Wool by Hugh Howey
Editor’s Note: When first published, Wool was an omnibus of edition including 5 “books.” Now, Wool is considered the first novel in Hugh Howey’s SILO series. The other two books are Shift (also at first considered an omnibus) and Dust which we’ve since reviewed.
Wool is the omnibus edition of Hugh Howey’s WOOL series. The first book in the series, Wool, is more of a short story. I don’t even think it hits novella length. It would be just a good-sized chapter in some epic brick. And what do you do at the end of a particularly good chapter? You just turn the page and keep reading.
That’s something to keep in mind for anyone who plans on reading the WOOL books. Just buy the omnibus edition, because you will want to keep reading when you get to the end of the first story. And then you will yell at the book and want to keep reading at the end of the third. And by the time you get to the fourth, you will just think, “I can ignore my family for a few more hours because I really need to keep reading this right now because I am freaking going to kill someone if they keep me from finding out what happens next.” I will admit, I was reading Wool on my Kindle while proctoring exams, and gave at least one student the stink-eye for interrupting me to ask a question. And so I am reviewing them all together, because I tend to think of this as one story, released in serialized form like novels from 50 years ago. Amazon puts the print edition at 548 pages, which honestly would just make Robert Jordan fart in the general direction of this tome.
So, back to the story. What has got me all lathered up?
These are the books that THE HUNGER GAMES wishes they could be when they grow up. Set in a dystopian future, humanity has retreated to a silo buried underground, their only connection to the world a series of cameras that show the brown dessicated surface and the crumbling remnants of skyscrapers in the distance. Under strict controls governing every aspect of their lives — where they work, when they reproduce, where they live — people are kept underground, forbidden to even talk about going outside. If you do talk about outside, the punishment is simple. They make you go outside. And there you will die within seconds, killed by the toxic atmosphere that shreds any sort of protection. But what happens when one woman thinks she has learned the truth about outside? Is it all really a lie? Are they being kept here against their will, without even the knowledge to have a will?
I don’t want to go into the plot too much, because Hugh Howey throws a couple of loops that I don’t want to spoil for anyone else, but these books mirror the same level of dystopian ingenuity as Huxley or Orwell, combined with a Martinian flair for killing off main characters. Anyone with a name has the possibility of being killed, and lots of the people without names too.
But this isn’t violence for the sake of noble sacrifice or villainish emphasis. This is political violence, and Howey makes an argument about the idiocy and simultaneous logic of the use of political violence, totalitarianism and rhetorical manipulation that places this work among those that grace many a college literature class. I think Wool is destined to become a classic of science fiction that is equally thought-provoking and entertaining.
While this is not what I would consider young adult literature, I think it will have broad appeal to younger readers as well, especially those who got turned on to dystopian novels by the HUNGER GAMES books. There are a few swear words, but the level of graphic content it contains pales in comparison to other young adult novels. While there may be a few minor flaws — a moment or two where the pacing drags or the characters pontificate a moment too long — this is the book that I will be foisting upon all my friends telling them, “You need to read this.” And I mean all my friends, not just the ones who typically read genre fiction.
Also, the book is an elaborate knitting metaphor. That’s just awesome.
I picked up the Wool Omnibus, by Hugh Howey, some time ago, though I can’t recall why. Possibly something I saw somewhere, possibly it was a Kindle daily deal. But when I saw it on Ruth’s top ten list for this year (we’ll publish that post next week), I decided it was time to pull up the first story (it’s somewhat a serialized tale). So I did. And I read it. And then I read the second. And then the third. And when I got to the end of what I had on my Kindle, I checked to see if the story continued. The Wool story doesn’t, but I’ll be getting to the prequels pretty soon, I can tell you that.
The setting is not all that original. It’s basically a “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” genre: a group of people are living in an artificial world and eventually learn that the world is larger than they imagined, as well as that their history is not what they thought it was. More specifically with regard to Wool, the artificial world is an underground Silo whose view of the toxic world outside comes via a group of cameras and sensors that reveals only a barren, brown, poisonous land with some tall ruins in the distance. Due to the constraints of their living space, life is strictly regulated by “The Pact” — which determines jobs, relationships, etc. One of the biggest taboos of the pact is talking about the Outside, a taboo punished by being assigned the one-way trip outdoors to clean the sensors (the bodies of past “cleaners” are clearly visible on the camera monitors). As one expects in this type of story, eventually someone or ones start to question their society and what they’ve been told and then hidden truths begin to be revealed, causing all sorts of trouble.
