REVIEW Wool by Hugh Howey

Friday , 1, August 2014 Leave a comment

Scooter reviews Wool:  Omnibus Edition 1-5 (Silo Series)  by Hugh Howey

Nearly every mainstream review of “Wool”, the Kindle Direct omnibus that made the traditional publishing industry do a double take, has described it as “sci-fi’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey”.  The comparison, thankfully, has little to do with the content and everything to do with the sales numbers.  There are no wealthy playboys or priapic conquests here, unless one counts Howey and his shrewd decision to retain the novel’s digital sales rights.  No, the appeal of this dystopian thriller – and perhaps the reason why it has become such a sales juggernaut – is the rock-solid opening and the intriguing mystery it promises.

The first sixty pages quickly establish the story’s evocative setting – an underground silo 144 floors deep that houses the survivors of an apocalypse.  Society operates under an authoritarian charter known as the Pact where any talk of the world above will get you sent there in a hurry; unfortunately, the air up there is poisoned, the landscape has been charred to a bar-b-q crisp, and the protective suits they give you to wear haven’t gotten all the kinks worked out yet.  Everyone who steps out of the airlock dies.

The opening section works so well as a stand-alone novelette it’s almost too bad Howey’s fans demanded more.  There’s solid characterization, steady prose, and a gut-wrenching resolution.

Some of the cracks begin to show in the later sections.  Major, likeable characters start dying off with the kind of frequency that would make George R.R. Martin proud, but their replacements aren’t crafted with the same level of care.  It’s not a spoiler to say the villains of the story –the silo’s IT department – are telegraphed early on as the bad guys, and it should come as no surprise that these potbellied techies aren’t quite as intimidating as, say, the Shrike.  Dystopian stories work best when there’s a palpable sense of menace and oppression.  As a choice for a modern villain, they are quite in keeping with the times (*NSA cough cough*) but as characterized they are more of an Orwellian daydream than a nightmare.

While some of the dystopian elements in Wool can border on the generic, the simple nature of the mystery – what’s outside the silo? – actually begins to resonate on the level of a parable as the story goes on.  That’s the way Wool reads best.  All the conspiratorial intrigue and backstory aren’t all that complicated or enigmatic, anyway.  This is a tale about pushing against the unknown, the proverbial unknown, confounded and attracted by its mystery:

“What went through a man’s thoughts as he waited there alone to be cast off? It couldn’t have been mere fear, for Juliette had tasted that well enough. It had to be something beyond that, a wholly unique sensation, the calm beyond the pain, or the numbness past the terror. Imagination, she figured, just wasn’t up to the task of understanding unique and foreign sensations. It knew only how to dampen or augment what it already knew… You could describe a new color only in terms of hues previously seen. You could mix the known, but you couldn’t create the strange out of nothing. So maybe it was only the cleaners who understood what it felt like to stand there, trembling—or perhaps not afraid one bit—as they waited for their death.”

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