Spoiler free. Rest easy…
Hugh Howey is in the enviable position of the author who self-published with a good enough book, got a buzz going and then took off into the stratosphere – publishing deal! film in the offing! I’m delighted for him.
It reminded me afresh that all the self-marketing in the world isn’t going to help a story that doesn’t drag the reader in and keep them there. It also made me think that perhaps the books that break out from the ocean of self-published novels are the easy reads; great plot, transparent prose, a speeding train of mildly pleasurable distraction well worth a couple of quid. I’ve yet to hear of work that is squarely literary fiction that has also broken out and gone gangbusters, but I’m happy to take some recommendations if I’ve missed anything.
I’m a few sequels late to the party with regard to Wool, a dystopian thriller about a population living in a large underground silo, where above ground is an irradiated wasteland of certain death. Criminals, and even those who merely speak of the outside, are sentenced to leave the silo, dying within minutes. Enter the protagonist, Jules, who is about to change all that…
Perhaps the way it was released initially lent itself to the subsequently quite serialised approach to the intertwined stories of the main characters. It felt very Dickens with the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, a device that seemed self-conscious and intrusive after a while, particularly as you would just get going into the one plot thread and you’d find yourself moved to another one, something that George RR Martin is more extravagantly guilty of given there’s only four characters you give a damn about in his Song of Ice and Fire series.
As mentioned earlier, the prose isn’t a problem per se, utilitarian to a fault in fact, but at times the detail of the characters’ moment to moment activities is excessive. To wit:
“She held the door to fourteen open and stuck the blade of her knife between the slits of metal that formed every landing’s grating. The handle was left sticking up to form a stop. She allowed the door to close on its sprung hinges until it rested on the handle, holding it open.”
I think “She wedged open the door using her knife as a stop” would have done.
However an underwater sequence is breathtaking, a standout piece of writing in and of itself, the lack of ‘art’ a strength.
Thematically, and in terms of world-building, Howey is on surer ground. He sensibly doesn’t dwell on milieu but it quietly informs the events and the dialogue nicely, masterfully underdone, referenced obliquely and naturally. ‘Wool’ is an interesting metaphor, as a material, for the themes in the novel, a substance used to both make things (the silo’s sensors) clear but it’s also something the nature of which is woven, complex. Can’t say more for spoilers.
Wool starts out strong and creepy, dare I say Orwellian. There’s reference to a closed-case murder investigation that’s got some unanswered questions about it, discoveries of old forbidden information that drive a woman mad, both of which set up a thriller that shortly turns on its head. I can’t put my finger on it, but it also reminded me of Lost as the ‘all not quite what it seems’ hints start to spice up the plot. All too soon, however, it becomes an action movie. It could have been a masterpiece if the ‘reveals’ had the time to slowly cook the characters as they begin to discover more about the silo. I felt the ‘reveals’ came rather too thick and fast, suspense was dispensed with too easily as the plot sped along.
I might have been better recommending it as a summer read, it’s good geeky beach fare. But as it’s September, getting a bit dark in the evenings, curl up with it instead, it’s a well realised dystopia with a fast paced plot and a good strong female protagonist.