Wool, by Hugh Howey

Oh. My. God. I finished the novel ‘Wool’ only moments ago and my heart is still pounding. It is the best book I have read in some years, combining a rich post apocalyptic world with well rounded characters and riveting plot.

The foreshadowing is brilliant, giving the reader just enough clues to figure out the mysteries but hiding things well enough that there isn’t much lead time between the ‘aha’ moment and the author’s reveal. The title is an allusion to the phrase “pulling the wool over their eyes” which was fairly obvious early on but the imagery echoes in little ways a few more times before we’re sure the central theme is deceit.

I know I go on and on about science fiction but there is something captivating about exploring a new world. In the world of ‘Wool’ life is underground, in a silo over a hundred and fifty levels deep with modern technology such as computers and radios common place but things we think of as common such as water and paper in short supply. Within the limited environment of the silo, everything is recycled, including people. It’s no soylent green solution, but the garden is the graveyard, reusing the nutrients in the human body to feed those who are left. Reproduction is strictly limited with legitimate couples allowed a chance at children by lottery and all others implanted with birth control in the cradle. Labor is divided and modeled after an apprentice style of teaching for trades such as gardening, mechanical, or IT. Yes, this post apocalyptic world has an information technologies department to run the screens that show the outside world. The View.

The View takes up the top level of the silo. There are cameras above ground that feed into a huge display in the cafeteria that is ever present. It is so critical to the maintenance of the social atmosphere that on occasion someone will be sent to clean the cameras exposed to the dirt and grime of the toxic atmosphere. The cleaners are only sent if they commit a crime worthy of the death sentence, or if they express a wish to go outside. Though many years of hard work have gone into improving the protective suits they wear, none make it farther than the next hill. Tragic but necessary, it is a way for people to blow off steam, a holiday when you can come see the crisp picture through clean cameras, and a reminder to keep your head down and not even think about outside.

Our heroine Juliette is brought from the down deeps, the floors past floor one hundred, where the mechanics live and work keeping the drills pumping up oil for the generators, making electricity to grow food and live and work. She is brought up top to fill the vacancy left by the sherriff, the character from the opening scene, the man last sent out to clean. During her few short days in office she discovers something about the suits given to the cleaners: they are fake. They are built with materials designed to fail in order that the men and women don’t live long enough to discover a bigger world. The visor is a screen, programmed to show the cleaners a vision of paradise, a clean world, a vision to induce their cooperation, to ensure they clean the servers like they are supposed to and never leave or try to come back. She knows the secret and so she is sent outside to clean and to die before she can infect others with her knowledge.

She does neither. One other person who can help her knows the secret and has her suit built with materials designed to work, designed to succeed and give her time, more time than anyone has had before. Instead of behaving as she’s ‘supposed to’ she walks past the hills and discovers the bigger secret: they aren’t alone. She discovers another silo and an open door. After this discovery the novel moves quickly. We’ve solved the mystery, now it’s time to save the world, or at least her world. The last few chapters went so fast I almost flew through the pages. There is love and sorrow and action and anger and resolution and then another problem to solve. My heart was racing. My eyes kept skipping ahead to find out what happens next, unable to wait as long as it takes to finish the page.

Howey’s world is beautifully rich. Every page reveals a new social norm that is alien, but makes perfect sense in a world like that. The next page is a twist to the plot that you almost saw coming. We see a moment of weakness and then of strength that carves each character from pure literary marble, so captivating as to make Rodin envious. The last time I read a book that caused such a physiological response was years ago and is a book I have treasured since childhood. This novel is great. I reccomend it far more highly than the last few. You will at least admire it, if not simply love it.

Greater than the story, richer than the world, more personal than the characters is the what if factor. The greatest thing about science fiction is that the author is writing about us, but not us. He writes about humanity driven to the breaking point and what happens when we reach it? The war that destroyed the earth and made it uninhabitable is not outside the realms of possibility but what is truly interesting is how the author mused we as a people might prepare for that and how we might deal with the aftermath. In this case it is with lies and deceit, a strict purge of anything that might bring out the truth, a sophisticated method for murder in the interest of preservation. The author’s projection of our capacity for ruthlessness in the case of the war and of the daily deceit of an entire small world is frighteningly possible. And that is the beauty of SciFi 🙂