Even if it were just a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic novel about a society forced to live underground, “Wool” would still be quite a tale. In the summer of 2011, a 36-year-old jack-of-all-trades named Hugh Howey self-published a short story on the Web. It was discovered by fans of dystopian sci-fi adventure, and they quickly spread the word. Rapidly rising sales led him to continue the story in four additional installments.
Well before any print edition rolled off a press, “Wool” had sold more than 400,000 e-books and was optioned by Hollywood. But what sets it apart from hundreds of thousands of self-published e-books is that it’s a good and compelling story, and well told. It seems as if there should be a marketing trick responsible or some blatant appeal to prurient interest, but this is no “Fifty Shades of Wool.” It’s the real deal.
Simon and Schuster caught the wave and is publishing a five-volume omnibus — in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions — for us Luddites. By now, if you haven’t read (or at least heard of) “Wool,” you’re hopelessly old-fashioned and oddly well-suited to its rather traditional storytelling charms.
The action takes place inside a huge silo, 144 stories deep, dug into the Earth, where people must live because the atmosphere is toxic and the land is ruined. The small community is stratified as well, with the farmers and mechanicals in the lower third, the information-technology folks in the heart of the structure and the professional class in the upper level. The silo relies on highly regulated statism. The working classes wear color-coded uniforms. Goods and services are exchanged by chits. People are confined by a rigid set of rules on everything from the number of children to the number and kinds of pets allowed.
They have everything necessary to live underground, such as the means to raise fruits, vegetables and animals, some basic manufacturing capability, and a rudimentary power and water system. There’s a kind of steampunk ethos at work, and it’s clearly not your father’s future. They use charcoal for writing and are running short of paper. The distant past and the natural world of the early 21st century have vanished. Worst of all, there’s no elevator in the silo, just a really long spiral staircase.
Every once in awhile, someone is sent outside in a protective suit with industrial-grade wool to clean the grime off the sensors that face the outside world and bring in diluted light. The only problem is that the engineers have yet to find a way to get the cleaners back into the silo alive.
Howey plunges right into this strange underground dystopia and builds it as the story moves along, giving the novel its zip and authority. While richly textured, the silo and the state will never be enough for these people living underground: “There was this unspoken, deadly hope in every member of the silo,” he writes. “A ridiculous, fantastical hope. That maybe not for them, but perhaps for their children, or their children’s children, life on the outside would be possible once again, and that it would be the work of it and the bulky suits that emerged from their labs that would make it all possible.”
Into this world comes a reluctant hero. Her name is Juliette, and the tale revolves around her quest to embody the hope of the underclass. She is a mechanic, a fixer of machines. She is very plucky and inventive, but Howey imbues her with enough flaws and self-doubt to make her a well-rounded protagonist who carries the reader along. She is an ideal knight-errant for our times. When she is dispatched to become a cleaner, her fellow mechanicals rise up and take arms against the state.
It’s easy to see how exuberant word of mouth spread so quickly on the Internet for “Wool.” The characters are well drawn, with a rousing protagonist and antagonist, and the plot races forward without resorting to melodrama. Most of all, the mood is rightly claustrophobic and, at times, genuinely terrifying — particularly with the very real threat of global warming looming. It’s not a perfect novel, and, at times, the method of its construction sticks out like a crooked seam. But “Wool” is the kind of sci-fi novel you can give to those who love the genre and those who never read the stuff.
Donohue is the author of “The Stolen Child” and two other novels.
By Hugh Howey
Simon & Schuster. 537 pp. $26