WOOL. By Hugh Howey. Simon & Schuster. 528 pages. $15.
In Hugh Howey’s subversive, initially self-published and subsequently best-selling “Wool,” Earth is a barren wasteland, expunged of life and hope. The air is suffused with argon, rapidly abrading the flesh off of anyone unfortunate enough to step outside. And humanity has taken refuge in underground silos delving over one-hundred stories down.
In the catacombs of the Earth, society rebuilds itself in its own spitting image — corruption and power-lust and Machiavellian manipulation and all.
The question lingering throughout “Wool,” and the thematic thread that holds the pseudo-serialized narratives together, is whether the corrosive atmosphere outside is more dangerous than the corrosive atmosphere inside.
“Wool” jumps around in time, though it always tells you when such nonlinearity is going to occur. It begins at the end of Sheriff Holston’s life and winds its way through a 500-page tale of political corruption and societal uprising. The underground silo, described with sparse and ambiguous aloofness, is essentially the main “character” of the novel. The silo is all Howey’s human characters know and it dictates nearly every aspect of their existence. It is their home, their world, their prison. Even mentioning any sliver of curiosity about the outside world leads to a cleaning: being strapped into a suit with limited air and fleeting stability and sent out to the surface with wool pads to clean the camera lenses that allow the silo to see the outside world.
This is both a death sentence and a strange display of honor: no one condemned to the lethal cleaning has ever refused to clean, despite the many protests and promises of rebellion. These scenes are depicted with an almost banal detachment:
“Holston could see. His eyes burned from the effort, from not being able to breathe, but he could see. He blinked the tears away and tried to suck in a deep, crisp, revitalizing lungful of blue air. ... What he got instead was like a punch to the chest. Holston gagged. He threw up spittle and stomach acid, the very lining of him trying to flee.”
Howey, who attended the College of Charleston while living on a sailboat, lacks a singular style: His voice has as much bite as a toothless geriatric. But the dialog reads earnestly, reflecting the way Howey’s characters would ostensibly speak (though the mechanical workers in the doldrums and the doctors in the mids and the politicians sitting atop the corrupt, insidious pantheon all speak in strangely similar manners.
Howey isn’t so adroit at imagery or deft description (neither was Philip K. Dick, for that matter), though readers may enjoy his eschewing of verbosity, and his pacing is quick and fluid, never dragging or snagging, never persnickety or frivolous. It is, undeniably, a fast and easy read.
“Wool” has been lionized as the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of science fiction because, like the soft-core sensation, “Wool” had humble origins as electronically, self-published pulp.
At its best, “Wool” reads like a potent, picturesque prelude to a screenplay for a Ridley Scott film; the underground silos seem tailor-made for Scott’s grand visual creation, like a claustrophobic, squalid cousin of his “Blade Runner” sets.
And the image of a space suit corroding around some poor soul and dissolving into crimson mist against the rusty backdrop of a desolate wasteland should send shivers down any reader’s spine.
Reviewer Greg Cwik is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program.