Dust by Hugh Howey (2012; read in 2016)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This novel picks up where Shift left off, with Juliette having returned to Silo 18. She’s mayor, Lukas is head of IT, Donald is feeding Lukas and Juliette information in an effort to help them survive while Charlotte (Donald’s sister) continues to launch drones, trying to fly far enough to see the world beyond the Silo zone. Juliette is mayor, but her people are not really behind her, because she brings tidings in which the populace is not interested. Don’t change anything. Please. She does, though. Can’t seem to stop picking that scab. So she digs to the other silo, goes outside to sample air, discovers things, talks to Donald and Charlene on the radio to find out more, to hear how they’ve pieced things together while not trusting and misinterpreting and stumbling toward some form of truth. Silo 18 follows 17's lead, 18 flees to 17, then flees the silo area for good, making good on what Donald and Charlene saw. After so much misery, hope.
This book, much more than first two, digs at least a bit deeper into the teleology—insofar as it examines the grand scheme of Thurman and his crew—as well as epistemology—in that it puts every bit of “truth” obtained into question—and, finally, eschatology—because the truths all deal with Thurman’s final solution—as well as ontology—in which our major players question, at least a little bit, what it all means and why they’re there and why they should bother going on fighting for that next breath.
"I’m afraid of being buried alive. I’m afraid of doing the wrong thing.”
“Then do nothing,” she insisted. She nearly begged him right then to put a stop to this madness, to their isolation. They could go back to sleep and leave this to the machines and to the God-awful plans of others. “Let’s not do anything,” she pleaded.
Her brother rose from his seat, squeezed her arm, and turned to leave. “That might be the worst thing,” he quietly said.
Here, we hear Donald and his sister Charlotte go back and forth, trying to figure out what the best approach is. The situation looks hopeless, best just lie down and let it pass over you. Why struggle? Because that’s what one does. Everything they do seems to make things worse—e.g. the fall of silo 12—but not doing anything might be even worse than that, as Thurman and his cohort have no analogous qualms.
“She saw those chapters to mean that tearing a world down was a simple affair; the gravity of human nature tugged willingly. It was the building up afterward that proved complex. It was what to replace injustice with that very few gave thought to. Always with the tearing down, she said, as if the scraps and ashes could be pieced back together.”
This is Juliette, essentially realizing that, duh, entropy, right?
“And now she recalled how distant these meetings seemed while working in the depths of the silo. Often, she and her friends only heard what was being discussed and what rules were being passed after it had already happened. Not only was it a far climb, but most of them were too busy surviving the day-to-day to trudge anywhere for a discussion on tomorrows.”
This is an apt description of how our beneficent leaders get away with so much evil in our name. And, once they realize how easily they are allowed to rule by a distracted populace, well…they will quickly conclude that it’s in their best interests to keep us distracted.
“She wanted to calm these people down, to tell them she meant well, that she could fix this if they would just let her try.”
But if you know things no one else knows and they don’t allow logic to rule their world, if you don’t have enough evidence or they discount it or pretend some things never happened, then are you not viewed as a person espousing a religion? What, in net effect, is the difference?
People don’t, in general, want new and better for everyone—just yours truly. And Juliette wants to take them forward by changing everything. But they want everything to back to the way it was. But don’t they want to know the truth? No. Truth is a luxury. It is unnecessary when your only goal is survival, when you can’t see the connection between knowledge and material improvement. And even if you can show the connection, by all means, hurry. Or you’ll lose your audience, who you were trying to save, but who will fight you each step of the way, dragging you down into their quagmire of ignorance.
“The only thing more impressive to Juliette than the depths of the conspiracy had been the speed and relief with which its mechanisms had crumbled within IT. The men and women of level thirty-four reminded her of the children of Silo 17, frightened and wide-eyed and desperate for some adult they could cling to and trust. This foray of hers to test the outside air was looked upon with suspicion and fear elsewhere in the silo, but in IT, where they had pretended to do this work for generations, the chance to truly investigate had been seized by many with wild abandon.”
““It doesn’t bother me that I won’t be around one day,” Lukas said after a while. “I don’t stress about the fact that I wasn’t here a hundred years ago. I think death will be a lot like that. A hundred years from now my life will be just like it was a hundred years ago.””
That is the hope of the silo dwellers, because it has to be. For us, though, it’s not the same is it? On Spaceship Earth? Or must we also dial back our expectations of growth, of constant expansion? Can we expand in our minds without expanding our physical demands on our surroundings? Or must we also expect/hope that things will be the same a century from now?
“There was a rattle in Donald’s chest, a flapping of some loosely connected thing, an internal alarm that his condition was deteriorating – that he was getting worse. He forced himself to cough, as much as he hated to, as much as his diaphragm was sore from the effort, as much as his throat burned and muscles ached. He leaned forward in his chair and hacked until something deep inside him tore loose and skittered across his tongue, was spat into his square of fetid cloth.”
I just thought that passage was so visceral.
““Their fear doesn’t just color the world they see,” he said, his eyes wild. “They poison the world with it. It’s a toxin, this fear. They send their own out to clean, and that poisons the world!””
