There has been enough digital ink spilled over the past couple of years about our culture’s current fascination with the apocalypse and dystopian visions of the future that it sometimes seems that the apocalypse is going to come not when our ice cream machines can take no more of people insisting that “birthday cake” should be a flavor for anything, but from the keyboards that are so tired of conveying the idea of the end of the world that they decide to just get on with it already. And never mind that people always seem to call it a current fascination, when one of the big ones apocalypsapaloozas was coming at the end of over 5,000 years of waiting, or that our pop culture landscape has always peered into the dark abyss of the future and seen that humanity sucks. But they’re not wrong either, that whether it’s current or something ingrained, a lot of people look into ideas of what our future holds with a sort of train-wreck fascination for just how badly we’re going to fuck everything up. The best of these stories tend to focus on the fact that it happened, humanity has to just deal with it, and let’s keep moving. There’s room for triumph both schlocky and bittersweet in most dystopian tales, and more than enough room for the creators to just kick you in the teeth again and again and again with how much the world sucks now. It’s the deftest creators who manage to balance it all together, something something segue segue, Hugh Howey’s Wool.
The internet tells me that Hugh Howey is a particularly clever gent. That he released the first part of this collection of interlinked novellas by its lonesome into the ebook frontier and made such a success of it that the clamor for more quickly lead to more parts, including ones beyond this omnibus which I haven’t quite gotten to yet. That he knows how to build and engage an audience, as evidenced by the large number of “stories of the silos” you’ll find on Amazon’s storefront penned by fans who want to play in his world and have his blessing to do so. There’s movie deal ink, there’s a comic coming. But things like distribution models and an openness towards one’s energized fanbase wouldn’t matter for a hill of beans if it weren’t built on a solid foundation, and this one is something like a hundred and forty levels deep.
Wool is like an onion. That’s not really the compliment that some people make it out to be, because let’s be real, there are a lot of things that have a lot of layers and are delicious on top of that. No one prefers peeling away the layers of an onion one by one to say, the layers of an oreo, or a plate of lasagna, or that cute person you like after coming in from a ski trip. Onions are sharp and pungent, and the closer you get to the center the more they’re likely to make you cry. When it opens with the story of a simple man who in the very first sentence is consigned to death, you know damn well you’re not about to take a bite of decadent seven-layer cake. Very quickly, through this man’s dark thoughts as he climbs toward his death (an execution? A suicide?), the world begins to reveal itself. The man, Holston, is the sheriff of the silo, and the silo is the sum total of humanity. Some catastrophe on the surface of the Earth consigned the survivors of whatever happened into a tangibly too-tall tower buried a hundred and forty stories down into the ground, and stepping out into the toxic air above is nothing less than a death sentence. But the only view of the world those who live in the silo have is predicated on cameras and sensor arrays arranged on the one piece of the building that’s exposed to the harsh conditions above, and those sensors need cleaning every now and again. Never mind that the world’s atmosphere is so inhospitable that it eats through protective suits (and the tasty flesh beneath) like acid, the cleaning still has to be done. And so the silo condemns its criminals to the act of giving everyone else a pristine view of a dead world, and the first we meet is the man usually tasked with the job of sending those criminals to their useful deaths.
An entire story could be told about Holston’s life trajectory, his career, his time with his wife and the events that lead to her death prior to his own, and in some ways Wool is about the things we learn about Holston in the first part of the omnibus even when he is not the focus of the story anymore. In collecting five novellas into one volume, Hugh Howey is afforded an opportunity that feels unique apart from a standard chapter structure, as each part of the book takes on the feel of a new episode of television, or a new season. The focus begins on Holston, but very quickly the book introduces more characters, complex and fascinating in ways that make you immediately want to know the entirety of their stories and how they endure living in a single cement tube that holds everyone known to still exist. Jahns, the mayor of the silo, Juliette, a girl who helped Holston with a case at one point in her life. Bernard, the scummy head of the IT department that wields about as much power over the rest of the silo as any other IT department would in a building that doesn’t particularly know or care about the ins and outs of computers. Some characters become the focus of whole chapters, others of whole parts of the tale, but each one peels back another layer of the onion to reveal just how likely it is that the world inside the silo is just as toxic as the world outside. Each part of the story builds and reveals more about the parts before even as it becomes clear just how rotten the core of everything is.
Wool is a story about the hope that things can get better, and it’s a story about how humanity endures when it doesn’t. There are small tales of love, of violence, of class warfare, of conspiracy and grand tales of the end of the world, and all the tales are stacked atop one another in a way that removing one layer would weaken the structure of all the rest. Each rung of the ladder brings you closer to getting to the top, where you can finally see what happened and why this world exists as it does. So, come to think of it, maybe an onion isn’t the best analogy to use for the way the story works either. When people climb to the top of the silo to clean the sensors, they give clarity to those below at the cost of their lives, and get to see the world as it is with their own eyes. Wool is it’s own best metaphor, and revealing its layers like a trudge through every layer of the silo brings with it an increasing sense of dread of exactly what there is to see once you reach the top.