This book gave me two great days of reading. I started it having not the slightest idea of the plot. All I had to go on were the effusive ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, and you know, they weren’t far wrong.
It helps that the book sits squarely in one of my favorite genres, that of dystopian science fiction. Wool is set in the far future. For whatever reason, the world has gone to shit. The air is so toxic that not only is it unbreathable, but it will eat away at you and kill you within minutes. The stars appear only in brief moments above filthy cloud cover.
The people all live underground in a weather-proof, enormous cylindrical structure they refer to as the “silo.” Because whatever happened to destroy the planet happened so long ago, everyone in the silo was born there, and all of their parents were born there. They don’t know that “silo” used to be the word for an above-ground structure used to store grain. There are few remnants of mankind’s time above-ground; the inhabitants cling to ancient children’s books as artifacts of times past, and believe the pictures of “elephants” inside are make-believe, since the existence of a beast so enormous is outside their comprehension.
The strictest taboo of the silo is: you never speak about the outside. You don’t express curiosity or desire about it. You don’t try to find out why you live in the silo, because as far as you know, we have nearly always lived in the silo and we likely always will. The restoration of the surface is a distant hope that will not be realized in yours or your children’s lifetime. Breaking this taboo gets you sent to “cleaning”: you are dressed in a suit designed to protect you from the elements and sent outside to clean the sensors– screens that help your fellow inhabitants monitor the outside. Unfortunately, technology has not yet been able to create a suit that can withstand the elements for longer than it takes to clean the sensors, and you’re basically doomed. Strangely, though nearly every person who’s ever been sentenced to die has proclaimed that he or she would not clean the sensors, all of them have changed their minds once they’ve gotten outside. The inhabitants of the silo believe this to be the result of a transcendent spiritual experience that occurs outside. But come on. You know there’s got to be some other reason, right?
There is, and the revelations concerning the origins and running of the silo are satisfying, though not groundbreaking. The real draw for me was the main character, Juliette. She’s smart, tough, and too curious for her own good. She’s pissed off, but not in a bad-attitude Katniss Everdeen/Veronica Mars kind of way. She just has a gritty determination. Another female character, Mayor Jahns, is also complex, recognizable, and well-drawn. That a book in the sci-fi genre features two excellent female characters shouldn’t be cause for notice, but it is. It’s just so rare to see female characters who aren’t there simply to be the female characters. Juliette and Mayor Jahns have important plot points to set in motion, and most of the other characters in the book revolve around one or the other of these women. They do have romantic experiences, but these flow organically out of the course of events, and are far from being the focus of the book. In other words, they’re just characters! Like anyone else! Howey doesn’t draw attention to them simply for being female. They’re not tokens. It is, rather, the state of female characterization in culture as a whole that makes the fact of these characters’ existence so remarkable.
Howey’s talent at drawing characters also extends to the supposed “villains” of the story. The backstory of the silo is complex, and the motivations of the “bad guys” are as well. This doesn’t redeem all of them, but it does give a savor to the conflict between Juliette and the people who run the silo that a more black-and-white dichotomy would not have had. It also makes for an ending that, while satisfying, maintains mystery in its piquant implications.
This makes sense: I read the Omnibus, Books 1-5, but I understand that there are more Wool books to follow. I hope that the next books in the series will keep the same sense of mystery and excellent characterization of the first five, but perhaps with a more tightly wound plot. These first five spent too many words describing certain battle scenes that did not unfold relevant plot details or add to my understanding of the world or its people. Howey’s best action sequences were the ones in which he followed just one or two characters (usually Juliette) through some harrowing ordeal or other. I gasped aloud during a couple of these scenes, because they were so tautly written.
I don’t know if the Wool books to come will be as smart or as entertaining as these first five, but Hugh Howey has done his job well, because I know I’ll keep reading just to find out.