So yes, the plot here isn’t all that original. It is, however, utterly compelling. I’m not going to say any more about it because while it’s not all that original in the big picture sense, and while it does get a tad more predictable toward the end, the details are captivating enough that I don’t want to ruin your fun. Also, Howey does not shy away at all from killing off major characters, including point-of-view ones, and it would be difficult to talk more plot without spoiling such events. I’ll simply say that the deaths, when they come, are extremely effective; you’ll mourn the loss of more than one of these characters.
And that is really where the strength of Wool lies. I’d say the major reason the plot is so compelling is because the characters are so compelling. Each point of view character is fully formed and distinctive. Howey has a way with succinct characterization — we feel we know each of these characters intimately without getting bogged down in a lot of backstory or interior monologue, making us care deeply about what happens to them even as we speed through the plot, dragged on by its urgency and by our connection to the characters.
Wool also deepens toward the end, as more and more is revealed about how this society was created and maintained, and what decisions went into such maintenance. Here, Howey poses some big questions about ethics, the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, means versus ends, etc.
As I was reading Wool, I kept thinking it reminded me of those great early Heinlein books I read as I was first introducing myself to science fiction. It shares a lot of qualities with those books — a sparse and speedy plot, characters who are good with their hands and who use their skills and knowledge to get out of trouble, ethical dilemmas, and so on. It’s been a while since I’ve read those old novels, and I don’t know if they’d hold up at all, but Wool certainly feel right in place alongside them in my memories. Highly recommended, though I also recommend you don’t start Wool without a good block of time in front of you. Having to stop will just annoy you.
Whoever thinks George R.R. Martin is notorious for killing people off needs to take some tips from Hugh Howey. Two words: Main. Characters. You’d think this would be a slightly jarring way to introduce your novel, but it’s testament to Howey’s storytelling skills that this remains a compulsive tale.
Wool is another addition to the hugely over-saturated dystopia genre (not helped by the comparison to The Hunger Games on the cover of my edition). The premise of the book is not massively original. You’ve got your classic post-apocalyptic scenario: planet Earth had been left desolate and the remains of humanity live in an underground silo. Life in the silo is restricted by a series of regulations that its inhabitants can’t break without being sent for ‘cleaning,’ which involves being sent outside to the ruined world above to clean the cameras which offer the only view of the outside world. It also means certain death, as the toxic atmosphere above quickly burns through the protective suits the cleaners wear.
It’s difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. Though the novel spans multiple viewpoints, our main protagonist is Juliette, a feisty mechanic from down deep — the bottom thirty floors of a silo some one hundred and fifty floors in depth. Though she’s never given the world above a second thought, happy to live amongst the machines of the deep, she finds herself having to tackle responsibilities and moral dilemmas that she’s never before considered. Unlike the machines that can be easily fixed, there is no obvious solution to solving the decay that has set into the silo, and Juliette is soon way over her head.
Although you wouldn’t think a post-apocalyptic dystopia about the last struggling dregs of humanity battling to survive underground could be called fun, it really was. One of the best aspects of the novel was how much pleasure Howey seemed to take in world building. He’s created a complex society structured by the roles they have in the silo. There are farms, a floor dedicated to IT, a mechanical division, porters that run up and down the hundreds of flights of stairs delivering food and goods. The silo was so intricately imagined that it became incredibly easy to immerse myself into the book.
Saying that, I have a few structural qualms. What had initially been a tightly-plotted and fascinating tale lost some of its succinctness around two thirds of the way through. This can probably be attributed to the fact that this was originally posted as a collection of short stories online, and as the popularity of Wool escalated, more and more material was churned out. It still remains a very compelling story, but nothing quite reaches the same tension as those opening sections.
Wool’s roots have been compared to those of (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey, in that both works started off as internet phenomena before a publisher snapped them up. But that is where the similarity ends. Yeah, Wool’s premise may not be groundbreakingly original, but the characters absolve the book from that sin. They are relatable and hugely compelling — bar Lukas, a questionable love interest that never quite came to life.
