First of all, I came to the WOOL party late. Almost everyone on the site except me has read it, I think, (see Ruth’s and Bill’s reviews). I confess I did not love it as much as Ruth 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.