Hugh Howey has a gift for creating elaborate dystopian worlds that readers love to visit despite the fact that they’d never want to actually live there. In Sand, his unfortunate characters abide in a desert world that is gradually being buried by sand which constantly blows in from the east. Over the years its relentless intrusion has overcome so many towns that new generations keep building on top of the ruins of their predecessors. Nobody knows where the sand comes from or why. Nobody knows if there’s anything better over the horizon because when people leave to find out, they never return.
The heroes of the story are the wife and four children of a man who left them years ago. They are a bitter bunch, left to try to hold their family together in a hopeless situation. The mother has resorted to prostitution, the oldest daughter is plagued by painful memories, the oldest son has disappeared. The younger sons seem to be the only ones who want to keep their father’s memory alive.
All of the kids are, or want to be, sand divers like their father. They strap on special gear which allows them to dive into the sand and salvage buried objects — objects that prove that a prosperous and technologically advanced community once lived in their land. Objects that make them curious about the past and wonder what’s beyond the world they can see.
As the story starts, it’s time for the annual family camping trip. It’s no coincidence that, unbeknownst to them, now is the time that the world is about to change, not just for this family, but for their entire world. Every member of the family, even those we don’t expect to see, will have a role to play. And they might not all make it out alive.
Much of the appeal of Sand is simply the curiousness of Hugh Howey’s brutal world. It is obviously a far-future United States. How did we end up like this? What is the rest of the planet like? What happens to the people who leave? Why haven’t they figured out how to get out of this situation? Where is their father? Daily life is harsh and monotonous as the mother sells herself to support her children and the younger kids labor to carry their daily quota of sand away from the town’s water pipes. Their weary work is never done and progress is never made. The world of Sand is a cruel place to live.
There’s a little bit of romance that momentarily lightens the tone and Howey also provides some beauty with his inclusion of the sport of deep sea diving. Anyone who dives or knows people who dive will recognize this — fins, air tanks and regulators, diving buddies, diver down flags, fear of the bends, the thrill of treasure hunting. Except that instead of the glory of the open sea, divers in Howey’s world experience the claustrophobia of being buried alive.
In some ways Sand is a warning about totalitarianism, oppression, and how hard life can be when individual freedom is squelched and technological progress stalls. The book description says Sand is an “exploration of lawlessness.” But there’s something deeper here. If you brush all the grit aside, buried underneath you’ll find that Sand is a tender novel about hope, faith, redemption, family, and the difficult things we’re willing to do for the people we love.
The Sand omnibus edition contains five parts which were previously released separately (“The Belt of the Buried Gods,” “Out of No Man’s Land,” “Return to Danvar,” “Thunder Due East,” and “A Rap Upon Heaven’s Gate.”) I listened to the audio omnibus edition which was produced by Broad Reach Publishing and read by Karen Chilton. She has a lovely rich voice that I enjoyed listening to for 10.25 hours. I recommend this version.