I approached Wool (a five-part omnibus by the US bookseller Hugh Howey) with the appropriate amount of skepticism. The norm for the sci-fi genre is an over-imagined, barely believable world with a variety of half-baked characters who get so excited about their futuristic gadgetry that they forget their one true purpose - to enthrall, excite and challenge me. The setting and plot get too caught up in the unbelievable and the end result is a confounding mess of (literally) astronomical proportions.
Fortunately for readers, writers and booksellers everywhere, Wool fails each and every one of the criteria mentioned above, providing a beautifully worked array of characters in a believable yet wonderfully creative world, intertwined throughout with innate, challenging questions that feed the conspiracy theorist in all of us - do we know the truth, or is the truth merely what we are made to believe?
Sometimes, is it better not to know at all?
The story begins with the initial novella, originally intended to stand alone. It has a dark-edged, bleak, almost vintage sci-fi feel to it and one becomes immediately enveloped by the protagonist and his tortured quest for the truth. The story unfolds through flashbacks, as we follow Holston's journey and unearth the circumstances that lead to the dreadfully inevitable conclusion - we desperately hope that it is not so, however as the dark politics of Howey's world come to light we see there is no way out other than that which Holston chooses for himself. Howey does a splendid job of establishing the setting, manufacturing it in such a way that the true implications of the ensuing events can manifest themselves in our minds - he gives us a taste of what is to come and sows the seeds of doubt...he gives us the hints that everything is definitely not the way we perceive it to be.
After the initial novella, Howey focuses the story on the ordeal of Juliette (the Silo's new sheriff) - a capable young woman from a mechanical background who dedicates herself to the discovery and exposure of the truth around the origins of the Silo (the huge, underground community to which humanity is now confined), its history and the circumstances that led to the entire human race being 'trapped' inside this giant, self-contained, functioning community. Only problem is... to leave the Silo means certain death and the punishment for any untempered curiosity and/or dissidence is just this - to be forced to leave. Juliette attempts to deconstruct the taboos that exist within their society and begins to reach a dangerous conclusion - they have been living a lie, a state of affairs manufactured to keep terrible secrets from festering into full-blown rebellion. Her odyssey unfolds with increasing tension, taking the Silo and its inhabitants on a trip through unrest, discovery and eventual rebellion. The moral quandaries subsequently raised are catalysts for heated book club discussion and Wool is ideal fodder for anyone looking to further blend the lines between truth, reality, right and wrong.
It is a mark of Howey's skill that he has been able to write Wool in such a way that the characters, plot and ideas drive the story along. Too often I see science fiction start promisingly, but quickly descend into mayhem as the over-described technology competes with a bizarre completely poorly realised world for your attention. Howey uses the science-fiction genre as a means to an ends, to present important ideas and valid observations. One gets the feeling that Wool set within our contemporary, mundane society would achieve much the same purpose as that which is already achieved.
Another of Howey's strengths is solely in his characters. While the story initially unfolds through the eyes of the previously mentioned Juliette, Howey introduces other characters that are wonderfully distinct, yet familiar in their desires. They love, create, and have the innate claustrophobia of the current living conditions hardwired into their being - they all share a sense that something is not quite right and long to explore beyond the strangling confines what is essentially an underground skyscraper. The storytelling is based on complex, multi-dimensional characters placed in situations that both challenge and excite, instead of world-building or laser guns.
It's always a great feeling when you finish a book, series or (in this case) omnibus, feeling completely satisfied. Howey has a remarkable skill which he exercises with extreme effectiveness throughout Wool - he leaves you curious, rather than unfulfilled. He paces the book perfectly, ups the ante at every opportunity, maintains suspense, invests your emotions into the action and (this is how good he is) even manages to get you sympathising with the damn protagonist!
The Silo is a dangerous place to be. It is a delicate society supported by a tangled web of secrets, deception, power and above all, the quest for survival. It is a representation of humanity with a rollicking great storyline to boot, the kind of book that raises your blood pressure with plenty of well-written action sequences and leaves you dreaming long after the final page has turned.
Thank you Mr Howey, thank you so very much.