“Wool” by Hugh Howey

by jbloodwell

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.

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