Hugh Howey has an incredible ability to continue bringing surprises throughout his stories. This is one sign of a gifted writer, to be able to build up the action and keep you distracted, then whack you upside the head with something unexpected at the close of the act. I found this to be true of Wool over and over, which was delightful. It is a different sort of story than I have discovered in some time, full of clever new ideas while still giving obvious nods back to classic sci-fi themes.
Wool began it’s life as a what was intended to be no more than a stand-alone short story in 2011 (that story now serves as the first section of the novel). The premise is essentially this: the remaining survivors of the human race live in a massive, sealed-off silo that goes 144 stories deep into the ground. Some untold event wiped out the Earth’s ability to sustain life, thus all greenery is dead, the outside air is toxic, and the landscape is nothing but windswept dust and rock. The quality of life inside the silo is pleasant enough, considering, but to speak of the outside or express any desire to leave the silo is forbidden. Those who are overheard voicing such desires are sentenced to death by way of ‘cleaning;’ being put in a body-suit and sent outside the doors to be rapidly eaten alive by the poisonous environment.
Howey’s description of the silo and it’s inhabitants is bustling with life; he brings the reader into the realities of this world easily. The transition from the silo being a new concept to a familiar one is short. There are no elevators, so walking the spiral stairs from the top to the bottom takes days. Mechanical is down in the lowest levels, keeping water, power, and oxygen running throughout the facility. There is a hospital wing, several levels of gardens and greenery, a supply manufacturing area, a cafeteria, and classrooms. While there is a Mayor and Sheriff keeping order in the silo, it is clear from early on that the reclusive and heavily-guarded IT department is really who runs the show.
The main character is Jules, a rough-on-the-outside but extremely clever mid-thirties woman who works in Mechanical. Through a set of unlikely circumstances, she is promoted to Sheriff. This does not go over well with IT, and crap hits the fan pretty fast after that.
The story begins rather small in scope but expands continuously as mysteries are revealed and the various levels of the silo are fleshed out. There is a constant uneasiness throughout the book; an unsettling consensus among the silo-dwellers that something is not quite right about the way they are made to live. Questions are asked as to whether the people are being kept in fear of the outside for reasons more extreme than are true.
I mentioned the story being surprising, and I think the above reasons are what make it so. The author familiarizes the reader with one set of rules and circumstances for a while, then breaks through those with the realization that all is not as it seems. The premise is supremely interesting and reminds me of older, simpler sci-fi tales from another time. His characters are unique and sympathetic, and the situations they find themselves in make for some complex emotional decisions.
To mention but one negative quality: I believe the book could have used some further editing cuts. There were moments that definitely seemed to drag and were drawn out a little longer than they needed to be. While the story as a whole is captivating, certain passages slowed it down. I think it could have been a stellar, perfectly-paced novel if about forty pages of dross were removed.
That said, I did keep reading, after all, so this was only a minor complaint.
In all, with Wool Howey has been able to craft a unique and almost instantly likeable story that somehow can be heard distinguishably over the loud waves of post-apocalyptic fiction flooding the current market with clichés. With two more books to go in the Silo Trilogy, it will be interesting to see where he takes the story from here.