Review: Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool1>>Published: March 2013

>>Finally got around to it: July 2014

She was alive.

For however much longer, this was a brutal, beautiful, and brand-new fact for Juliette. She had spent three days climbing long stairs similar to these as she came to grips with her fate. Another day and night had been spent in a cell made for the future corpses who dotted the landscape. And then—this. An impossible trek through the wilderness of the forbidden, breaking into the impenetrable and the unknown. Surviving.

Whatever happened next, for this moment, Juliette flew down foreign steps in bare feet, the steel cool against her tingling skin, the air burning her throat less and less with each gulp of new air, the raw stench and memory of death receding further and further above her. Soon, it was just the patter of her joyous descent ringing out and drifting down a lonely and empty darkness like a muffled bell that rang not for the dead, but for the living.

***

Originally released in separate installments, and later collected as an omnibus and published by Simon and Schuster, Hugh Howey’s Wool is a rare beast: a self-published story that I didn’t completely hate. That may sounds like faint praise, but given that before this I’d sworn off self-published books—too many atrocious experiences and combative authors—it’s an accomplishment worth mentioning.

Most know the story by now, how Howey found success self-publishing through the Kindle Direct program before a publisher snatched up the print book rights for the collected five-part omnibus. The success of this tale, however, isn’t just a case of an author knowing how to sell himself far and wide; there’s genuine narrative merit to Wool.

The novel is a dystopian mystery. Society—or what’s left of it—lives in a silo descending more than one hundred storeys into the earth. Life in the silo, much like its vertical nature, is a hierarchy: the grunts who keep the gears spinning and the lights on live far below, near the bottom, while the lawmakers and authority figures reside at the top (having just watched Snowpiercer, the parallels are obvious). The world outside is a barren wasteland, the air a deadly combination of toxins. When someone breaks the law, they are sent outside to clean the lens that affords those in the silo a slim glimpse of the world up above. But no matter the crime, the cleaning is a death sentence, for no one who goes outside lasts more than a few minutes in the unforgiving environment.

Beyond this basic premise, the story of Wool—very much Juliette’s tale, though she doesn’t take centre stage until the third part—is political in nature. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that whatever happened to the world outside happened not in spite of humans but because of them. In response to this, the people who created the silos that house what remains of humanity have taken that most dystopian of approaches: treating ideas as a contagion needing to be controlled. But ideas are not a virus, and human nature—one divided between questioning authority and falling comfortably into step—cannot be so easily subjugated.

I’m reluctant to say anything more about the story, because above all else Wool’s strength is in its plot. That’s not to say its characters are uninteresting, but apart from Juliette, Solo, and Mayor Jahns, most are lacking in any real development. In particular, the novel’s villain, Bernard, whose actions Howey goes to great lengths to justify, in the end came across as a little too moustache-twirly for my tastes.

Wool doesn’t break new ground for the genre, nor is the writing especially unique—it’s not “bad,” per se, but there’s much that could be cut and tightened, and very little in the way of colour or artistry—but it gets the job done and I got a good enough picture of the world these characters inhabited. Howey’s a clear graduate of the Dan Brown school of ending every bloody chapter with a cliffhanger, which for better or worse adds a certain propulsive feel to the book, even in moments where quiet reflection might have been preferable. Additionally the ending is disappointingly abrupt.

I’ve learned since finishing the book earlier today that there are prequel and sequel chapters in existence, though I can’t say I feel compelled to check out either. My experience with Wool was satisfying but not transformative; I feel like I’ve just finished a decent burger and fries but don’t really have any room left for dessert.

 

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