WOOL by Hugh Howey
I picked up the WOOL Omnibus, by Hugh Howey, some time ago, though I can’t recall why. Possibly something I saw somewhere, possibly it was a Kindle daily deal. But when I saw it on Ruth’s top ten list for this year (we’ll publish that post next week), I decided it was time to pull up the first story (it’s somewhat a serialized tale). So I did. And I read it. And then I read the second. And then the third. And when I got to the end of what I had on my Kindle, I checked to see if the story continued. The WOOL story doesn’t, but I’ll be getting to the prequels pretty soon, I can tell you that.
The setting is not all that original. It’s basically a “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” genre: a group of people are living in an artificial world and eventually learn that the world is larger than they imagined, as well as that their history is not what they thought it was. More specifically with regard to Wool, the artificial world is an underground Silo whose view of the toxic world outside comes via a group of cameras and sensors that reveals only a barren, brown, poisonous land with some tall ruins in the distance. Due to the constraints of their living space, life is strictly regulated by “The Pact” — which determines jobs, relationships, etc. One of the biggest taboos of the pact is talking about the Outside, a taboo punished by being assigned the one-way trip outdoors to clean the sensors (the bodies of past “cleaners” are clearly visible on the camera monitors). As one expects in this type of story, eventually someone or ones start to question their society and what they’ve been told and then hidden truths begin to be revealed, causing all sorts of trouble.
So yes, the plot here isn’t all that original. It is, however, utterly compelling. I’m not going to say any more about it because while it’s not all that original in the big picture sense, and while it does get a tad more predictable toward the end, the details are captivating enough that I don’t want to ruin your fun. Also, Howey does not shy away at all from killing off major characters, including point-of-view ones, and it would be difficult to talk more plot without spoiling such events. I’ll simply say that the deaths, when they come, are extremely effective; you’ll mourn the loss of more than one of these characters.
And that is really where the strength of WOOL lies. I’d say the major reason the plot is so compelling is because the characters are so compelling. Each point of view character is fully formed and distinctive. Howey has a way with succinct characterization — we feel we know each of these characters intimately without getting bogged down in a lot of backstory or interior monologue, making us care deeply about what happens to them even as we speed through the plot, dragged on by its urgency and by our connection to the characters.
WOOL also deepens toward the end, as more and more is revealed about how this society was created and maintained, and what decisions went into such maintenance. Here, Howey poses some big questions about ethics, the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, means versus ends, etc.
As I was reading WOOL, I kept thinking it reminded me of those great early Heinlein books I read as I was first introducing myself to science fiction. It shares a lot of qualities with those books — a sparse and speedy plot, characters who are good with their hands and who use their skills and knowledge to get out of trouble, ethical dilemmas, and so on. It’s been a while since I’ve read those old novels, and I don’t know if they’d hold up at all, but WOOL certainly feel right in place alongside them in my memories. Highly recommended, though I also recommend you don’t start WOOL without a good block of time in front of you. Having to stop will just annoy you.