Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

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After coming down from finishing Justin Cronin’s The Twelve a friend insisted I try Hugh Howey’s Wool. “Not another dystopian thriller.” I thought, but my friend had recommended The Passage and The Twelve which I loved so I couldn’t refuse.  I decided to give it a whirl.

Wool takes place many years in the future when an unknown cataclysmic event has left the remainder of humanity to survive in a huge underground bunker called the ‘Silo’ 144 floors deep all linked by a spiral staircase providing a self-sufficient environment for a few thousand of what seems to be the last of the human race.

Sealed off from what remains of the outside with only a large screen displaying the devastation of what has become of the world, people go about their daily business as normal under the ever-watchful eye of the sinister I.T. department who, along with the mayor seem to be running the operation of the Silo and controlling it’s citizens only allowing births by lottery following a death. This also creates issues with class distinction within the Silo leading to inevitable tensions within the groups controlling the essential operations. Criminal behaviour is threatened with ‘cleanings’ which involve a one way trip to the outside of the Silo to clean the camera sensors broadcasting the obliterated landscape to the inhabitants inside. Unfortunately this results in the cleaner choking to death on the toxic atmosphere due to the poor quality of the protective suits manufactured in the I.T. Department.

A series of events leads Holston the sheriff to volunteer to clean in his wife’s footsteps with his recommendation for his replacement being a young engineer Juliette who had previously helped Holston on a murder case in her department. She’s a strong female character, resilient and innovative with equal parts sass and common sense. Some would say a good choice for a sheriff. We’re also witnessing the birth of what is one of the most important female characters in science fiction since Ellen Ripley.

However when Jules takes up her post she quickly realises that there are other forces at work and deception around every corner. The Grand Scheme Of Things is grander than anyone could ever have imagined, but Jules’ standing with her peers in Mechanical as well as her own expertise offers much help with discovering the truth of not only what happens outside the Silo but what caused the terrifying event that left them to exist there.

Howey’s world is truly horrifying at times but the pace is brilliantly levelled throughout without having to resort to over-dramatic gimmicks to keep the reader interested. The whole experience is wonderfully claustrophobic There are parts in the book where you almost find yourself gasping for air. Everything within the world is well devised and practical with every aspect of the Silo (bar the I.T. department) running on age old seat-of-the-pants engineering practices with every skilled worker having an apprentice or “shadow” as the people of the Silo refer to them. There are no high tech gadgets helping these people survive and they depend on recycling and sometimes reverse engineering as much as they can of the technology they have available. The characters are believable and well cast and you genuinely feel for these people, almost as if they are your own descendants.  Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances led by a protagonist few could dislike and an antagonist (Bernard the head of I.T.) everyone will.

Wool has a lot to say about the world we live in today but the beauty of it is that it does so without being overly preachy and by giving us a gripping addictive thriller to boot. Behind the lies and deadly schemes is a story of hope under impossible circumstances and the beginnings of a sprawling sci-fi epic that will resonate with fans of the genre for many years to come.

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