“Someone to save. The folly of man – the folly of the blasted silos he had helped to build – this assumption that things needed saving. They ought to have been left on their own, both people and the planet. Mankind had the right to go extinct. That’s what life did: it went extinct. It made room for the next in line. But individual men had often railed against the natural order. They had their illegally cloned children, their nano treatments, their spare parts, and their cryopods. Individual men like those who did this.”
Despite all of the pseudo-philosophical whitewashing, the best-laid and most lofty plans often boil down to me gettin’ mine, Jack. This particular group had done it although they’d already had the world in the palm of their hands, but drove themselves so mad that they convinced themselves someone was coming to take it, so they destroyed it in order to save it. As the U.S. did to Vietnam et al.
“She had been woken up by her brother into a nightmare, and yet she remembered the world from before, a world of blue skies and green grass. She had glimpsed that world with her drone. If she had been born into this, had never known anything else, would she want to be told? To be awoken? Would she want someone to tell her the truth?”
Listen, I swear to you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I … this will be hard for you to believe, maybe, but I remember when the world out there was very different. When we could live and breathe out there. And I think part of it can be like that again. Is like that right now. That’s what my brother wanted to tell you, that there’s hope out there.”
A pause. A heavy breath. Charlotte’s arm was back to throbbing.
Charlotte waited. The radio hissed at her like an angry breath forced through clenched teeth.
“My home, my people, are dead and you would have me hope. I’ve seen the hope you dish out, the bright blue skies we pull down over our heads, the lie that makes the exiled do your bidding, clean for you. I’ve seen it, and thank God I knew to doubt it. It’s the intoxication of nirvana. That’s how you get us to endure this life. You promise us heaven, don’t you? But what do you know of our hell?”
She was right. This Juliette was right. How could such a conversation as this take place? How did her brother manage it? It was alien races who somehow spoke the same tongue. It was gods and mortals. Charlotte was attempting to commune with ants, ants who worried about the twists of their warrens beneath the soil, not the layout of the wider land. She wouldn’t be able to get them to see […]
And here I don’t think that Charlotte really considered herself a God in any sense. Just that the gap between experiences was too large to bridge. Of course Charlotte’s silo was much more advanced than Juliette’s—by design. But Juliette, with her scientific/engineering bent, was arguably better equipped to live in and extend the technology of the world of Silo 1 than Charlotte, who was, at best, a cog in the machine and not very aware of how anything in her magical and more advanced world worked.
“But it seems about right. Don’t it seem like a clock ticking down? Either the gods knew how much to stock away, or they don’t have plans for us past a certain date. Makes you feel like pig’s milk, don’t it? Anyhow, that’s how it seems to me.”
Juliette turned and studied her albino friend, saw the way the green emergency lights gave him a sort of eerie glow.
“Maybe,” Juliette said. “Gina may’ve been on to something.”
Raph sniffed. “Yeah, but fuckit. We’ll be long dead before then.”
He laughed at this, his voice echoing up and down the stairs, but the sentiment made Juliette sad. Not just that everyone she knew would be dead before that date ever happened, but that this knowledge made it easier to stomach an awful and morbid truth: Their days were counted. 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.
“The nice man with the dark whiskers seemed to be arguing a point. The man in the white blanket just frowned and stood there. Now and then, one or both of them would glance at Elise, and she worried they were talking about her. Maybe they were talking about how to find Puppy.”
This is most likely meant to be endearing. the wide-eyed innocent. Are we all like that, though, regardless of how clever and attentive we think we are? Are we all wide-eyed naïfs when compared to those cleverer and better-informed than we are? Each of us has certain information and a certain intellect, each of us thinking we know what’s going on. There are not only the different contexts of the child, Elise, the churchfolk, the mechs, each with their own agenda and view on things. but then there’s also the other layer of how the reader is likely to interpret the situation based on their own unique context. So here we see Elise interpreting what’s going on based on her own worldview, which is a seven-year–old’s, consumed by her own needs—her hunger and Puppy. They are likely discussing something weightier, like how not to die in the next 24 hours. The reader, on the other hand, might find it cute that Elise is worried about Puppy and is naive about the worries of the world (awww, the child makes it all worth it!) or might be annoyed with her because she’s constantly distracting people from more worthwhile work. Or they might think she’s doing everyone a favor—whether she knows it or not—by distracting them from the larger job of long-term survival, which is through its impossibility, and forcing them to focus on short-term tasks that can be achieved, but that lead nowhere. Is that better than nothing? Or are the constant distractions the reason why the long-term goal is impossible?
“Darcy made sure the safety was off. He gripped the handle on the door and threw it up, then crouched down and aimed his flashlight and pistol into the gloom. He very nearly shot up someone’s bedroll. There was a rumpled pile of pillows and blankets that looked at first like a person sleeping. He saw more of the folders like the ones he’d helped gather from the conference room. This was probably where the man they’d snagged had been hiding. He’d have to show Brevard and get the place cleaned up. He couldn’t imagine living like that, like a rat. (Emphasis added.)”
