AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Hugh Howey

What is the appeal of “weird west” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

There are a lot of parallels between the settlement of the American west and established themes in science fiction. Here is life on the frontier, the sense of exploration, but then those same lands had already been settled, hadn’t they? The treatment of Native Americans reflects warnings found in colonization stories within science fiction. And there’s the adventure of being at the forefront, of new technologies like the railroad, the telegraph, machined parts, rifles, the promise of riches and wide open spaces. Anyone who enjoys a good western could find something to like in the genre of science fiction. And vice versa.

What are some of your favorite examples of weird westerns (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

My absolute favorite is Firefly. Everything about that show was pitch perfect. Except for its tragic brevity.

In “Hell from the East,” you open the story by relating the character’s experience in the Civil War. Throughout the piece, historical incidents crop up, giving us a sense of a world rooted in a tragic past. How did you go about researching and/or selecting the bits of history that made it into the story?

I’m a history buff. That doesn’t mean I don’t get some things wrong or that I didn’t take liberties with others, but I’ve read quite a bit about the Civil War and about the American West. I visited one of the remaining forts from the era, which helped establish my setting. My dad lives in Colorado, and we have driven across several states out there on either side of the Rockies. I’m still amazed that people made that journey in wagons and on foot.

Life in the universe that you’ve created is full of difficult choices, one of them being the main character’s choice to return to the military after the war. Over time, we see him change as experiences harden him. Which experience in the story was the most pivotal in forming his character and why?

I would say the most pivotal was the most severe. Staring into the sun and receiving instructions from another race, that’s pretty extreme.

What was the inspiration behind this particular story? Did you draw from any specific event or did the idea come to you more spontaneously?

I’ve always been fascinated by the similarities between two belief systems: that of extraterrestrial sentience and a belief in god. For thousands of years, gods were made in our own images. We ascribed incredible powers to them, envisioned them affecting our lives, placed all of our hopes and our fears in them. They would save us or destroy us. When space travel became a dream, aliens became a stand-in for our gods. Again, we made them in our bipedal image. We feared their wrath but admired their powers. Cults formed. These parallels speak to some truth about the human psyche. They say more about the world within us than the world without. So I took the worship of the sun and the idea of having “visions from God,” and I gave that my own twist. I thought about the legends of Native Americans who would attack from the rising sun to make it difficult to see them coming, and I saw how far I could take that.

Without saying too much about the ending, is it possible that the conclusion in this story could come to pass in some way?

I don’t think so. It’s metaphor and an exploration of the human condition. I doubt we’ll ever interact with alien sentience in any meaningful or direct way.

While you’re best known, perhaps, for apocalyptic novels like Wool and Sand, you have created a rich setting and intriguing weird western in “Hell from the East.” Do you think that you might return to this world for future stories?

It’s possible. I move around so much, there’s always a chance of circling around and exploring the same territory a second time.