Friday, April 7, 2017

Hugh Howey's Wool: Proof that the Indie Model Can Work

A few weeks ago the hunt for a new book commenced. 

The preceding months I'd been slaying fiction like a mighty dragon hunter, seeking novels and their treasure troves and taking them down with heroic abandon. I justified the ever-mounting expense to my wife by claiming that the mountain of paperback corpses piling up in our house was the product of crucial "research." (Mostly, however, I have come to suspect she's the damsel every hero actually needs: one not in distress but who accepts her hero's foibles out of the genuine goodness of her heart.) I harbor closely guarded and grandiose illusions (delusions?) of myself as a fiction writer, and every fiction writer worth his salt knows the best way to hone his craft is to study examples of those who've mastered it already.

I needed a new book to slay. I wanted to find a new writer I'd never read, but I also wanted something current to help me decipher the trends in speculative fiction and unlock the mystery of the modern audience.

Wool by Hugh Howey
Amazon scores: 12,970 reviews
5 star- 75%; 1 star- 2 %
Thus after a tedious scouring of the dark wilderness of Wikipedia, Amazon, and Goodreads, I stumbled at last upon my next worthy adversary: Wool.

What made Wool so intriguing was not just that it had an astonishing 12,000 customer reviews on Amazon (the vast majority of which were 4-star and above), or that it had made the NYT bestseller list and was optioned for an upcoming movie. What interested me most was that, at least during its rise to glory, Wool was a self-published novel. 

My attitude towards self-publishing so far has been mixed to cynical. Constantly harangued on Twitter by writers not so different than myself trying to sell me their self-published books, I find myself often utilizing the “look inside” feature on Amazon to scrutinize the first pages of these numerous suitors. Occasionally, I’ve found some interesting enough to load onto my kindle. However, though it pains me to say it, the results have almost always been grim. But with 12,000 reviews and a heap of accolades, it seemed Wool might be the indie champion to defy my conclusion that self-published novels, for all their good intentions, are simply inferior.

The Novel

For those, like me, who are latecomers to the Wool phenomenon, let me provide a brief synopsis. Wool takes place in a dystopian future where an unspecified apocalyptic event has rendered the atmosphere fatally toxic. The world of Wool, therefore, is a massive underground complex known as the “silo” that winds hundreds of levels into the ground. Every birth in the silo requires a death, and when such a chance arrives, couples must enter a lottery for permission to conceive a child.

While this premise was not unbelievably original, when taken with the novel's stunning success, I was intrigued enough to give the world of Wool a fair chance.


The Beginning 
One of the biggest faults I’ve noticed in many self-published novels is a beginning that fails to “hook." My recent investigation into what makes a first paragraph effective suggested that readers respond to the engagement of emotion and the raising of questions the reader has to have answered. In this difficult task, Wool performs exceptionally.

The first line of Wool reads: “The children were playing as Holston climbed to his death.” Immediately, I wanted to know how and why this character was going to die, and why there were children "playing" in proximity to an unfolding tragedy. This first line had the type of emotional/question-raising intrigue I had found so effective in other books. 

But a novel cannot hang on the anchor of a strong first line or even a first paragraph no matter how well-written. A good novel sets the stakes high and doesn’t disappoint.

The first chapter of Wool paints a vivid portrait of this underground world. The description is believably textured and engaging. The world-building, even in this confined setting, feels painstakingly vast.

Howey increases the intrigue with the introduction of the silo's system of capital punishment where the condemned are sent on a one-way voyage to “clean” the digital sensors above ground in the toxic air so the people below can view a clear projection of the outside world on a massive screen in the cafeteria. Why the cleaners never fail to complete this task despite knowing they will only survive long enough to finish the job before succumbing to an agonizing death is one of the foremost questions of the beginning of the novel. And why do the silo's citizens, who treat these cleanings as a sort of holiday, invest so much in a projection of the burnt, broken and lifeless world littered with the corpses of all those who have been "put to cleaning"?

