In this post-apocalyptic vision of Earth, the planet is smothered by hundreds of metres of shifting sands, choking water supplies, consuming dwellings layer by layer until roofs become floors, and hiding submerged cities intact and full of everything that humans once took for granted and have now largely forgotten. Palmer is a sand diver, not quite as good at it as his elder sister Vic but he’s getting there. Their father left them, walking out into No Man’s Land, leaving his wife down on her luck with four children to feed, clothe and shelter in a shantytown controlled by gang lords. The land beneath their feet was once Colorado. Almost a mile down lies, somewhere, the holy grail for sand divers – Danvar – but at that depth and with that amount of bounty at stake it could mean a death sentence for whichever sand diver is prepared to risk his or her neck.
Sand brings together five previously published short stories or novellas in a manner reminiscent of Hugh Howey’s previous Wool which was, in my opinion, a masterpiece, especially when completed by Shift and Dust. In Sand, though, the stories are shorter and each follows very closely on the heels of the one before. The opening section, The Belt of the Buried Gods, is fabulous and immediately sets the scene – in other words, it brings alive in suffocating, claustrophobic horror the sensation of living on the shifting surface of sand and, far worse, the experience of diving into it, using electrically charged boots and suits, as well as great mental focus, to shift sand away from the chest and face while finding a path through its cloying grains to the buried surface below. This is worse than swimming through water ever could be. It may even be worse than drifting helplessly though space. Hugh Howey captures perfectly the terror of the dive, mixing it with the excitement of a treasure hunt, in the same way that he evoked the airless, tiring depths of Wool‘s silos.
We are also confronted with a buried city, its sky scrapers, or sand scrapers as they are now renamed, preserving the dying residues of breathable air. Cups are left on desks alongside computer upon computer, the purpose of which is now forgotten. While some words have been lost, others have been created. There are now many words to describe sand. There are very few to describe a life long gone.
Much of the novel is inspired by a mystery – the disappearance of Palmer’s father and the appearance of the young girl Violet who, barely alive, emerges out of the sand like a desiccated mirage. She claims to know the father and brings with her messages for his abandoned wife, Rose. The story of Rose, though, is not a happy one and her fate hangs over the story of her children like a cloud of blackness.
This is a world of violence, sexual predation and extreme poverty. Not everyone is allowed to dive. Many are sissyfoots who toil daily to keep the town’s one water pump clear of sand or to keep its great wall standing clear of the encroaching sand wave. Children grow up fast, if at all, and life is short.
There are parts of Sand which are every bit as good as the Wool trilogy, mostly in the early worldbuilding and sand diving sections. I was completely hooked and captivated by the power of these descriptions as well as by the character of Palmer. But I did find that the second half of Sand failed to live up to its earlier stunning promise. There was simply not enough diving and not enough about the lost world below and the young souls trying to recover it. Much of this is replaced by the mystery surrounding Palmer’s father and by the relationship between Vic and her mother. While always well-written, I wanted more of the first half and less of the second. This is a particularly unattractive and ugly world and I could empathise with the sand divers searching for the past. I wanted to spend more time with them and less on the surface.
The novel leaves many unanswered questions and it also doesn’t delve deeply enough into character or circumstances – the gangsters, for example, fall flat largely because they’re so unexplained and there is very little sense of what and when actually happened to the planet. I would imagine from this that there is more to come. While I welcome that I would have enjoyed much more time spent on the details, with five sections all equalling the wonder and power of the first.
I must mention that the hardback is a beautiful object – the reverse of the dust jacket as well as the cover below it are gorgeous.