Hell and Darn-nation – ‘Wool’ by Hugh Howey

This review contains mild spoilers. There are no specifics but I do hint at the direction the novel takes.

Wool by Hugh Howey is one self-publishings success stories.  Having garnered rave reviews as an ebook, it has now been picked up by a major publisher and given a physical presence.  It is a taut post-apocalyptic thriller set inside a sealed system.  In essence, it’s end-of-days in a tin can.

The novel’s structure is slightly unusual, reflecting the story’s genesis.  The original tale was a short story. It’s popularity led to demand for more stories, five in total.  This novel is all five collected in a single volume, and it feels like it. Whilst there is continuity and an overreaching story arc, the overall effect is not as cohesive as one might expect from a traditional novel.  Nevertheless, the first three stories are breathtaking in their elegance and, as a whole, Wool makes for compelling reading.

The action of Wool takes place inside a hermetically sealed Silo.  The last survivors of the human race live inside a gargantuan storage container, safe from the hostile atmosphere outside.  The Silo is over one hundred levels, a striated civilisation, with each function of society occupying one or more floor.  So there are maintainence levels, infirmary levels, farming levels and IT, to name but four.  Relations between the levels are harmonious; the entire Silo is governed by a democratically elected mayor, and law and order maintained by the Sherrif and his deputies. The levels are connected by a huge central spiral staircase; a metal double helix, essential for life.

The silo is a huge organism, each part relying on another to ensure its continual survival.  Society’s most heinous crime is to wonder what might be on the outside.  There is no escaping the Silo, to even suggest it, may sow discord, and is punishable by death.  Perpetrators get their wish, when they are sentenced to ‘Cleaning’. They are dispatched to the outside world to clean the lens that captures the Silo’s only view of the world above.  There is no returning and life expectancy is a matter of minutes.

The opening story is short, taut and compelling.  Somebody has effectively committed suicide by stating that they wish to leave the Silo.  That somebody is the Silo’s Sherrif.  There is a back-story of the Sherrif’s wife who had been sent to clean three years earlier.  She worked in IT and some hidden knowledge drove her to her death.  Holston has become convinced he can join his wife, and so he takes the walk.  The results of this decision will turn his world on its head, but by then there is no way back.

Book 2 follows the Mayor and  deputy Sherrif as they hope to appoint a replacement Sherrif.  In this section, and book in 3, we learn much about the workings of Silo society. Howey’s world building is supreme.  The political order and social structure he has created feels entirely plausible.  Though egalitarian, Silo society is not classless, with those on the upper levels believing that those below are beneath them, literally and figuratively.  It becomes clear the appearance of harmony between levels thin veneer thin.  The silo contains secrets, and they are potentially explosive.  By the end of part three, there’s been another murder and the new Sherrif finds herself ensnared by a political power play.

The opening three tales are a masterclass in storytelling.  Howey’s prose is economical, yet thrilling.  Every word counts; like resources in the Silo, nothing is wasted. As the tension builds, there is a palpable sense of claustrophobia. The long climbs down the Silo’s staircase, and arduous ascent to the upper levels, make communication through the Silo awkward and open to abuse, adding to the oppressive weight that bears down on the novel’s players.  The twists, when they come, are like body-blows.  It’s fantastically compelling.

The final two stories are not quite in the same league as the first three, but still make for an exciting read. In order to give himself more wiggle room Howey prises the lid off his creation.  He changes the parameters of his world, diluting its power. With the sense of claustrobia gone, his prose becomes more verbose.  I’m tempted to suggest the cumulative success of his books has made Howey less rigorous in his paring down of his work, but this feels churlish, as he still delivers bucket loads of tension.

I wasn’t completely sure about Wool’s conclusion.  Whilst the ending works, I felt there was an obvious, much more convincing finish, but one that would have come with a much higher body count.  The ending given is neater and more palatable than some of the alternatives, but I think it lacks the emotional resonance a more apocalyptic finale would have given.   Personally, I would have been happy to read a ‘Whodunnit’ inside the pressure cooker environment of the Silo; this would have been a unique reading experience.  Instead, Howey serves up another dystopian revolution, which are everywhere at the moment.

A final word about the title. ‘Wool’ is a strange name for a book on any subject (with the exception of knitting), and feels particularly peculiar for an apocalypse novel.  It turns out that there are many reasons to call the book Wool. Some are obvious, whilst others lurk beneath layers of meaning and allusion.  That a simple one word title can be given such depth is testament to the quality of Howey’s writing and the thought behind it.  Tense, exciting, contemplative and relevant, ‘Wool’ is an exceptional addition to the ever growing canon of dystopian fiction.

My Copy of Wool was obtained through the Amazon Vine Programme

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