Sand (Omnibus Edition)

The old world lies buried under a deep layer of sand, in places hundreds of metres thick. The new world, only a gaunt shadow of the former one, has been built atop the ever-shifting sand dunes. Denizens of this bleak world are little more than scavengers, rummaging through the remnants of once great civilisation, making use of whatever scraps of the old world they can find and salvage. But the real treasures lie buried dozens, even hundreds of metres under the surface of the sand-swept wasteland, hidden deep down within the sandscrapers of the old cities, far too deep for anyone to reach and dig out. That is, anyone except the sanddivers. These daredevils are plunging deep below the desert floor, risking their lives to bring up the relics of the old world – the feat that earns them respect and a special status in the society.

The thing that makes sanddiving possible are ingenious, electrically wired dive suits that vibrate outwards, sending subsonic waves through molecules and atoms of sand, causing its liquefaction, where rock-solid sand around the diver starts behaving like liquid.

Palmer and Hap, sanddivers and best friends since diving school, are hired by a group of brigands for a seemingly routine salvage job in the wastes. But when they arrive at pirates’ camp, they learn that this isn’t an ordinary scavenging dive. The brigands are here in search of Danvar, the fabled city of old. Their boss Brock came into possession of a map, which pinpoints the location of the rumoured, long lost city, and Palmer and Hap’s task is to confirm that it is really this legendary city that is extending under their feet.

Brock explains to the boys that the ground level of the city is some eight hundred metres down, but they needn’t dive more than three hundred fifty metres, as the brigands already dug the first two hundred metres and the tallest structures of the city rise up another two hundred fifty metres from the ground. Neither of the boys has ever been down to more than 250, but they keep quiet for fear of losing a lucrative job.

The men around the table stopped their chattering and drinking. Their boss, leaning over an old parchment, was speaking. His finger found a star every boy knew. “Low-Pub”, he said, his voice as rough as the sand-studded wind. Palmer watched as Brock traced a line up the belt, his fingertip like a sarfer sailing the winds between the two towns and across all that contested land. “Springston”, he announced, pausing at the middle star. The fat finger resumed its passage due north – “Danvar”, Brock announced, thumping the table.

The following day, the boys descend the first 100 metres down the V-shaped pit the pirates dug up, and then are lowered another 100 metres down the narrow cylindrical shaft bored at the bottom of the pit. Then the actual dive begins. Palmer and Hap power on their dive suits and plunge below the sand for the most daring and dangerous dive of their lives, hoping to become the first to discover the fabled city.

The dive goes without a hitch and 250 metres down they can already see the top of the highest sandscraper. Palmer descends further 50 metres separating him from the roof, blows in a window and enters the building, closely followed by Hap. The air inside is stale but breathable, so the boys remove their mouthpieces and find themselves inside the real treasure trove. Wherever they look, there are hundreds of artefacts just like those found beneath Springston and Low-Pub, only better preserved – a fortune in metal; dozens of chairs; machines and gizmos; even a brewing machine, still plugged into the wall, that alone would fetch some fifty coins.

Palmer is ecstatic. They’ve made it. This is Danvar of legends. Danvar of old. The mile-deep city, found by a ragtag band of pirates and discovered by him. Palmer loses himself in his thoughts, imagining how his life is about to change. He wouldn’t have to make another dive in his life. He is a man of legends, who, until the end of his days, would sit in a bar with two pretty girls on his lap, sipping an ice-cold drink and telling long stories about his discovery. But his joy proves to be short lived as Hap, who used up all his oxygen on the way down, snatches his bottles and makes his way for the surface. His friend betrayed him. He had taken all Palmer’s air and left him buried alive 500 metres down…

I’m not going to tell you whether Palmer dies deep underground, abandoned by his ‘best friend’, left in total darkness with no water, food, or means of escape. You would have to read the book to find out. And read it you should. The hauntingly life-like post-apocalyptic, dystopian world of Low-Pub, Springston and Danvar (corresponding to the present day cities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver) and its inhabitants will keep you glued to the book from the start to the end.

‘Sand’ is Hugh Howey at his best and definitely one of the most original sci-fi books of 2014.