Wool is a series of five novellas by Hugh Howey, collected into one omnibus edition that works as a novel. The setting is “post-apocalyptic interior” which is something I made up just for this review. The survivors of an unknown apocalypse live in a giant silo that delves deep into the earth, one hundred and fifty stories down. ‘Up top’ has a view of the outside world, courtesy of a series of cameras. Though the view is open to anyone who wishes to look, only a portion of the population usually take advantage. Residents in close proximity, the mayor, the sheriff and deputy, the up top café staff, and those condemned to clean. Yes, I said clean. Serious crimes carry an unusual sentence: the condemned are suited up and sent outside with a set of wool scrubbers. Once there, they are expected to clean the camera sensors before invariably wandering halfway up the surrounding hill to die, presumably from the toxic atmosphere that quickly eats through the suit.
Cleanings don’t happen often, but they are an event that inspires upward mobility. Residents of ‘the mids’ and ‘deep down’ might venture up the staircase that acts as a highway of sorts, connecting all one hundred and fifty levels of the silo, to take advantage of the rarest of sights, a dawn unsullied by a coating of toxic dust. A festival-like atmosphere takes over the silo in the wake of a cleaning and if you’re thinking that sounds kind of strange, you’re not alone. That’s the creepy thread running through this novel, the element of ‘this isn’t right’ that inspires the plot and plucks certain characters from obscurity to notice as a ripple of the unreal flushes from top to bottom.
Each part of the novel is compelling. At over five hundred pages, the book feels like a long haul, but it’s not. Firstly, each formerly serialized novella acts as an encapsulated adventure. The conclusion is not five hundred pages away. It could actually be just a page away. Secondly, I quickly forgave Hugh Howey his verbosity, and took pleasure in each passage of descriptive narrative. His setting is unique; I wanted to learn about it, and what better way than to travel within the thoughts of each protagonists as they move through the silo, from up top to down deep. The silo is a microcosm of society, organised and stratified. I could have lived within the minutiae of Mechanical down on level one-fifty, or anywhere in between. A story from the point of view of one of the porters who ferry notes and cargo up and down the stairs would be fascinating.
The compressed environment, or “post-apocalyptic interior”, is something I haven’t read for a while and it also works really well for the plot, which is basically quite simple: as records deleted from the last Uprising are recovered, the residents of the silo begin to ask questions. Asking too many questions, or the wrong sort—such as why are we here and what is beyond the hill littered with the bodies of cleaners, inevitably lead to the same fate: a suit and a wool pad. But, human nature proves itself over and again, which is one of the reasons I like post-apocalyptic fiction so much. We live in and for cycles, even self-defeating ones.
Woven within the plot are several intrigues and relationships. I enjoyed the intrigues and by the end of the fifth part, most of my questions were answered in a satisfactory manner. I did have to suspend disbelief on a couple of points, but this is science fiction. Where the book did fall a little flat for me was in the romance department. I hear you thinking ‘what?’. No, I don’t usually pick up post-apocalyptic fiction for the romance, but if it’s in there, I’ll live it and breathe it with the characters. Howey’s take, and that of his characters, struck me as immature, however. He spends a lot of time developing his characters and exploring their relationships with others. We have family dynamics, friendships, marriage and love. But there is no sex. There is no infidelity. No, the book doesn’t need either, but the depth of the relationships comes up short without hints of either. They are too sweet and too perfect, even when the awful reality of the made-up world intrudes. The silo is a very restricted place and in some respects the citizens feel a bit too law abiding. That seeming obeisance to the law works as constrained by the plot, but I’d like to have glimpsed a little more of the seamy underside. Sex, drugs, gangs.
It’s a small quibble, and not one that will stop me from delving into Shift, the collected stories of volume two of the ‘Silo’ series.
Written for SFCrowsnest.