I read Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov and loved them all. Apocalyptic tales were flourishing, and popular favorites were Level Seven by Mordicai Roshwald, On the Beach by Nevil Schute and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The common theme in these works was disaster. The Earth had been rendered sterile, poisoned and uninhabitable, either by war or disease and only a few survivors (or one lone protagonist!) are left. Not much has changed over the years. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the sixth season of “The Walking Dead” seem to perceive survival as bleak at best.
Ah, but now comes Wool. Consider this scenario. In Hugh Howey’s new novel, the Earth has become so poisoned that the inhabitants have abandoned it for great silos: steel and plastic structures, each consisting of 145 floors of massive technology capable of housing and feeding thousands of workers who are divided into Information Technology (top floors), hydroponic farmers (middle floors), and mechanical technicians (ground floors). All floors are connected by spiral stairs. There are dining halls, schools and maintenance workers. There are no elevators and the movement on the stairs is constant since all messages, cargo and supplies are moved from floor to floor by workers. All of this intricate activity is governed by elected officials: a mayor and a sheriff, who are controlled by the administrators.
In case this sounds democratic and desirable, then appearances are misleading (there is a devious reason for the absence of elevators). Although the inhabitants of the silos can perceive the outside world through the massive windows, the scene is murky and bleak. Also, due to the raging winds that batter the silo’s windows, they are constantly subject to a gritty build-up of sand that makes visibility difficult. As a consequence, it is necessary to have the windows “cleaned.” Of course, to go outside is fatal. Due to the poisonous, acidic atmosphere, anyone venturing into this barren landscape would be dead in a few minutes.
Over the years (perhaps centuries), the silo has developed a unique legal system based on a secret document called “The Order.” People who are deemed guilty of a capital crime are condemned to death and the method of death is to become a “cleaner.” The condemned are given space suits, placed in an exit and given several wool pads so they can clean the windows. The door closes, locking them outside. After they have scrubbed the grime from the windows, they can wander among the numerous piles of dead (former cleaners) until the acid eats through their space suit. Many choose to walk toward the “shining city” that can be seen in the distance ... a goal they will never reach.
Wool begins with a “cleansing” and the reader follows Sheriff Holston, who grieves for his dead wife (she has recently volunteered for a cleansing) and her husband requests the same fate. Gradually, we learn that although the silo is home to a generous number of admirable people, it is also filled with devious and evil folk intent on spreading dissent. An elderly and much-loved Mayor Jahns is poisoned when she opposes the appointment of a new, IT-endorsed candidate for sheriff and a rash of suicides suggest that a devious administrator named Bernard Holland may be eliminating opposition to his re-election. There is a growing distrust between the upper levels of citizens and the lower levels. In the midst of growing tension, the new sheriff arrives. Her name is Juliette Nicols, named by her mother for a doomed woman in an ancient story.
Juliette is a stubborn and talented woman who grew up in the depths of the silo — with what the top floor calls “the greasers” — and earned a reputation for remarkable skill with motors. Recently, she has rewired the master engine that had been so thunderous in operation it required the workers to wear ear muffs. Now, it hums. She also believes that humans are machines and could be tended and tamed in the same manner.
Her reputation for dedication to serving the inhabitants of the silo had prompted Mayor Jahnes to select her to become the sheriff after Holston joined his dead wife in a cleansing. Now, Jahnes has been murdered and ... someone is determined to undermine Juliette. However, before they succeed, the new sheriff finds ancient files that reveal the silo’s history. She learns that there have been hundreds of rebellions in the past and that all information regarding them has been destroyed or suppressed. Why?
Suffice it to say that Juliette is eventually condemned to die in yet another cleansing. Although she is forced into the hostile world where the deadly atmosphere begins to eat away at her space suit, she does not die, nor does she “clean.” Instead, she walks toward “the shining city” and to another silo just over the hill ....
Hugh Howey’s writing in Wool is a skillful blend of tension and suspense. The scenes after Juliette walks away from the silo are filled with events that test Juliette’s skills and courage. Each encounter brings her and the inhabitants of Silo 17 (yes, there are others) to the brink of disaster. Further, this book serves as the beginning of a series of novels that will prove to be as complex and absorbing as Frank Herbert’s Dune series. However, there is another bit of information about Wool that may prove to be as wonderful as the book itself.
Wool is an ebook. That means that it began as a short story that Howey posted on an internet service sponsored by Amazon. Howey received no royalties when people began downloading it, but he was encouraged to keep writing. He did and there are now two sequels to Wool plus a new series (called Sand) is now a reality. A recent news report in Hollywood has it that Ridley Scott plans to film Wool. Now, finally, the royalties are pouring in. Howey seems eager to share his good fortune and has become an enthusiastic advocate of ebooks. All of you struggling writers should check this out.