Book Review : Wool by Hugh Howey

Rating : 5/5

This review contains some spoilers.

Wool is a series of 5 science fiction novellas by American writer Hugh Howey. The first novella was published as a short story in July, 2011. This and the following 4 editions are usually considered the Wool series (as different from a prequel trilogy and from “Dust”, also written by Hugh).

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

From the author’s website

Having read Wool, I have to believe that legends take time to build. That the only reason Hugh Howey is not already counted among the elite of sci-fi writing is that its been only a few years since this book (or series, if you prefer. I think of this as a single book both because the individual stories are so short and because they are too tightly knit to be thought of as separate) came out. I have definitely been shouting from my rooftop to anyone who cares to listen – this is one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read.

Wool is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel set in America that describes a world where mankind lives in a silo and to think or hope of stepping outside is heresy. The premise is not unique in itself and the usual elements of similar plots (a population living in fear, a secret group guarding forbidden knowledge, lone individuals digging for the truth) are present here too. However, what makes wool special is Hugh’s masterful writing and the way he has packed so much emotion in so few words. Wool is dense with pathos, with the constrained humanity of the denizens of its silo. Every single line has a purpose, either describing the nature of the world around the character or the deepest nature of the characters themselves. Of necessity, the tone is meditative, even during the more action-centric parts. The silo itself is described in some detail, thus setting the proper ambience for a sci-fi drama.

In Juliette, Marner, the Mayor, Lukas, and Bernard, Hugh has crafted memorable, archetypal characters. Each represents a unique facet of life in the Silo and human nature. The first two stories literally reek of the younger generations claustrophobia (physical and emotional) and the insistence of the old guard to maintain status quo and go on as they have before. The last three, on the other hand, embody movement. You can feel the silo stirring with the struggle between knowing and not knowing. Each story is longer than the previous one to accommodate the expanding plot and number of characters.

From the beginning, there is enough smattering of suspense to keep the reader hooked. The secrets are unveiled very slowly, every bit given almost grudgingly, so that reader shares the revelations of the characters and the revel in the shock of it all. By the end, the sense of shock and betrayal is visceral.

A subtle aspect of the book, and something worth thinking about, is the nature of status quo. The story brings into sharp relief the way traditions become so pervasive that they lose all meaning and become an unthinking way of life. They are “just the way things are done”, and to question them is to disturb the peace. While societies thrive in the familiarity (even the limited society of Wool), it is the interplay of stasis and change that underpins all conflict. In this manner, Hugh has captured an essential feature of our lives, magnified it a hundred-fold, and presented it in his microcosmic world.

I had read this book some years ago and loved it just as well. But reading it in the current locked-down state of life and mind brought out the power of the story and the characters afresh. In these times, Wool is a tale of containment and liberation all at the same time – one that sheds far more light on the our world than most breaking news. I guarantee that this is one of the finest sci-fi books you will ever read in all its aspects (plot, language, characters, writing et al).

Well done Mr. Howey!

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