This is a nice ironic juxtaposition between a rat in a larger cage feeling pity for a rat in a smaller one. We in our expansive world can see how limited Darcy’s own situation is, but could we understand how someone with a galactic view would find our being “trapped” on Earth to be confining as well?
“The cryopods and shifts were exaggerated forms of sleep, he thought. What seemed unnatural was more a matter of degree than of kind. Cave bears hibernated for a season. Humans hibernated each night. Daytime was a shift, each one endured like a quantum of life, all the short-term planning leading up to another bout of darkness, little thought given to stringing those days into something useful, some chain of valuable pearls. Just another day to survive.”
““The world isn’t gone,” Charlotte confirmed. “Just our piece of it.””
And good riddance to mankind, considering what a mess they’ve made of the planet. The planet is probably better off without him.
“He hesitated, ran his hands across her words, remembering what he’d done. He had killed the one person trying to help him, the one person who loved him. The one person reaching out to these silos to help. All because of his own guilt and self-loathing for loving her back.”
Here Donald confabulates a past that never really happened that way, forgetting that Anna had manipulated him into that nightmarish situation in the first place, and that for her own personal gain. When she later “saw the light”, her motives were purer, but the interpretation above, while believable as a confabulation, is far too generous.
“[…] the evidence already of vandalism and theft, the long stretches of wire and pipe gone missing, the scattering of stalk and leaf and soil from those hurrying away with stolen plants. She hoped to rise above the injustices strewn about her, to escape this last spasm of civility before chaos reigned. It was coming, she knew. But as high as she and Raph climbed, there were people throwing open doors to explore and loot, to claim territory, to yell down from landings some finding or shout up some question. In the depths of Mechanical, she had lamented how few had survived. And now it seemed like so many.”
This is the reward for believing in a higher purpose. Almost no-one else cares about your long-term goals, unless they happen to dovetail with their own short-term ones.
“And her annoyance with the Planning Committee and Father Wendel’s congregation was misplaced, she thought. Had her mechanics not lashed out? Was she not lashing out right then? What was any group but a bunch of people? And what were people but animals as prone to fear as rats at the sound of boots?”
“What do you think is going on in all those other silos right now?” Charlotte asked. “You dealt with them. Is it as bad there as it is here?”
Donald considered this. “I don’t know. Some of them are happy enough, I suppose. They get married and have kids. They have jobs. They don’t know anything beyond their walls, so I guess they don’t have some of the stress about what’s out there that you and I feel. But I think they have something else that we don’t have, this deep feeling that something is wrong with how they’re living. Buried, you know. And we understand that, and it chokes us, but they just have this chronic anxiety, I think. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’ve seen men happy enough here to get through their shifts. I’ve watched others go mad. I used to … I used to play solitaire for hours on my computer upstairs, and that’s when my brain was truly off and I wasn’t miserable. But then, I wasn’t really alive, either.”
But you know what I think? I think they knew that if a war broke out between all these invisible machines, that some pockets of people would survive here and there. So they built this. They made sure the destruction was complete so they could control it.”
“They wanted to make sure the only pockets of people who survived were in their pockets,” Charlotte said. “Exactly. They weren’t trying to save the world – they were trying to save themselves.
“How did they think they would ever contain all this? That something like this wouldn’t happen?” “I don’t know,” Donald said. “Maybe the kinds of people who try to shape the world feel like they’re smarter than chaos itself.””
“They reminded her why she was doing this, what she was fighting for, what was worth fighting for. A rage had built up inside of her, a single-minded pursuit of digging through the earth down below and digging for answers outside. And she had lost sight of this, these things worth saving. She had been too concerned with those who deserved to be damned. This anger melted as Elise clung to her neck and Solo’s beard scratched her face. Here was what was left, what they still had, and protecting it was more important than vengeance. That’s what Father Wendel had discovered. He had been reading the wrong passages in his book, passages of hate rather than hope. And Juliette had been just as blind. She had been prepared to rush off and leave everyone behind.”
Or…the short-term, the shortsighted goal eclipses the more real and more communally beneficial goal. Or was the suicide attack the selfish solution?
“Juliette turned and gazed at the blank wallscreen. She wondered if it was all a dream. This was what happened to the dying soul; it scrambled for some perch, some stairway to cling to, some way not to fall. She had cleaned and died on that hill outside her silo. She had never loved Lukas at all. Never gotten to know him properly. This was a land of ghosts and fiction, events held together with all the vacant solidarity of dreams, all the nonsense of a drunken mind.”
“She passed through the spot where she’d hugged her brother, and any plan of escape wilted. She had little desire to carry on. Her brother was gone. The world was gone. Even if she lived to see green grass and eat one more MRE, cut her lip on one more can of water … why?”
“She imagined the world they might build with time and resources, with no rules but what’s best and no one to pin down their dreams. “I think we’ll make it,” she finally said. “I think we can make any damn thing we like.””
And, in the end, despite everything else in the story, a message of hope. A bit contrived, at the very end.