Sunday, 25 August 2013

Hugh Howey: Dust

Let's put any grumbles I might have about Dust into context right at the start; within a minute of knowing that it was available as an ebook, I'd downloaded it, and by the following morning, I'd finished reading it.

Dust is one of those books that I read with trepidation. Wool impressed me a lot. I wasn't quite so sure about Shift, the prequel/follow-up; as I said at the time, it answered a lot of questions from the first book without giving me the strong characters which had been such an important part of Wool. So for Dust, I was on tenterhooks. I wanted to know what was going to happen to all the people I'd got to know in the other books, but more than that, I kept worrying about whether the resolution could possibly live up to the set-up. So this was one of those books which I kept putting down in the middle; as each crunching development thudded into place, I'd stop and ponder it a bit, trying to think how I felt about it and whether it was good enough for what had come before.

Well, it's stronger than Shift, not as good as Wool. It answers most of the questions, but not always as well as I wanted. To some extent this is just because there are no answers good enough for the great mcguffin of lunacy as the heart of the plot; the conspiracy which lies at the heart of the whole trilogy couldn't possibly work. People don't work that way, and neither do machines. The closer you get to the punchline of something like that, the harder it is to keep the suspension of disbelief going. The mystery is always more compelling than the answer. Even apart from that, as we get closer to the answers, Howey keeps snatching them away, trying to keep them just out of sight, holding off the reveal for a little longer and then slipping it into the next chapter as something which the characters have come to terms with and which the reader hasn't properly seen yet. Occasionally, this elliptical approach has very elegant results; one character has been set up very carefully so that his moment of self sacrifice can be spelt out with a single line of dialogue to the character he's saving; the reader understands perfectly, but the character can't make sense of it at all. It makes what might otherwise have been a very rushed sequence far more affecting than it had any right to be.

But that said, it's a very rushed book. The action in Wool unfolded in weeks; the action in Shift in days spread out over decades, even centuries. In Dust, the action is back to weeks, and for the first time it feels as though Howey was writing to a deadline, trying to get everything onto the page as quickly as he could. The strength of most of Wool lay in the feeling that everything had marinaded just enough; I complained at the time that the ending felt rushed, and the whole of Dust has the same problem all the way through; characters and situations which would have been teased out and given space in Wool are thrown quickly at the page and are gone almost before you have time to think them through. 

Mostly these days, you're waiting and waiting for a book to appear, so it seems ungrateful to complain that Howey has delivered a workable trilogy to me within four months of me knowing it existed. But Wool took time; it simmered slowly from 2011 to 2013. For once, I wish I'd had to wait a little longer, so that Howey would have had time to give Dust the same depth and power that Wool had.

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