Pushing forward, Howey reveals that Holston’s wife had decided abruptly three years before the novel's outset to voluntarily clean, a form of suicide her reasons for which she never adequately explained. For three years Holston watched the projection, fixating on the crumpled form of his deceased wife, before deciding to follow. 

It becomes obvious there is something amiss about all of this. Something not quite honest about either the digital projection, the cleaning process, or the silo itself. 

Good Characters
Good novels, even some of the best, don't sound particularly original when you distill their plots to a handful of sentences such as you might find on the back cover or underneath the title on Amazon. What makes a novel great is most often the strength of its characters. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is just a mediocre James Patterson knock off without the intrigue of Lisbeth Salander. The Hunger Games sounds much like Ender's Game without the fully fleshed enigma that is Katniss Everdeen. In this once again Wool delivers.

Juliette in Wool
Juliette is the heroine of the dystopian world of Wool
The pecking order of the silo is apparent: the grunts are tucked away at the bottom; the important people live near the top. The novel's principal heroine, Juliette, works in Mechanical, the department on the silo's lowest level. Juliette is underpaid and under-appreciated, but she is hard working, humble, intelligent and charismatic enough to generate a loyal following among her co-workers. She possesses an uncanny sense on what works and knows exactly how to fix what doesn’t. While this, at first, applies to the mechanical workings that keep the power, water and food systems of the silo running, it is later revealed that this is also a metaphor for her comprehension of just about everything. In other words Juliette is a tough, badass chick brimming with charisma and intelligence and you cant help but cheer for her all the way to the end.

Wool is a novel that keeps the pages flowing. Never is there a section that lags enough to hamper the story's flow. Even expository sections are engagingly executed. The novel doesn't lean too heavily on bang-bang action, though there is a generous serving of that too. Wool is constructed on interesting philosophical underpinnings that transcend mere action and suspense. 

Dystopia as a Cracked Mirror
One of the joys of good dystopia is what we can learn about our own world. As a projection of a possible future that reflects our cultural trajectory, dystopia reveals the potential consequences of modern actions when taken to their logical conclusions. In Wool, the silo is a microcosm for today's Earth. Howey harbors deep convictions about corruption, classism, the warping/withholding of knowledge and science, and the value of honest interpersonal connection and deep familial bonds. None of this, however, is forced on the novel so that it impedes the story but rather flows with and sharpens the plot at every step.


Plot Holes
There were a few plot holes in Wool that distracted from my suspension of disbelief. The absence of an elevator in the silo seemed distinctly implausible. The vast number of stairs required to march from the top to bottom (or visa versa) is a major obstacle routinely examined but never explained. I suppose the cause could be the scarcity of electric power, or perhaps some conscious decision of the silo’s creators to maintain its clear hierarchy. To me, however, it seemed that an elevator or lift of some form would be essential to this type of construct and the lack of one felt simply ludicrous.

Crumbles into Action Thriller
I’m a sucker for adventure over action. In the first 2/3rds of the novel the driving force tension centers on unlocking mysteries, exploring this strangely unique world, and trying to uncover who is behind the apparent corruption. This was far more interesting than the last third where battle sequences, action, and fighting become paramount.

Ultimately, Wool is a worthy page turner and a fine example of dystopian, post-apocalyptic science fiction. The strength of the characters, particularly Juliette, as well as the intriguing world building is more than enough to overcome the plot holes and its eventual and unavoidable devloution into an action thriller. The book is a fast and engaging read and even though it is somewhat long (over 500 pages) I reached the end wishing for more. 

Out of five stars I would rate Wool a strong four

I am in-debted to my readers. Without people to endure the words on my pages, I will vanish like the dodo. If you liked this post, feel free to comment below. If you didn't like it, feel free to comment below. I'll be your friend forever if you consider signing up for my weekly newsletter. You'll get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these numerous books I've been working on, I might send out an email letting you know about that, but that's it! In the meantime thanks for reading.

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  1. I've heard of Wool, but I didn't know any of the details or that it was so popular. I'm generally not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but I admit this book does sound intriguing. Thanks for the review!

    1. It was a new discovery for me. I wouldn't call it a favorite but I found it well worth my time reading. Thanks for reading and commenting!