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You Got to Keep Digging: Hugh Howey on Silo

The dystopic new AppleTV+ series “Silo” is based on a series of books by Hugh Howey about a community that lives entirely inside a gigantic tube-like structure. Their records have been destroyed so they do not know how their confinement began or exactly what will happen if they try to go outside but they believe leaving means death – until some people begin to question what they have been told. The books began as self-published and became international best-sellers. 

Howey, who executive produced the series, talked to RogerEbert.com about how the story’s themes about what people are told and taught are suddenly especially timely, and why he likes both ancient navigation techniques with very little technology and ultra-advanced technology like ChatGPT.

Did you know how vitally relevant the issues of this series would be to the headlines we see every day about what we allow people to know and what we want to keep away from them?

You know, it's wild; it's so much more relevant than when I wrote it. And I wish that wasn't true. When you're a dystopian writer, you hope that the near future will look back and say, “That was quaint.” So, it's definitely not my hope. But I think a lot of these things, they've been written about for a long time. I remember reading George Orwell in 1984 and thinking, “That's so silly; people are going to remember who their enemies are. You can't just tell them the next day, and they're going to change their minds.” 

I grew up in the Cold War, and my dad was a staunch Republican. He hated the Russians. And now, Republicans like Russia. So, these issues are universal, and they, unfortunately, will probably always be relevant. But it's certainly true that this story is coming out at a great time for us to talk about truth and trust and believing what we see on screens.

When you sat down to talk about how this series should look, was there some particular detail that was very important to you that they get right?

Getting the stairwell right. The set is secondary to the characters. You’ve got to make sure you nail casting and their motivations are true to the source material. If you get that DNA, then you can fudge a lot of other things. But the stairwell is such a, I hate to say, central feature of the story. It literally is central, but it's something that the book really depends on, and the show as an extension depends on getting that right, having the space around the stairs, and having the stairs be big enough for events to take place on it. 

The spiral staircase is very thematic. It's the DNA. It's just this coiled helix in humanity. And the people behind the silo, whoever they are, as that mystery unfolds, they think that they can understand and control humans. The stairs are a reminder that what we are is immutable. The characters are a response to an attempt to change their humanity or ignore it. And I don't think you can get away with that. That's the thing we had to get right.

Two of the defining characteristics of humans that separate us from other animals are a sense of humor and curiosity. And there's really nothing you can do to stop people from wanting to know what you don't want them to know. 

I love that. That's the heart of the heroes of this story. That's what makes Allison and George and Juliet and Holston eventually become troublemakers to the people in charge and heroes to everyone else.

Where did you grow up? What were you like as a kid?

[laughs] Man, I probably need my sister, my mom here to answer what I was like. I have a hard time being objective about it. I grew up in rural North Carolina. My dad was a small grain farmer, so he had hundreds of acres of land that we farmed. And my mom was a schoolteacher. That sounds very quaint, but that's all I've known. 

I grew up in the woods, exploring creeks with my dog, and I read voraciously. I didn't think I could be a writer because I thought it required some special seal of approval. But I fell in love with Ender's Game when I was really young, and when I found out Orson Scott Card was from North Carolina, I was like, “Wow, maybe this is something I could do.” I was 12 years old, dreaming about this. And I just went from being a bookworm to traveling and sailing around a lot, and having a lot of life experiences. And later, I was able to turn some of those experiences into two novels.

Did you have a teacher who particularly inspired you? 

I went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, to study physics, and in my first English class, I had professor Dr. Dennis Goldsberry, and he changed my life. He was a very difficult teacher, and he told everyone on the first day, “If you're here to get an A, you should go ahead and leave. You're not going to get an A on any paper unless I put your paper down and I walk to my window and shed a tear.” And he was dead serious. He was so rough. And I was enamored immediately. I was like, “I want to impress this guy.” I took every class that he taught. And eventually, he said, “You're not a physics major. You're an English major.” And I switched my major.

I'm interested in your other life as a sailor, relying on tradition, even ancient systems of navigation. One of the things that's so enthralling in Silo is what technologies you include, some we have and some more advanced, and what technologies you don’t allow your characters to have. 

