Wool is a post-apocalyptic novel by Hugh Howey. In it, the world is all fucked up and people (all of the remaining people, presumably) live in giant underground silos. Nobody knows what happened to the earth, or why everyone lives underground, and indeed everyone in the silo where all the action happens thinks that their silo is the only one in existence. This proves to be false, of course, along with a bunch of other stuff they believe. Wool is pretty good, and was a gripping read for most of its length, but was ultimately disappointing in several key ways.
Maybe the problem is that I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that really hung together. Everything blowing up is a difficult subject to write about, mainly because the effects of such an event would be so far-reaching that convincingly describing the aftermath would take a multidisciplinary team of writers. I’ve read Alas, Babylon and Lucifer’s Hammer; I found both unsatisfying, for different reasons. I read the first in high school and found it dull and kind of stupid; the second was published during the disaster-flick craze of the 1970’s and read as such – it could well have been titled Asteroid ’77.
Wool is better than those two in some ways, but like those it unravels at the edges (perhaps ironically, considering the title). The core conceit, revealed over the course of the book, is gripping: the remnants of the human race are living in a series of massive silos, each isolated and yet connected by voice, each with the mission of preserving humanity and its knowledge. The key twist is that the residents of each silo believe that they are the only ones left, and that there are no other silos; the truth is concealed by the sinister IT department (yes, corporate IT is the collective villain), who controls the links between silos and manages the shadowy cabal responsible for the silo program.
The story was originally serialized in ebook format; I read the omnibus edition in print, which combined the five serial stories, and I’m not sure that the combined edition helps the novel much. The first three parts felt like unnecessarily long preludes to the real story that begins in part four, and while the characters are well-drawn and interesting, their rapid disappearance from the tale gave me uncomfortable echoes of Game of Thrones. The pacing, however, is quite good – it’s a literal page-turner – though the narrative structure strongly reminded me of a prime-time TV drama. I can’t really explain that feeling, but something about the pacing, the setting, and the characterizations made me think the author watched a lot of Lost. (Not that I did, mind you, so maybe I’m wrong.)
My real problem with the story, though, is that it’s not really sci-fi; it’s more of a character drama with sci-fi trappings. I’m the guy who loves to poke holes in works of fiction (which may seem tremendously ironic, considering my slobberingly laudatory post about the hot mess of Metal Gear Rising), and Wool has a couple of holes that made it tough for me to fully accept its world.
First is the seemingly self-sustaining nature of the silos: they’re described as having hydroponic farms, diesel turbines for power generation (!), oil wells, iron and copper mines, air conditioning, textile and plastic production…basically everything required for a modern standard of living. There are some concessions to the resource-constrained environment (birth limits, constant reuse of various items, scarcity of some things), but it’s a little too narratively convenient that every silo is perched atop rich veins of ore as well as seemingly inexhaustible oil supplies. These silos have been running for hundreds of years, and yet the supplies are still going strong, and even the servers in IT’s data center are humming along, presumably without spare parts, because there’s no way they’re hiding a chip fab in that place along with everything else. The MTBF for those parts must be insane – maybe that’s where the real science fiction comes in.
The second revolves around the big reveal (which I guess could be false, given other aspects of the story) that earth was destroyed by the CRAZY AMERICANS who didn’t like the end of Pax Americana or something, and built the silos and then blew everything up. I really wanted to know how the apocalypse happened, but after reading that, I wished it had remained a mystery. I really enjoy the flavor of melancholy future history (see Planet of the Apes or Omega Man or even Chrono Trigger), but that idea was just dumb.
A third problem was that the director of IT – who’s responsible for maintaining the secret of the silos and enforcing the social order – was basically a one-dimensional villain. There were a few instances where I thought there would be some tension in his character (and thus the whole fictional world) about the need for a structured society in such a closed environment, and their true mission of sustaining the legacy of civilization, but the tension never developed past a few throwaway lines. There wasn’t any sense that the mysterious entities controlling silo society had humanity’s best interests at heart – despite the incredible gravity of their purpose – and rather were just basically “The Man” who was keeping everyone down. They could still have been portrayed as villains, but with more substantive character than that of sinister executives.
Despite my complaints, it was an entertaining read, and a thought-provoking one. Its themes of personal choice, the stratification of society, the power of technology over our daily lives, and executive malfeasance are timely ones – regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum – and it wraps them in a decent science fiction story. I would’ve liked harder sci-fi, and a less ham-handed delivery of the story’s themes, but it must’ve been interesting enough for me to write this long post about it.