WOOL, the debut novel by Hugh Howey, has a pretty interesting back story. It was first self-published as a series of short novels by Howey, and later picked up by a publisher and collected into the WOOL Omnibus. It is the story of a world so ravaged by a poisonous atmosphere that humanity has been relegated to living in a structure known as the Silo, a bunker that reaches 140 stories underground. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes in the form of images shown on screens transmitted by cameras lining the outside of the silo. These cameras are constantly under threat of being covered by grime, and need to be cleaned often. Cleaning, however, is a death sentence, and a job delegated to those to break the Silo’s laws, the most heinous of which is expressing a desire to leave and go outside.
The origin of the book as an anthology is readily apparent in the first two parts that I have read so far, “Holston”, and “Proper Gauge”. This isn’t a problem, however, as both parts feed into the larger narrative of the Silo and its citizens, and the power struggle brewing within.
“Holston” tells the story of the Silo’s current sheriff. Three years before, Holston’s wife, Allison, volunteered for the Cleaning. After finding an anomaly in the history kept within the Silo’s servers, Allison comes to believe that the world they see through the silo’s screens is a lie. She is exiled, and promises Holston that she will return. She doesn’t, and Holston spends the next three years wondering what happened to her, before finally deciding to follow her.
“Proper Gauge” tells the story Mayor Jahns, and her journey deep into the bowels of the silo to find a successor. Through her arduous week long journey down the Silo’s 140 flights of stairs and back, we see how life is lived in the silo, and how the structure of power within is built. So subtly are the seeds of the power struggle to come planted that when we reach the story’s climax, it’s a punch to the gut.
The main strength of the book so far is that despite the high concept setting of the Silo, Howey never forgets that this story is about the people within. So far, he is a master of weaving exposition with narrative, presenting all of the back story and world building in a way that feels natural and never forced. Not once does a character say “As you no doubt know…” to another character before explaining something that is purely for the reader’s benefit.
Holston’s story deftly illustrates the state of things in this world, and Jahns’ story presents us with its day to day workings. The stair case that Jahns descends is the perfect setting to present to us the idea of porters, men and women who make their living hauling cargo and delivering messages up and down the length of the silo. It also presents us with the classism at play, with Jahn’s ruminating on how painful the journey is for her, a person of power within the silo, versus the ease with which the porters move. It also introduces us to the idea of ‘shadows’, or apprentices, the method by which tasks are handed down from generation to generation.
Another strength of ‘Proper Gauge’ is the subdued romance that takes place between Jahn’s and Marnes, the silo’s deputy. This is a romance between two people who have known each other for a long time and never been allowed to express itself fully, and serves to illustrate what has been lost, or ignored, in the world of WOOL, while also quickly fleshing out Jahn’s and how she deals with things on a personal level.
Based on what I’ve read so far, I highly recommend this book. Despite its nature as a collection of shorter works, it feels like a cohesive whole and moves at a brisk pace. The characters are multidimensional and believable, with the exception of one: Bernard, the book’s apparent antagonist. It’s still early to tell, however, and I’ve heard his character grows as the story proceeds.
I will continue to update this review as I proceed. I will try to avoid any major spoilers.