Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Hugh Howey, Wool (Books 1-5), Century 2013

Opening line: The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.

Hugh Howey’s Wool is a self-publishing success story that began in 2011 with a standalone on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. When it took off, ‘quite by accident and all on its own’, Howey added another four interlocking stories, which were gathered in a Wool omnibus and published in hardback earlier this year. The film rights have also been sold. It’s basically every indie author’s dream come true.

Wool transports us to the world of ‘the silo’ – the home of humankind in an apparently ravaged, post-apocalyptic future. The silo is a self-contained community divided into different sectors (such as IT, mechanical, nursery, food farms) that are spread over more than a hundred floors connected by a single, DNA-like spiral staircase. This enclosed world is described in minute detail, down to the sherpa-like silo porters who carry communications and supplies up and down the well-trodden stairs. The only glimpse of the desolate outside world is ‘up top’, on screens that become increasingly grimy until ‘a cleaning’ takes place…

So far, so sci-fi. But what makes Wool really take off for me are the elements of crime fiction woven into the narrative. Firstly, in line with standard crime conventions, there are a number of murders – some obvious and some more subtle – which are investigated with varying degrees of success by characters in the five ‘books’. Secondly, and in common with many other crime novels, there is an exploration of the rules and regulations governing society, and the ways in which crimes are dealt with by the law enforcement system. Except here, of course, we are dealing with the extremely unusual closed community of the silo, which shapes conceptions of criminality and punishment in entirely unprecedented ways.

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The biggest crime in the silo – ‘the great offence’ – is ‘expressing any desire to leave’. As soon an individual utters the words ‘I want to go outside’, the law is broken, resulting in a literal expulsion from the community. Once outside, wearing only a protective suit against the toxic elements, he or she is ‘put to cleaning’ – wiping the sensors that give the silo’s inhabitants their view of outside. And all diligently obey this command, although it is initially not clear to us why.

The first book starts with Sheriff Holston – the key figure entrusted with maintaining law and order within the silo – requesting to go outside. And this opening is typical of Wool, which is filled with wonderful plot ideas and scenarios. For why would anyone wish to leave the safety of the silo for the hostile environment outside, let alone the sheriff, who has himself overseen past cleanings, and should know exactly what fate awaits him?

While occasionally a little rough around the edges in terms of its writing and credibility, Wool is a compelling read – a fabulous page-turner that brings a possible future vividly to life, and grapples with big issues such as the rights of the individual, freedom of information, and the power exerted by the state over its citizens. The five interlinked stories detail the lives of several individuals – men and women, young and old – with the standout character of Jules or Juliette quickly becoming my personal favourite.

If you like the idea of a fusion of sci-fi and crime – and a rollicking good story – this is one for you. The energy and freshness of the narrative would undoubtedly also serve it well in the young-adult fiction market, which is where Howey first made his mark.

16 thoughts on “Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

  1. Mrs. P. – Thanks for this excellent review. Honestly, I’m not normally one to reach for a sci-fi/dystopian book. But if it’s done well, I’m willing to give it a go. And this one seems to have some solid storylines too. Thanks very much for the recommendation.

    • Thanks, Margot. What I particularly liked about this novel was that it was fizzing with ideas. It reminded me a little bit of Stephen King – very plot driven, but with a very original, fresh feel. As I say, a little rough around the edges at times, but I imagine that it was written at some speed in response to reader demands for more. Perhaps worth a go if you’re in the mood for something a little different.

  2. Looking forward to this one – been waiting for the paperback. Did you know that Hugh Howey walked away from a seven-figure publishing deal because the terms weren’t right for him? The man has nerves of steel!

    • Yes, always wise to leave room for those spontaneous airport purchases! There is nothing finer than hitting on a fabulous new novel by chance and having a long trip to read it. Have you landed somewhere glamorous after your flight?!

  3. Thank you for bringing this to my attention via your excellent review. I had never heard of this book but it sounds excellent, I normally don’t think I like sci-fi but recently I read The Uninvited by Liz Jensen and really liked it, so I will definitely give this a go. Am currently reading The Twelve by Stuart Neville which I think was another of your recommendations. It is your fault the housework does not get done!

    • You’re welcome, Blighty. I’ve just checked out the Liz Jensen. Never mind the housework, I’m amazed that you got any sleep after that one…! Looks like a creepy number.

      Do let me know what you make of the Neville. Pierce Brosnan has just been confirmed as the lead in the film adaptation – I wonder if he can pull the role off?

      • Pierce B? Not what I imagined at all, he is too smooth, and dare I say a teeny bit too old (sorry Pierce – but I remember you in Remington Steel!!) – Pierce would be better as McGinty the politician …I would prefer Colin Farrell, someone rougher round the edges.. after a bit of adjustment (kept getting the McNames mixed up and I would never normally choose this sort of man on a vendetta type book) I am now enjoying it, I have never read anything set in Northern Ireland so find the political background interesting and it goes at a cracking pace…

      • I think you’re right. It’s a bit of an acting risk for Brosnan, as he’s not an automatic fit (Farrell is much edgier – good call). But big rewards in terms of PB’s acting credibility if he pulls it off convincingly…

  4. Mrs P – thanks for a great review! I’ve just read Wool and loved it! Gobbled it down in great chunks and am so longing for the next tranche! In return, can I offer you Great North Road by Peter Hamilton? I have a weakness for SF and allied to detective fiction, well…

    I think it’s mostly a great story – bunch of people slaughtered in mysterious fashion and 20 years later the same thing happens. Mix in prosperous Newcastle (who would have thought?), gateways to other worlds, smart dust, 22nd century police procedurals and you have a very interesting book. It’s also REALLY long and held my interest throughout, which is unusual as I appear to have the attention span of a gnat as I get older. I’d put this up as my contender for the 7th Continent! Thanks again and I’m looking forward to your next reviews!

    • Thanks, Bigweeal – really glad you enjoyed Wool. Like, you, I’m keen to get my hands on more. Thanks too for the recommendation of Great North Road – I like the sound of a 22nd century police procedural with some sci-fi elements very much 🙂 And we visited Newcastle not long ago…

  5. Pingback: Apocalyptic crime fiction from America and Finland | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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