Friday, September 11, 2015

Diving Into the Front Range

Review: Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey; Dunes Over Danvar by Michael Bunker


Hugh Howey's Wool Omnibus was the last trade paperback I bought before I bought a Kindle several years ago. I had planned to read it on a one-week business trip that ballooned to five weeks, necessitating the eBook reader purchase. (No way I could pack all the books I'd read in five weeks away from home into a single suitcase.)

Instead of adorning my mind, it lay on an end-table, unread from then until now. 

It took a recent acquaintance, Michael Bunker, to reawaken my interest in Howey. Looking for something else after Pennsylvania (reviewed last month as Unsettling Future Settlers), I found Bunker's novella written for the world of Sand, and decided I needed to read Sand Omnibus first.

You know how the Inuit, who live in a world defined by snow and ice, are said to have a thousand words for snow? The natives of Springston and Low-Pub live in a world of sand. They have a different term for each of sand's behaviors and habits; scoop and sift and sag and spill, rush and cake and stonesand, gunk and matte and grit

Sand is onmipresent in their lives; it defines their status. Lords live on the wall that holds back its westward march before the never-ending wind, while in Shantytown shacks are built on layers of sunken structures that have vanished into the ever-deeper sand. Sissyfoots carry a quota of buckets each day to keep the well clear and pay for their schooling. (The name is an obvious echo of "Sisyphus," a  signal of the unending nature of their task.) Between Springston and its Shantytown lies the Honey Hole, a brothel/bar where beer is cheaper than water. After all, beer can be brewed from water that isn't fit to drink.

Howey's background in yachting can be clearly seen in his treatment of the sand as a kind of solid ocean. Pirates and brigands and working people alike sail across its expanse, and the wealth of its waves is harvested by divers. The sand-divers don special suits that let them carry their air to depths beneath the dunes, down to the buried sandscrapers of an ancient city to scavenge what they can.

The waves of sand, the infinite wind blowing always east-to-west, the dry, dust-laden sky, the line of stone mountains to the west, and the three towns in a line along the mountains called up my memories of the geology west of Denver. Specifically, I remembered Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Flatirons farther north. The hundreds of feet of oxidized sand that made these iconic formations had piled up at the feet of the ancestral Rockies, blown on a dry wind that carried them endlessly west to be tumbled out of the sky by the mountain barrier.

I knew the fabled city the sand-divers were seeking, once a mile high, now buried "a mile deep under the sand." How it began to blow was unimportant. With the fluid waves of sand, with the divers and sarfer-borne pirates, with the sand-laden vocabulary, Howey gets the picture just right. The world of Sand is still a human world, and people are still people.


Dunes Over Danver

This novella-length piece by Michael Bunker takes the world of Sand in a slightly different direction than the original omnibus. We meet Poet, a man who values himself highly, and Peary, a sand-diver who rescues the nearly-dead Poet from the sands. Poet is a duplicitous user of "lesser" folks like sand-divers, and we spend the entire story wondering when and how he will next trick those around him to his advantage.

Bunker expertly uses the sand and the predators who sail over it, and the penultimate catastrophe from Howey's novel, to tell a story of courage and redemption, a neat counterpart to the tale of survival and human triumph in Sand

In looking back, I am surprised that I did not think once of an iconic older tale of sand and the culture that sprang from it, Dune. I believe this is because the themes of Herbert's novel are so distant from those of Sand and Dunes Over Danvar. Not even the final event in both stories brought Dune to mind—a clear indication of the solid world-building Howey accomplished, and the seamless way Bunker stayed in that world with this novella.