Wild and Woolly Wonder: Hugh Howey’s WOOL Omnibus

First published at Perihelion Science Fiction (ezine) in April 2013, here again is my praise of Hugh Howey’s blockbuster novel. 

NEW TECHNOLOGY, A HALLMARK of the science fiction genre, has launched a common man into the coveted stratosphere of literary success. Thanks to a World Wide Web that pioneers of science fiction never dreamed of, Hugh Howey’s “Wool” may be more famous for how it was sold than how well it was told.

“Anyone can be a writer,” Howey tells his 3,000-plus Facebook fans and 7,000-plus Twitter followers. “You just sit down and do it.”

But not just anyone can sell their writing. Literary success depends on a mysterious combination of talent, luck, preparation and opportunity, and it’s fascinating, a kind of a puzzle, to figure out why a 37-year-old yacht captain’s book is doing so well while other well-written novels go nowhere. 

This is not a novel in the traditional sense of the word, but a series of five novellas that came out one at a time. Readers who begin with the newly released Omnibus, an ominous sounding word for a book containing reprints of a number of works, are notoriously “late to the party.” As Howey writes in the cover blurb, “This Omnibus Edition collects the five Wool books into a single volume. The first Wool story was released as a standalone short in July of 2011. Due to reviewer demand, the rest of the story was released over the next six months. My thanks go out to those reviewers who clamored for more. Without you, none of this would exist. Your demand created this as much as I did.”

In an era where fame has less to do with genuine talent and love for one’s craft, more to do with “going viral” via social media and YouTube, skeptics say there’s more to Howey’s success than consumer demand. His accessibility to readers, hisnice guy/humble geek image, his YouTube videos of himself dancing happy jigs (Gangnam style, in one video!) prove he just couldn’t have earned so many 5-star reviews without gaming the system. If “literary” writers haven’t heard of him and can’t find his books in the local library, then he isn’t famous. At a WorldCon conference, a client-hungry agent who sneered about self-publishing set off an outburst from Howey. He “detests” rudeness and condescension.

So is all the Howey hype as hollow as Kardashian fame, or is there some real substance? Serious science fiction fans say his plot holes and rehashed ideas make him a laughingstock.

I say the first way to generate interest in a book is to write a good synopsis, and Howey did: “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.”

That got me to download the free sample chapter one. Next up: would Howey pass the first-page test?

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.

That’s one of the most riveting opening lines in all the fiction I’ve ever read. The spiraling staircase is a marvelous metaphor, no matter how many reviewers grumbled of “too many stairs” and too many pages of people climbing up and down, talking, before anything happens. I, like Lukas, “was left admiring that graceful bar of steel … the way it curved and curved, always spinning the same amount, never ending … corkscrewing through the earth.” He “could sense its vibrations like some cosmic string, like a single strand of DNA at the silo’s core with all of life clinging to it.”

That’s good prose. It’s also good science fiction. As for plot holes and scenarios that violate scientific common sense, book sales attest to the number of readers who’ll suspend disbelief and join Howey’s characters on their journey through a dark underworld.

Howey’s silo is like a 144-story skyscraper built deep beneath the ruined surface of the Earth. With lean, almost poetic prose, he shows us a new society of human beings who’ve never set foot in grass, sand or soil, never felt the sun and wind, snow or rain.

He doesn’t waste time telling us how the Earth came to such a grievous end, how the silo was built, how knowledge of the past was lost or selectively suppressed, how citizens were duped into believing there never was and never will be a better world than theirs. His focus is on a man who questioned the status quo.

From the riveting first sentence, we know our hero has been sentenced to death. An elected mayor and sheriff keep order on all 144 levels, from the oil reserves and massive machinery of the “down deeps” to the agricultural work of the middle level, to IT, the computers and managers of the upper level. It takes about a week to climb all three levels. Complainers and rule-breakers get no chance to spread discontent; they are sent outside the silo to ritually clean the sensors before collapsing, dead, in the toxic world of sun, sky, wind and dirt. The wire wool they use for cleaning explains the title.

Spoiler alert: there are no sheep to be found in a novel called “Wool.” Sure, the heroine is a black sheep, the villains pull the wool over the people’s eyes, things get wild and woolly, but none of the scenes in the farming sector of the silo give us anything to baa home about.

The technology of the silo is not well developed, leading fans of the genre to ask why so much current science fiction is divorced from science. Howey offers no supporting details on how agriculture could be sustainable so far underground, why there’s no elevator or hydraulic lift, how citizens could be so gullible, and so on. Howey’s scientific inaccuracies and omissions, however, allow him cut to the chase and keep the narrative hurtling along. Then again, thriller fans say the novel is boring—“nothing but stairs.”

I love the stairs. I love the leitmotif of their double-helix spiral from the upper level of the silo, through all the hellish layers of management, bureaucracy, computers and electronics, to the huge, smelly, loud, clanking, greasy, dirty, growling machines that power the silo. Most of all, I love the people of the “down deeps” and their honest, gritty, unpretentious contrast to the smug superiority of techies in the upper level.

Howey exploits classic themes—some would say clichés—to build his characters. We’ve seen this villain before. We’ve seen rebels and innocents die. The real star of this show doesn’t even show up until Book Two. She’s worth the wait, this improbably named Juliette, aka Jules, a gutsy mechanical engineer from the “down deeps,” a problem-solving, hardworking leader who gets things done when no one else can. As the new sheriff, she soon finds herself on the wrong side of The Law. When the carefully maintained façade of the silo is threatened, heads must roll, in keeping with the over-done thriller genre. A dreaded uprising is imminent, so Juliette is sent out to clean.

