Wool by Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey’s Wool has been attracting a fair bit of interest the last few months. Originally self published as a series of e-book novellas on Amazon, they’ve been collected together into the novel Wool. Despite its novella origin, Wool holds together as a well structured novel, with a strong cast of characters and a vividly realised world.
Wool takes place in the ‘silo’, an underground structure which houses the last of humanity after a nuclear conflagration rendered the surface toxic and deadly. The silo is built vertically, with different layers serving different purposes, but all working towards the survival of the silo. On the top level the surface can be seen through cameras, although the lenses become coated with grime from the toxic winds above. Every so often, someone needs to go outside to clean these cameras, but this is a death sentence; because of this, expressing a desire to leave the silo, even in jest, is the ultimate taboo, and the committer off this crime will be given their wish and sent to cleaning.
The story primarily follows Juliette, a young mechanic who has been chosen for a key role in the silo. She soon realises the danger of her position, discovering a conspiracy which undermines everything she knows, eventually becoming a revolutionary hoping to pull the wool from the eyes of the silo’s occupants and oh my God I just understood the title of the book.
Although many of the actual ideas of Wool aren’t too original (the silo is basically a Vault from Fallout), the actual execution is excellent, and although the twists are all fairly obvious and unsurprising to the reader, it’s a thrill to enjoy these revelations through the characters. The novella structure creates an interesting style to the novel, with the novel split into a series of distinct events, often with different narrators and character focus. There’s a lot of slow paced worldbuilding at the beginning, although by the end this is extremely valuable and we can see why Howey invested the time into it.
Howey does a great job of constructing the world of the silo; if feels organic and natural, and the mysteries underlying it are believable and plausible. This is the sort of setting which you can just believe in. His prose is excellent, with only a couple of irrations. The way that his otherwise excellent protagonist Juliette constantly thinks in mechanical metaphors becomes a bit much, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise extremely self assured piece of writing.
His characterisation is top notch, with Juliette standing as one of the best male written female protagonists I’ve encountered. Seriously, Juliette stand on up next to Lyra Belacqua and Arya Stark, you earnt it. She’s incredibly tough, but without the bland ‘tough grrrl’ lack of personality such protagonists often have. One of the most interesting elements of the book is the irritating wet blanket of a love interest Lukas. At first I found his propensity for whining, brooding and bursting into tears annoying, but then I realised that he was exhibiting all the classic ‘damsel in distress’ traits. In a female character these traits are so expected as to barely even be noticeable, yet felt jarring in a man. Howey is inverting the traditional gender roles in science fiction, although I suppose that doesn’t make Lukas any less annoying; he’s just annoying with a purpose.
I really loved Wool; it looks set for huge success, and it deserves it. There’s a prequel already out which I cannot wait to read, with the continuation of the main story coming in a couple of months. Wool is a must read for any science fiction fan, but I think than non sci-fi fans would enjoy it too. It’s definitely not hard sci-fi, and doesn’t beat you around the head with lore and science, so I recommend this one for anyone.