WOOL, Hugh Howey

Bestseller lists should be taken with a grain of salt. Being listed on a bestseller list is no guarantee that the book is a good read. It simply means that according to that list, the book has been purchased by a significant number of people.

An example of a bestseller listed book is WOOL, though the reasons as to why it achieved that status are questionable.

Wool is science fiction. If that is your favoured genre, this book is for you.

Labelled as the‘science fiction version of Fifty Shades of Grey,’ is mislabelling. The book is not an erotic narrative of sexual interaction between two protagonists. Rather it is a narrative about a dystopian futuristic world somewhat comparable to that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Dante’s Inferno revisited
People in this futuristic world live in a silo, a 150-storey bunker buried deep into the earth, like an upside down modern skyscraper built below the surface of the earth. The silo is composed of many levels dedicated to specific use. The bottom third of the silo contains the agricultural levels with hydroponic farming and the mechanical levels where the necessary maintenance and repair are performed; the middle third of the silo houses the information-technology sections which manage communication and supervision of the technological aspects of the silo; finally, the upper third of the silo is restricted to the professionals who regulate and manage all the social aspects of the silo. Regular citizens are prohibited from entering the level and so immediately there is a foreboding of something sinister and ominous going on in the silo society.

People have lived in the protective cocoon of the silo for as long as anyone can remember, protected from the deadly toxicity of the surface world. The outside world can be seen through blurry images projected on to a viewing wall the lens of which becomes progressively dirtier because of the toxic fumes and polluting atmosphere of the external world.

The idea of capital punishment in the silo is condemnation to being a ‘cleaner’, a necessary maintenance procedure if silo dwellers are to get clearer views of the surface world but a deadly procedure for the condemned ‘cleaner.’ Citizens found guilty are condemned to ‘cleaning’ the lens using industrial grade steel wool but strangely, none of the ‘cleaners’ ever succeed in returning to the silo. Every one of them eventually succumbs to the deadly toxicity. The outside contamination is so deadly even their protective suits eventually disintegrate.

The story begins with the sheriff, Holston, still mourning the death of his wife who was a ‘cleaner’ years earlier. Holston locks himself into a ‘cleaning’ holding cell demanding the mayor announce his declaration to tell his wife that “Tell her I want to go outside” and release him to the external world.

Holston’s has doubts about the veracity of the claims made by the silo priests and elders about the surface world. Again, the knowledge of this world, the true history of what once was is hinted at in ancient children’s books with depictions of a colourful planet and a totally different world than the deadly one the authorities claim is out there now.

Soon new characters pilot the plot: the old mayor, Jahns, Holston’s deputy, Marnes, and an incredibly precocious and beautiful silo grease monkey named Juliette who is dispatched to becoming a cleaner but discovers a way to save herself from the inevitable outcome. The story takes on a new life of revolution and mutiny.

Early on Howley develops the uncertainty and suspense as he details the claustrophobic life in the compartmentalized silo partitioned by a single enormous, winding staircase. Society is strictly regulated and ruled: inhabitants wear coloured uniforms according to their silo department; chits are the currency of exchange; even pet selection and reproduction are regulated processes, reproduction a process granted by lottery to selected citizens.

The details of life in the silo are mesmerizing. The sustainability of life for everyone is regulated and determined. However, silo life is not utopian. They use charcoal for writing and are running out of paper. The distant past is vanishing and life is controlled drudgery lacking in basic and somewhat obvious needs such as an elevator for people transport to the various levels of the silo.

Our beautiful heroine, Juliette, suspects there is more to the outside world and the death of Holston. The story becomes even more intriguing as she uncovers the subterfuge and sabotage behind Holston’s death.

Howley’s book began life as a short story on the Web. Rapidly spreading praise persuaded Howley to add more instalments and the notoriety spread so much that close to a half million e-books were sold online. Publishers eventually dove into the mix and convinced Howley a hard cover version of the book would sell. And it did, so well, that it became a New York Times bestseller.

Richard’s views
Howley’s instalment writing gave him time to polish and refine his tale. Tasks which he successfully fulfilled. The atmosphere of life in the silo feels claustrophobic and creepy. The suspense and forewarning of impending revolution is insinuated with “There was this unspoken, deadly hope in every member of the silo. A ridiculous, fantastical hope. That maybe not for them, but perhaps for their children, or their children’s children, life on the outside would be possible once again, and that it would be the work of it and the bulky suits that emerged from their labs that would make it all possible.”

The suspense is very palpable in many parts of the story as Howley superbly details the mechanical gloom and dismal environment in which the inhabitants live. This suspense builds as Juliette is condemned to becoming a cleaner and discovers how she can save herself. Her dangerous and precarious incidents will make any reader of the genre sit up alert anticipating an imminent disaster. But all is not as it seems…

Some aspects of the story telling are disconcerting if not outright discomforting. For example, the prologue quote to every chapter is confusing and nebulous. Its use seems to be a mere mechanical ploy to grab the reader’s attention.

Howley, mu  st have had fun writing the book, as writing in installments gives writer time to breathe, to plan, to polish and to modify based on reader feedback. This is a luxury a regular novel writer does not enjoy. That kind of novel is published and the author must wait until readers have been accumulated and some have taken the time to send feedback. Howley was fortunate to enjoy the alternative to this with feedback that was almost immediate and very quick because his instalments were e-published regularly and his writing style was infectious.

The large number of instalments means that the novel is very lengthy. Inevitably the challenge in writing more than 500 pages is to maintain the reader’s attention and focus. Howley succumbs to this problem in his book too. However, if one looks at the novel as a whole and if the reader is a fan of science fiction, this is an appealing book, well written, a suspenseful plot, engaging characters and thrilling and exciting situations. The book’s only stumbling block is the genre itself.

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