This is not a plot spoiler. The character-driven narrative that holds our attention to the very end is completely dependent on Juliette, the first person in her world to cheat death. Others before her have been sent outside, and their bodies remain on Earth’s tattered hillside for viewers safe inside the silo to behold. What fun is a cautionary tale if no one ever defies the establishment and outwits the villains? The surprise isn’t that Juliette will survive exile; it’s how she survives that keeps us turning pages. Juliette is the reason traditional publishers want to sell paper copies of Howey’s e-books; Juliette is why Ridley Scott bought film rights. When the movie comes out, one line is certain to become iconic: “I’m coming for you. I’m coming home, and I’m coming to clean.”

Where there’s a Juliette, there must be a Romeo. He must be worthy of his Juliette, or who’d die for him? Howey’s Romeo (no plot spoiler; I’m not naming him) may be the biggest flaw in all the Omnibus. Never have I been so disappointed in a man the author would have us rooting for. The guy has incredible opportunities to work the system and support the uprising, but he squanders them. Perhaps Howey intended a role reversal of female heroines portrayed as screaming idiots in all the movies? Sorry, but this whimpering, ineffectual un-Romeo nearly brings the novel down to two stars.

If Book One were the only story I’d read, I’d have 3-starred “Wool” for being as bleak and depressing as a “New Yorker” short story. By the end of Book Five, however, Howey convinced me there’s hope for the human race. He tells a great story, and in so doing, Howey continues to puzzle and provoke. How could a college dropout, yacht captain and bookstore employee write and sell a story that fast?

As J.K. Rowling is accused of stealing a boy wizard named Harry from Niel Gaimon, so “Wool” is said to be a rip-off of Jeanne DuPrau’s classic “The City of Ember,” in which a 241-year-old domed city, built to keep humans alive on a ruined Earth, is run by a corrupt mayor who keeps the people in darkness, figuratively and literally. Howey’s tale may have several plot devices in common with DuPrau’s, but the end result is two novels that are as distinct from each other as a red dress from Dior versus a red dress from Prada. Book covers, like synopses, also help us discern. A new edition of the Omnibus shows Juliette wearing an astronaut-inspired uniform on a moon-like surface. No such image would reflect Ember’s theme. For me, that’s enough to dismiss charges of copycat writing.

So how did one good novel create such a stir, when other good novels don’t? For hundreds of years, the publishing industry hardly changed. Trees died, mechanical presses churned out pages, books were bound, sold and distributed in a notoriously long, laborious process, and talent alone wouldn’t get a writer past the gate-guarding snare of agents, editors and publishers. Only recently have silicon and glass, fiber optic cables, and near light-speed Internet connections made it possible for anybody to type a story, post it and, within minutes, have readers.

“Anyone” can work the system to inflate sales statistics, too, but hardly anyone has so many fans begging for more, followed by Simon & Schuster printing hard cover editions, and movie producers optioning rights to the book. Last year James Erwin, at 37, formerly a slacker in college, now an office worker and family man, spent his lunch break with Reddit, writing a what-if paragraph about the modern U.S. military versus Roman soldiers. Readers begged for more. Two more paragraphs later, readers begged him to quit his day job and deliver a whole novel. When Erwin accepted a movie offer instead (“Rome, Sweet Rome”) and quit his job to work on the screenplay, some Reddit fans felt betrayed that Erwin had abandoned the very people who put him on the industry’s radar. Meanwhile, Howey continues to interact with his readers, traveling the nation on a bookstore tour, tweeting his every move, and keeping up with the Facebook followers he credits for his meteoric rise to fame.

Compared to classics of the science fiction genre, “Wool” does fall short. Compared to other e-books for sale by indie authors, “Wool” is truly outstanding. The prose, the characters, the suspense, the thought-provoking insights into human behavior, all set Howey well above the usual offerings. I’ve sampled and dismissed a thousand novels that flunk the page-one test. Where many authors go astray, using info-dumps to describe and explain the world they’re creating, Howey demonstrates that less is more. Where others give us cardboard cutouts, Howey delivers a heroine whose strength and courage steal our hearts, while her occasional poor judgment reminds us she’s more human than fictional superstar.

As Gordon Lish said, “It’s not what happens to people on the page; its about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.” By that measure, Howey is a writer who earned his day in the sun. He might be taken more seriously if he didn’t inflict videos of himself happy dancing on YouTube, not to mention his encouragement of “fan fiction,” a new trend I don’t even want to talk about. His latest venture involves writing a chapter at a time and posting it for reader feedback as the Omnibus sequels continue. First Shift, then Second, then Third, are selling. “The Silo Wars” are coming. Hmm, this guy may be exploiting Madison Avenue marketing tactics, after all. But his prose is what sold me, not his accessibility to readers. I’ll even forgive Howey his sniveling Romeo, the number of great characters who get bumped off in every chapter, the futile, fiery climax, and all the plot holes along the way, because the Omnibus, as a whole, is fascinating, mysterious, and worth reading. (“Wool,” by Hugh Howey, Simon & Schuster, paperback) — Carol Kean

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About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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