Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

“Wool” by Hugh Howey

I just finished Wool, by Hugh Howey. I heard about it, and got interested enough to take a chance on it, after reading this Wall Street Journal piece about the book, Howey, and especially the financial and marketing details of the book’s success and of Howey’s deal with Simon & Schuster.

(If the article is paywalled for you, here are the first few paragraphs:

“Hugh Howey’s postapocalyptic thriller ‘Wool’ has sold more than half a million copies and generated more than 5,260 Amazon reviews. Mr. Howey has raked in more than a million dollars in royalties and sold the film rights to ‘Alien’ producer Ridley Scott.

“And Simon & Schuster hasn’t even released the book yet.

“In a highly unusual deal, Simon & Schuster acquired print publication rights to ‘Wool’ while allowing Mr. Howey to keep the e-book rights himself. Mr. Howey self-published ‘Wool’ as a serial novel in 2011, and took a rare stand by refusing to sell the digital rights. Last year, he turned down multiple seven-figure offers from publishers before reaching a mid-six-figure, print-only deal with Simon & Schuster.”)

Now that I’ve finished, I have to say the book’s financial numbers and basic plot—people in a post-apocalyptic future living in a 144-story concrete silo—are the best, most interesting things about it. It’s not a bad novel, but it lacks the polish of traditionally published novels, which for better or worse go through lots of sanitizing and fine-tuning before they’re presented to the public. There’s a flabbiness to the writing that I found distracting, and that diminished my confidence: at a certain point I started skimming scenes with lots of dialogue, knowing by then that the descriptions of the characters moving around the room, gesturing, and so forth, was filler; even the dialogue itself was often redundant, or was too close to the banality of real life to be interesting—it failed the test I’ve learned to apply to most dialogue, which is to ask “How does this push things forward?”

Similarly, the characters are kind of thin, and there are a number of plotlines that Howey periodically forgets about, remembers, and pays brief lip service to before forgetting them again. (As an example, the novel’s central character, Juliette, had a secret, forbidden love interest when she was younger, and until late in the novel he is not given a name, few details are included, and there’s virtually zero reflection on how memories of him or of what happened to him have informed Juliette’s life.)

Some of this is a function of Howey’s writing the book in five parts and publishing each one as it was finished—I don’t doubt that some of Dickens’s serialized novels, much less the pulpier stuff that has been serialized in various publications over the years, have similar problems. And some of my criticisms probably show how little I know about science fiction: I haven’t read anything in that genre in a number of years, but from what I remember from all that I read in middle school and high school, the characterization and the quality of prose in these books are not top-tier concerns for most writers.

Wool is strong on concept, which I do remember being a top-tier concern for sci-fi writers. Howey’s concept is great: history’s been wiped clean, and a few thousand living humans reside in a massive underground silo, where they literally reside on very different social strata: the rulers live “up top,” while the grunts who run Mechanical are in the “down deep.”

Moreover, Howey does something with the silo idea: it’s not just a setting, and he fleshes out the world of the silo to make it rich and specific. I can understand why he’s gained so many favorable reviews on Amazon, and why sales have been so good. (It must be said, too, that the pricing is perfect: after reading the WSJ piece, $6 felt like a fair risk to check this thing out.)

The most favorable thing I can say about Wool is that it ought to make a great movie some day: the concept is great, and the characters Howey’s chosen should form a good foundation for a talented screenwriter to take the story the rest of the way: to give the characters that extra dimension, perhaps even to modify the plot so that things are clearer, the action more compelling. (There are what feel like a few aimless sections, errands that make sense to me as a writer—“He’s moving Juliette here so that she can return to this room in order to find _______”—but that feel unsatisfying as a reader.) It should also be a pretty cheap movie to film, considering that it would be hard to film the entire silo at once; as a film producer, you’d be left with nothing but sets, the most expensive of which would seemingly be a tall staircase. (There are no elevators in this grim vision of the future. In fact, one of the cooler elements was the “porters” who ran messages and goods up the stairs, presumably developing massive, mutant quadriceps muscles, though Howey doesn’t tell us that.)

