It’s not uncommon for a writer to turn a short story or novella into a novel when they realize there’s more to the story. It’s what sci-fi writer Hugh Howey did with his post-apocalyptic tales Wool, Shift, and Sand, the latter of which was recently reissued in paperback after years of only being available digitally. Here he talks about the story’s origins, as well as his upcoming short story collection, Machine Learning: New And Collected Stories (hardcover, digital).
For those who didn’t read the previous version of Sand, what is it about?
Sand is a wild post-apocalyptic story set in a future where deserts have covered much of North America, water is scarce, and people survive by diving deep under the dunes to dredge up remnants of the world we live in today. It revolves around this one family that has been torn apart by various forces and conflicts. Now they have to come together to help save themselves and their friends. It’s a really gritty story, if you’ll pardon the pun.
It kind of sounds like it could be part of the Silo series. Is that how it started?
The idea may have started when I was in middle school and I saw The Princess Bride for the first time. There’s a scene in the Fire Swamp when Wesley dives into this pit of quicksand to save Buttercup, and they’re both down there for an eternity. It’s as if you can hold your breath and swim around down there, searching for someone or something. We don’t get to see any of that, and my imagination wouldn’t let it go. I wanted to know what it would be like down there.
Years later, I saw experiments where researchers used vibrations to alter the viscosity of sand. They could turn it into a fluid by moving the grains as if they were molecules. Balls set into the sand would sink and float as switches were flipped. This was a major influence for the science behind the stories.
And finally, I visited the great sand dunes on the west side of the Rockies with my dad, and I saw how wind and mountains could leave these enormous deposits. Our landscape is fluid. The Gobi and Sahara deserts are marching outward as we speak. This is a very real threat. These elements came together in my mind, and the people who live in this world became very real to me.
When I think of a world that’s all sand, I can’t help but think of Tatooine from Star Wars. And, well, Jakku from Star Wars. Given that everything Star Wars casts a large shadow, did you, in writing Sand, try to distinguish your world from Tatooine, or did you just accept that you can’t avoid it so why bother?
I was more worried about the massive literary giant Dune, to be honest.
Right, of course.
When you have a classic like Frank Herbert’s Dune leave such an impression with so many readers, it almost closes off an entire ecosystem to further exploration. And I think that can be a shame, when we fear the sanctity of past ideas. There’s always a new twist, or a different take. Whatever genre we write in, we’re often better served to ignore what’s come before and just write the story that’s begging to get out. Don’t close yourself off to a pathway just because it reminds you of something else.
As you said, Sand — like the Wool and Shift books — started life as a series of novellas before being collected into a single volume, of which this new Sand is a reprint. But is there anything different about the versions of the novellas in this collection as opposed to the original novellas or the first version of Sand?
There are slight changes, but nothing major. The big difference is the ability to bring this story to an audience who may have missed it when it was mostly read in digital form. Now my publisher is launching this into bookstores, where readers recently found Beacon 23, Shift, and Dust. With this release of Sand, those same readers are going to be able to enjoy one of my most popular works for the first time.
Speaking of short stories and novellas becoming novels, you have a short story collection called Machine Learning: New And Collected Stories coming out October 3rd. Are any of the other stories in Machine Learning connected to other novels of yours? Or maybe future novels?
There are three that take place before, during, and after the events of the Silo trilogy, and some of the other stories have the potential to become novels down the road. Wool, Sand, and Beacon 23 all started off as short stories. I’ve always thought of “Glitch” as the beginning of a much bigger saga. And I have ideas for how “The Plagiarist” could continue. For me, every short story is an exploration that could lead to more works. It’s the beauty of the medium; you get to travel to all these amazing places in a short amount of time. It definitely invites a return trip now and then.
As I understand it, there are plans to turn Sand into a TV series. Is this still happening?
I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say. It’s much further along than I ever thought I’d see a project get. A brilliant screenplay has been written by a major talent; an unbelievable director is signed on; and a studio has paid for the project. We’re in the last stages, basically. But these things can fall apart a lot quicker than they’re pieced together, so I just assume nothing will come to fruition. Instead, I enjoy each step and phase as its own reward. It’s all exciting and fun for me.
In the years since Sand and the Silo books came out, you bought a boat and have been sailing around. Does that mean your next series will be called Wet or Liquid or Wave, and be a post-apocalyptic tale about people who live underwater? Because if so, you might want to play those BioShock games first.
Ha! I love those BioShock games.
Sailing around the world will definitely push my writing into new directions, but probably not anything to do with water. It’s the cultures my partner and I visit that really fascinate me. As I write this, we’ve spent a week in a very small island that doesn’t get a lot of visitors. I feel like an alien a lot of the time, both in how people gawk at us, and how foreign these lives seem to me. When we leave here tomorrow, it will be with packages to take to the next island, over a hundred miles away. The ferry/ cargo ship only makes the voyage twice a year, so the two dozen inhabitants have very little contact with the outside world. There’s no telling what we’ll find when we arrive, but we know it will be shocking, thought-provoking, beautiful, and vibrant. Which is how I strive for my short stories to feel. I hope as readers journey from one to another, they get a sense of the way I see the world as I grope blindly through it and sail merrily around it.
You mentioned loving the BioShock games. Do you think any of your books could be made into a game?
If I could turn one of my books into a game, it would be Sand. I was a fan of the original Wastelands RPG. I miss the old turn-based role-playing games, where strategy was more important than just clicking around. Thankfully, these games are starting to make a comeback thanks to Kickstarter. Turns out there’s a higher demand for these classic genres than major studios thought. Sadly, the studios I’d want to make the game aren’t around anymore. Bullfrog [who made such games as Populous and Dungeon Keeper] was one of my favorites.
Another dream project, while you’ve got me dreaming, would be for the LucasArts team to make an adventure game out of my Molly Fyde books. Now that’s something I would freak out over. Pardon me while I go fire up the Day Of The Tentacle remake on Steam…
Wait, before you do, one last question: If someone enjoys Sand, they’ve already read the Silo series, and they need something to read before Machine Learning comes out, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that?
Beacon 23 for sure. It’s a fun novel that gets you in the feels when you least expect it.