The plot is also impressive in its scope. Howey deals with the political, mechanical and biological ramifications of the silo and does so through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters. Whilst the plot, for the most part, remains relatively linear and predictable, there are some great little twists scattered throughout which are great fun. In a world knee-deep in generic dystopias, Wool is surprisingly refreshing and you’ll have reached the end of its five hundred and fifty pages before you know it.
I did not love Wool as much as Ruth and Bill did, but I liked it — I liked it a lot. It reminded me, in the best possible way, of the original black-and-white Twilight Zone episodes, where futuristic dystopian settings told us stories that left us with serious questions about ourselves, our society and our values.
The Twilight Zone feeling was enhanced by the first section of the book which I read several months ago after I ordered it, instead of the omnibus, by mistake. That section was a complete story and elegantly introduces every theme that will be touched on in the rest of the book. My problem with the omnibus version of Wool was mostly this: early in the book, several elements banded together, came up and insulted my Suspension of Disbelief. Suspension of Disbelief stood in the corner and sulked the rest of the time, making it hard for me to stay engaged with what was otherwise a compelling read.
Most people already know this about the plot: on earth, in the near future, all remaining humanity has moved into an underground silo. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from cameras and sensors mounted on the roof, where they can see dry, dead grass, a brown cloudy sky and the ruins of a city. The present inhabitants of the silo do not know how they came to be there, who built the silo, or why. Asking these questions out loud in public or expressing a desire to go outside will get you sent outside, and you’ll die, almost instantly, poisoned by the toxicity of the environment.
Here are the things I liked about Wool: I liked the main character, once we got someone who lived for more than twenty pages. Juliette is not a Chosen One or someone with a Destiny; she is a practical, capable, smart woman who likes to figure things out and fix problems. This desire leads her to discover more than certain people in the silo want to her know, and soon her life is at risk. I liked, mostly, Howey’s writing style. The book is long and somewhat slow in the middle section, but there is a gentle wit that I liked, and in particular, one relationship that plays out between two characters, early in the book, (as they journey first down, then up the silo) that is elegant and sweet. This world is imaginative, and leaves us with serious questions about what we would do if we found ourselves in the situation the characters do. It is easy to see how the “villains” (and I do feel I have to put that word in quotes) are wrong. It isn’t quite as easy to figure out how we might have handled things, if we had inherited what they inherited.
I liked the radios. Most of us huddle over our smart phones or our tablets and never think for a minute that what we call “wireless technology” is basically radio. The inventiveness of the people in the silo, and the importance of radio communication, is a big part of this book, and I enjoyed it.
What kept me from sinking all the way into the book were niggling details of world-building. For the story to work, the silo has to be completely self-contained. Resources cannot go to waste. Howey is at pains to show us how carefully resources are recycled. Even the bodies of people who died inside, of accidents or natural causes are recycled. The glaring exceptions, of course, are the dead bodies outside that can’t be retrieved. I understand why they can’t drag in the bodies, but it’s a hole in the fabric of the silo-world. Juliette, the main character, works in Mechanics, in charge of the care and feeding of the silos many generators. They have access to oil from where they have drilled shafts, but they have no refineries. I had trouble believing they just poured light, sweet crude directly into the fuel tanks. Another problem is with food, particularly grains and cereals. They eat oatmeal daily, but it doesn’t seem like they could be growing enough grain in the silo environment to dish out oatmeal for everyone every morning. That led to my final problem with the world. I never knew how many people were in the silo, and frankly, it never seemed like very many. One character implies that there are thousands, but it never feels like there are that many. This is what happens when my Suspension of Disbelief refuses to party with me.
Once I decided I was going to read Wool as a parable rather than as a naturalistic science fiction novel I was able to move away from these questions and focus on Juliette and her friend Lukas, who also discovers shocking information about the genesis of the silo. Juliet’s strength and stubbornness make her an easy character to root for.
Wool is a good book, an imaginative attempt at an unusual world and serious social commentary. I didn’t love it, but I certainly liked it, and I recommend it. It’s worth your time. And if you can figure out how they are growing the grains, put something in Comments, will you? I’d like to know.
Wool (Silo) — (Began in 2011-2013) This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.