Wool: Not just your average dystopia

Wool by Hugh Howey fantasy book reviewsWool by Hugh Howey

Whoever thinks George R.R. Martin is notorious for killing people off needs to take some tips from Hugh Howey. Two words: Main. Characters. You’d think this would be a slightly jarring way to introduce your novel, but it’s testament to Howey’s storytelling skills that this remains a compulsive tale.

Wool is another addition to the hugely over-saturated dystopia genre (not helped by the comparison to The Hunger Games on the cover of my edition). The premise of the book is not massively original. You’ve got your classic post-apocalyptic scenario: planet Earth had been left desolate and the remains of humanity live in an underground silo. Life in the silo is restricted by a series of regulations that its inhabitants can’t break without being sent for ‘cleaning,’ which involves being sent outside to the ruined world above to clean the cameras which offer the only view of the outside world. It also means certain death, as the toxic atmosphere above quickly burns through the protective suits the cleaners wear.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. Though the novel spans multiple viewpoints, our main protagonist is Juliette, a feisty mechanic from down deep — the bottom thirty floors of a silo some one hundred and fifty floors in depth. Though she’s never given the world above a second thought, happy to live amongst the machines of the deep, she finds herself having to tackle responsibilities and moral dilemmas that she’s never before considered. Unlike the machines that can be easily fixed, there is no obvious solution to solving the decay that has set into the silo, and Juliette is soon way over her head.

Although you wouldn’t think a post-apocalyptic dystopia about the last struggling dregs of humanity battling to survive underground could be called fun, it really was. One of the best aspects of the novel was how much pleasure Howey seemed to take in world building. He’s created a complex society structured by the roles they have in the silo. There are farms, a floor dedicated to IT, a mechanical division, porters that run up and down the hundreds of flights of stairs delivering food and goods. The silo was so intricately imagined that it became incredibly easy to immerse myself into the book.

Saying that, I have a few structural qualms. What had initially been a tightly-plotted and fascinating tale lost some of its succinctness around two thirds of the way through. This can probably be attributed to the fact that this was originally posted as a collection of short stories online, and as the popularity of Wool escalated, more and more material was churned out. It still remains a very compelling story, but nothing quite reaches the same tension as those opening sections.

Wool’s roots have been compared to those of (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey, in that both works started off as internet phenomena before a publisher snapped them up. But that is where the similarity ends. Yeah, Wool’s premise may not be groundbreakingly original, but the characters absolve the book from that sin. They are relatable and hugely compelling — bar Lukas, a questionable love interest that never quite came to life.

The plot is also impressive in its scope. Howey deals with the political, mechanical and biological ramifications of the silo and does so through the viewpoints of a large cast of characters. Whilst the plot, for the most part, remains relatively linear and predictable, there are some great little twists scattered throughout which are great fun. In a world knee-deep in generic dystopias, Wool is surprisingly refreshing and you’ll have reached the end of its five hundred and fifty pages before you know it.

~Rachael McKenzie


Here’s Marion’s review from December 2013:

Wool by Hugh Howey science fiction book reviewsWool: Intriguing descendant of The Twilight Zone

I did not love Wool as much as Ruth and Bill did, but I liked it — I liked it a lot. It reminded me, in the best possible way, of the original black-and-white Twilight Zone episodes, where futuristic dystopian settings told us stories that left us with serious questions about ourselves, our society and our values.

The Twilight Zone feeling was enhanced by the first section of the book which I read several months ago after I ordered it, instead of the omnibus, by mistake. That section was a complete story and elegantly introduces every theme that will be touched on in the rest of the book. My problem with the omnibus version of Wool was mostly this: early in the book, several elements banded together, came up and insulted my Suspension of Disbelief. Suspension of Disbelief stood in the corner and sulked the rest of the time, making it hard for me to stay engaged with what was otherwise a compelling read.

Most people already know this about the plot: on earth, in the near future, all remaining humanity has moved into an underground silo. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from cameras and sensors mounted on the roof, where they can see dry, dead grass, a brown cloudy sky and the ruins of a city. The present inhabitants of the silo do not know how they came to be there, who built the silo, or why. Asking these questions out loud in public or expressing a desire to go outside will get you sent outside, and you’ll die, almost instantly, poisoned by the toxicity of the environment.

Here are the things I liked about Wool: I liked the main character, once we got someone who lived for more than twenty pages. Juliette is not a Chosen One or someone with a Destiny; she is a practical, capable, smart woman who likes to figure things out and fix problems. This desire leads her to discover more than certain people in the silo want to her know, and soon her life is at risk. I liked, mostly, Howey’s writing style. The book is long and somewhat slow in the middle section, but there is a gentle wit that I liked, and in particular, one relationship that plays out between two characters, early in the book, (as they journey first down, then up the silo) that is elegant and sweet. This world is imaginative, and leaves us with serious questions about what we would do if we found ourselves in the situation the characters do. It is easy to see how the “villains” (and I do feel I have to put that word in quotes) are wrong. It isn’t quite as easy to figure out how we might have handled things, if we had inherited what they inherited.

I liked the radios. Most of us huddle over our smart phones or our tablets and never think for a minute that what we call “wireless technology” is basically radio. The inventiveness of the people in the silo, and the importance of radio communication, is a big part of this book, and I enjoyed it.

What kept me from sinking all the way into the book were niggling details of world-building. For the story to work, the silo has to be completely self-contained. Resources cannot go to waste. Howey is at pains to show us how carefully resources are recycled. Even the bodies of people who died inside, of accidents or natural causes are recycled. The glaring exceptions, of course, are the dead bodies outside that can’t be retrieved. I understand why they can’t drag in the bodies, but it’s a hole in the fabric of the silo-world. Juliette, the main character, works in Mechanics, in charge of the care and feeding of the silos many generators. They have access to oil from where they have drilled shafts, but they have no refineries. I had trouble believing they just poured light, sweet crude directly into the fuel tanks. Another problem is with food, particularly grains and cereals. They eat oatmeal daily, but it doesn’t seem like they could be growing enough grain in the silo environment to dish out oatmeal for everyone every morning. That led to my final problem with the world. I never knew how many people were in the silo, and frankly, it never seemed like very many. One character implies that there are thousands, but it never feels like there are that many. This is what happens when my Suspension of Disbelief refuses to party with me.

Once I decided I was going to read Wool as a parable rather than as a naturalistic science fiction novel I was able to move away from these questions and focus on Juliette and her friend Lukas, who also discovers shocking information about the genesis of the silo. Juliet’s strength and stubbornness make her an easy character to root for.

Wool is a good book, an imaginative attempt at an unusual world and serious social commentary. I didn’t love it, but I certainly liked it, and I recommend it. It’s worth your time. And if you can figure out how they are growing the grains, put something in Comments, will you? I’d like to know.

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RACHAEL MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

View all posts by Rachael McKenzie


  1. I have not read this yet, but I do have it on audio. The premise is nothing new, but I haven’t yet tired of post-apocalyptic bunker stories and I’ll be interested to see what Howey does with it. I loved his novella that I recently read and reviewed.

  2. The graphic novel adaptation is available at Comixology for $8.


  1. Suvudu Likes: 10/24/15 | Del Rey and Spectra - Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, Graphic Novels, and More - […] Review: Wool by Hugh Howey, read by Fantasy Literature […]

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