I named my boat Wayfinder because I have a lot of respect for the Polynesian explorers who settled all the Pacific islands with very primitive technology, but very advanced wisdom and technique. The idea that they floated downstream and they settled islands because they got lost is so ridiculous. They were expert navigators and expert sailors. And this was just proven recently by researchers who sailed around the world on a traditionally built craft using just the wayfinding techniques. So, I have a lot of respect for human curiosity. Our brains are super impressive. And if you go back in time, you can see what people could do with just a lot of free time and their thoughts. And so, we're like, “How could they have built the pyramids? How could they have sailed around the Pacific?” And they were just like us. They just weren't as distracted by social media so they were able to do pretty amazing things, like using the stars, the temperature of the water, that tells you about currents and where you are, the wave direction, whether or not you see birds, in which direction they're traveling, cloud formation. Clouds form over landmasses. So, it's incredible what you can do. If you don't know these things, there's all this noise. But if you understand them, it's actually signal.

How did you decide what kind of technology the people in the story would have? They have things we recognize, some that’s more advanced than what we have now, but much of what we do have does not exist in their world.

It's a cool mix, right? There are things that are beyond us and things that are primitive. You don't really learn the reason for those decisions until very late in the book series, so it'll be a while, we'll have to get some more seasons of TV to explain that. But whatever went wrong outside on earth, the people who went through that want it to not happen again, and so the technologies that they blame for that are technologies that they try to hide from the people who are left. And it's an attempt to maybe help humanity, but hopefully not help them too much, because you don't want them to just end up where the last people ended up. 

You’ve thought a great deal about technology. What do you think about AI like ChatGPT?

It's the most impressive thing that I've ever seen, more than the Internet, more than smartphones. I don't know that we have an equivalent. Maybe CRISPR, maybe some DNA sequencing. But this is completely different from anything we've had before. I was at a conference recently full of really smart people, and we were there to talk about AI and robotics and machine learning, and everyone had a feeling of being ungrounded like we knew what the future held and now we're not so sure. It's a fascinating time because I think whatever you think of this technology, this is the dumbest version of it you'll ever see. So, when people are like, “Well, we can do this, but it can't do that,” they're probably wrong by the time they say the sentence. We don't yet have access to the things that are in the lab.

And it's getting good so quickly that we're going to have to start getting wise as quickly as we're getting advanced in other ways in technology. We have to start having more and better conversations about what it means to be human, how to treat each other, and what our ethics are. Because Asimov's laws of robotics, that's not fanciful anymore. People are having to solve those problems now. And I think it's super exciting. I didn't think I would see this in my lifetime. And it's just cool to be here and be a part of it.

My hope is that wisdom is correlated to knowledge, a mixture of knowledge and intellect and experience. And these algorithms are learning from our collective knowledge. And I think that there is wisdom in our collective wisdom. So, I think the idea that these things are going to be smarter than us and then, therefore, evil is so strange to me. I've played with ChatGPT-4 a lot. And when I ask it questions, it gives me a lot of wisdom and a lot more EQ than IQ. And so, you can ask it therapeutic stuff, like “I had a hard day at work.” I'll just make things up, and it'll give me an amazing response that shows me that we might not just make something that's smarter than us, we might make something that's wiser than us.

There's this game of Go where Google's DeepMind algorithm made a move that everyone said was pure creativity. It could not have learned it, it was not a human move, and it was ingenious. And the people who know Go, and this Go was supposed to be unsolvable, and then we proved it wasn't when they saw this move, they gasped. And they recognized its genius, but they didn't recognize where it came from. And apparently, people who are really playing with these large language models are seeing some emergent properties that don't seem to just come from repeating back things that they've heard. And I think that's how we operate. Am I creative? I'm a mix of all of the stories that I've imbued over the years, and something different comes out. But I think we're going to see creativity and newness come out of this as well, and not just something that repeats us back to us.

I love the title because it refers to the physical silo and the information silo.

When I originally thought of the story, I was dealing with silos. The wall screen was this idea that our information is filtered and what these echo chambers do to our psyche, especially if we're just fed bad news all the time. And so, the whole thing is just this metaphor of us living through our screens, not going out and seeing the world, not talking to people we disagree with, not challenging ourselves and our worldviews. 

I sailed into Cuba in the late 90s before it was open to Americans, and what I found there was so different from the world that I had been told about. And I volunteered at a soup kitchen in the Bronx for a while, and it was a time when things were really tough when Decatur Street was a really rough part of the world. And what I found were kids in the street who wanted to play soccer with me. And watching young people falling in love on stoops. And in Cuba, life was vibrant and fresh and new. And I started thinking, “Man if those things were wrong, what else that I’ve been told is wrong?” And that was a big inspiration.

You got to keep digging. And that's what this show is all about. You'll see these characters, they just keep digging. And boy, things just get crazier and crazier.

"Silo" premieres on Apple TV+ on May 5. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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