Wool, by Hugh Howey, was a recommendation from my mum. When Mum gives me a science fiction recommendation, I always take it, and I’m always glad I did. Wool is about a group of humans living in an underground silo, in a world with a poisoned sky. The only contact this remnant of humanity has with outside is through two huge screens at the very top of the silo, which show a brown and barren hill, and an abandoned city crumbling into ruins. Over the years, grime builds up on the outside of the screens, which blocks the view, leaving people inside increasingly claustrophobic and desperate. The solution is horribly simple: the minute someone expresses the desire to go outside, to get out of the silo, they are given what they claim to want. The silo’s only request in return? Before the person perishes from exposure to the toxic gases, they clean the screen that allows everyone still inside to see out.
For a postapocalyptic novel, Wool is relentlessly optimistic. Like Station Eleven, it depicts a grim vision of the future that, through the author’s determined belief in the power of human relationships, comes across as genuinely encouraging and hopeful. I do not know how authors do this, but it’s one of my favourite categories of science fiction. The characters are engaging and likeable, even if they aren’t going to win any prizes for originality. Juliette, who is the point-of-view character for much of the novel, is in many respects the lynchpin of the book. At the start of the novel, she is working in the lower levels of the silo, where she has spent much of her life. She’s a mechanic, part of a huge team invisible to the rest of the silo, but essential in keeping the generators running. I think it is her determination – to survive, to improve things for herself and others – that really makes the book. She is a realist, who is very reluctant to let herself actually believe that things can be improved, but who continues to make choice after choice as if her situation will get better. I’ve seen her criticised in other reviews as a rather flat character, but she really came to life for me. Her perspective is that of a practical person who works with her hands and solves problems bit by bit – which is an enjoyable contrast to the starry-eyed, misunderstood idealists who are often at the centre of novels like these.
One of the ways in which the book engaged me was in its depiction of how a person’s whole life is tied up in what they do and where in the silo they live. Socioeconomic status, job, and perspective are all heavily influenced by whether you are a down-deeper like Juliette (likely to be involved in mechanical work or mining), an up-topper (with a view of the sky!), or somewhere in between. That’s a pretty well-worn trope for science fiction novels, especially postapocalyptic ones, but I can’t get enough of it. I found that the world of the silo was created very effectively, and I wanted to learn more about the functioning of this strange society. The novel isn’t just worldbuilding, though, as is often the case with the first instalment of a speculative fiction series. It has a compelling and page-turning plot, and I raced through it over a couple of days. Howey resists the temptation to info-dump – instead, the exposition comes gradually and naturally, unspooling along with the plot. Again, I think this is a tricky balance that many science fiction authors get wrong, but it worked very well for me.
Wool raises complex ethical questions that it does not really attempt to answer. The sinister silence at the heart of the silo is reflected in a handful of characters, mostly people working in IT – literally and figuratively the power hub of the silo. For the longest time the book portrays these people as villains. And yet, as the story unfolds, it transpires that each one of those people has a pretty good reason to behave the way they do, to keep the secrets of the silo and send people out to certain death as cleaners. Essentially, the book asks: is it okay to lie to people to protect them, if the consequences of the truth could destroy the last remnants of humankind? It’s my understanding that subsequent novels attempt to answer this question, but Wool really just raises it. For most of the book, the reader’s perspective (and therefore their sympathies) lie exclusively with the “ordinary” people of the silo, and I think that’s probably where it should be. Nonetheless, I like the fact that the antagonists are allowed to be real and complex humans with properly developed motivations.
Wool started out as a series of self-published short stories, but it was collected into a single volume and subsequently followed by two more novels. The second instalment, Shift, has extremely mediocre reviews – but many of the things that these reviews complain about (Howey never describes what any of his characters look like) are true of Wool, as well, and didn’t bother me. This is not a great work of beautifully-crafted literature – but it is an excellent page-turner, and I am hoping that the next novel will be much the same.