While I found Wool a little disappointing as a piece of fiction, having known some of the backstory added an element of interest that really enriched the experience. I kept wondering what marked the book as having been self-published; many times, I compared some of Howey’s writing to what I’ve seen in undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops, and imagined what my peers would have said if I’d submitted something with this sentence, or failed to describe this character’s face, clothes, or backstory. I ended up feeling that Wool was not an especially great book, but that it was transcendent as a self-published book: for having not had to pass any filters, but to have risen by reputation and quality, is an achievement, and while I may have found fault with the novel, I can see why Wool has earned this achievement.

Update: Interesting and insightful blog post by Allen Watson that suggests (while making some larger points about self-publishing) that my disdain toward self-publishing tainted this review. I have to say I don’t see it—if anything, I think there is more disdain toward science fiction in this post—but maybe a critic can’t see his own biases.

True stories of the clueless

Right off, I’ll warn you that this is going to be a bit meaner than many of my previous blog posts. But I believe the joy I take in this person’s failure is well-earned, in this case.

Here’s the background: I administer the social media accounts for a large university. It’s fun: my job is to post things several times a day on Facebook and Twitter, and to some extent to engage with people on those sites. What’s more, I’ve got some flexibility and I’m able to come up with ideas, implement them, and get the immediate gratification (or, sometimes, the lack of it) of getting “likes,” retweets, and appreciative comments (or, again, snarky comments).

A case in point was this Monday. It was April 1; i.e., April Fool’s Day. I had what I thought was a great idea for a post. I worked on doctoring up a photograph on Friday and would periodically think about this joke throughout the weekend, sort of chuckling to myself.

(Very briefly, yet more background: at this large university, there is a very tall, gothic-looking building where a couple of peregrine falcons like to nest. There’s a webcam set up on them, and lots of great photos have been appearing over the last week (like this one, taken from the great “Outside My Window” bird blog) as one of the falcons has been laying her eggs for the year. It’s been great fodder for Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve milked it to the fullest extent.)

The idea was the image you see below: Dorothy, the new mother, having laid one additional egg: a dragon’s egg, from Game of Thrones (which, neatly enough, had had its season 3 premiere the night before).

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Is it great Photoshopping? Of course not. But is it fun? Certainly.

So, cut to the purpose for my writing this. Several hours later, several dozen “likes” and retweets and friendly comments in, the comment in the following photo appears. (The names of certain people have been blacked out to protect them in their naivete.)

Dum dum 2 fixed

In case you can’t read it, the person writes, “nice joke, SET THE BIRD FREE!”

There are great responses in the rest of the comments, most asking, “Is that an April Fool’s joke, too?” One or two people pointed out that, what, this bird is totally free already. Then, some wonderful person pointed out what I had realized, but didn’t dare mention in my capacity as account administrator: this commenter had several weeks previous made the same comment, demonstrating an apparent belief that this photo shows a peregrine falcon in a dingy cage, for some reason enslaved by the major research university and elite public educational institution that employs me. (For the record, via the National Aviary, here is a web cam with more information about the whole set-up. Suffice it to say, these falcons are quite literally as free as birds.)

I could not resist clicking the person’s name to find out what his/her deal was. Lo and behold, I found the image below:

Dum dum 1 fixed

The person shared the photo on his/her own Facebook page, with a message reading, “To all my fellow animal activists will you send [the name of the university (written incorrectly, I can’t help pointing out)] a little message about the importance of freedom, look at where they have this noble creature!”

Oh, dear God.

I shouldn’t jump on this person too much, because one of his/her friends later commented that it appeared the peregrines were free indeed, and just perched in this spot, and the person basically acknowledged this. But come on. There is something about someone jumping to a conclusion like this, granting zero credit and being so swift to be outraged, that their being mistaken and my having the opportunity to revel in it is just. Irresistible. That it was all unfolding on April Fool’s made it that much sweeter and more poignant.