald, Charlotte and Anna, who ultimately attempted to stop Thurston in several scenarios. Silo number 17 was home to a few lonely survivors from an earlier episode of Thurston’s use of destructive power. These people also feature in Dust.
Dust is the culmination of the fight for knowledge and understanding waged by Juliette and her supporters. There is much confusion among those who live in Silo 18, who have been controlled by Thurston’s use of various methods of indoctrination. Some oppose Juliette, who is now the mayor; some have religious beliefs that preach submission; others find it hard to believe her version of events. She gleans information through flimsy radio contact with Donald and his sister Charlotte in Silo 1, who have begun to rebel against Thurston, but there are no clear answers given to her, just hints and clues. And she doesn’t trust them anyway.
She engineers a mammoth digging project that connects Silo 18 to Silo 17, home to a few lonely survivors of an earlier use of Thurston’s destructive power: the tragically isolated Solo, who was found by Juliette when she was expelled from Silo 18, and some younger people who also feature in Dust. All her small advances prepare those in the silo for the cataclysmic horror that is pending. If this sounds somewhat confusing, it is probably because the amount of information we are being given here is enormous. Wool was an exciting, fairly straightforward story but Dust seems to have too many details to deal with; all the narrative threads from Wool and Shift are now brought together, but in a rather unwieldy way.
In Silo 18 Juliette fiddles with technical details but the exciting action is with Charlotte and Donald in Silo 1:
His shins hurt from protecting himself from Thurman’s blows. There was a knot on his forearm like a second elbow. And every time a coughing fit seized him, he wanted to die. He tried to sleep. Sleep was a vehicle for passing the time, for avoiding the present. It was a trolley for the depressed, the impatient and the dying. Donald was all three.
There is no doubt that Howey is a fine writer.The trilogy is a wonderful epic, full of imagination and skilful invention, but the need to bring so much incident to a conclusion has meant that some aspects of the narrative in Dust are thinly sketched. Juliette and her lover Lucas in Silo 18 are well developed, Donald and Charlotte in Silo 1 are also engaging but many of the other characters are treated too briefly to have much impact. Even those still alive in Silo 17 are sparsely fleshed out – except for the charming child, Elise. However, the drive and momentum of the story carry the reader to a satisfying and truly exciting ending that is full of hope. The trilogy is an amazing tour-de-force and I am still thrilled by the scope of the narrative and the basic premise of preserving humanity through confinement to silos. Howey has an extraordinary imagination and the skill to make his story vivid and compelling. The three books have been a demanding and clever read.
Hugh Howey Dust Century 2013 PB 416pp $29.95
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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