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Power, Poison, and Fear
in Hugh Howey's Wool
Erin Strybis

Hugh Howey’s Wool wool coveris an imaginative, post-apocalyptic story about an underground, futuristic society whose citizens reside in an upside down, multi-level silo burrowed deep in the ground. No one knows exactly when or why the silo was built, but they do know that it protects them from the surface of the earth, which is inhospitable to humans, to put it mildly. Outside the silo there were “dull slopes of these gray hills rising up toward grayer clouds, dappled sunlight straining to illuminate the land with little success. Across it all were the terrible winds, the frenzied gusts that whipped small clouds of soil into curls and whorls that cased one another across a landscape meant only for them” (125).

The citizens’ only view of the outside world is projected by outdoor cameras onto a screen in the silo’s top-level dining hall. “Cleaning” the camera lens that captures that view is a death sentence, a punishment reserved only for the worst criminals. As the book opens, it has been a year since one of these lens cleaners, Allison, scrubbed wool against the scummy camera lens. The ground below her was dusty, and the sky above was gray and threatening. Safe and underground, the people watched as their view of the outside world became clearer. Once she had finished, Allison walked away from the lens, toward the distant forms along the horizon. Just as she made it to the crest of the hill she collapsed.

But Allison was not a criminal; she had chosen to go outside of her own accord, even knowing that all “cleaners” die. Why did she want out? Why would anyone want out? Given the toxicity of the outside world, the silo seems like a pretty decent place to live. Or is it? This is the first of many mysteries that unravel in Wool, the first book in Howey’s fast-paced science fiction trilogy.

Wool was first released in July 2011 as a sixty page e-book. Howey, an unknown author at the time, self-published Wool through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and priced it at 99 cents. In the Q&A section of his book, Howey encourages readers to write reviews: “I read every single review on Amazon, I promise. This is how the books are discovered, so if you want other readers to find the books you’re enjoying, take a few moments and craft a review.”

Through a new approach to book marketing, rave reader reviews, and perhaps a bit of luck, Wool rose to the top of the US bestseller list, and Howey, who interacted and still interacts regularly with his fans, began working on four additional novellas that were also published in serial form and later as a set, the Wool Omnibus (January 2012). Two more books, Shift (January 2013) and Dust (August 2013), completed the Silo Trilogy.

Wool explores the complex social order that has developed in the silo. Each of its 144 floors holds a different yet integral component of society: there are floors for lodging, farming and aquaponics, medical offices, IT, and more. On the bottom floor is the aging generator and the mechanics who work tirelessly (and thanklessly) to maintain it. The silo is governed by an elected mayor and sheriff who reside on the top floor. In order to maintain a community enclosed in such a tight space, there must be rules, and there are many rules in the silo: you have to win the “lottery” to have children, you must shadow and take on a practical profession, you only receive a limited ration of food, etc. But the one rule you must never break is that you must never say you want to go outside the silo. Even whispering or joking about your desire to go outside is considered treason, punishable by cleaning. The silo people don’t talk about the outside. Ever.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, but the measures used to control the silo’s population are severe—even cruel—and they come with no explanation other than that the air outside is deadly. This is just one of the many ways Howey raises the tension between the need for order and control in order to survive and the desire for freedom in order to live. “This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge,” Howey explains on his website. “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.”

Howey’s characters, whose thoughts are conveyed through third-person narration, are likeable, intelligent, and, for the most part, believable. Although readers never actually meet Allison (she doesn’t narrate a chapter), we do meet her husband Holston, who works as silo sheriff. Holston is hardworking, loyal, and deeply affected by the loss of his wife. He spends countless hours working to uncover the mystery of his wife’s death until he resigns.

His successor, Juliette, takes over as the protagonist of the story. A mechanic with a strong will and sharp wit, Juliette has a tremendous work ethic and a similarly sound sense of ethics. Though she is small, she is not afraid to search for the truth or speak her mind, even when doing so gets her into trouble. And the thing about the silo is that there are a lot of un-truths buried there, just waiting to be uncovered.

Like many other characters in the book, Juliette is not without her flaws. Yet her passion for fixing things—and pursuing justice—makes her so incredibly likeable and successful. Howey’s writing allows readers to take a journey with Juliette and walk in her shoes. And Juliette’s journey, as you might have imagined, gets very interesting as the book continues.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about the strange society Howey builds in Wool is how plausible so much of it seems. Do we, as a human society, care that we are poisoning the earth with cars, fertilizer runoff, and our own waste? With no concerted effort being made to avoid the environmental damage that many argue is irreversible, it is chilling to think that our actions today could bring about a future similar to what Howey imagines.

Even more unsettling is that the forms of social stratification and control in the silo, evidenced by divisions among floors, also reflect developments in our own society. How much power must we give our government so that it will be able to protect us from a frightening world? How much information should we let our leaders keep from us?

In the silo, several years’ worth of public historical records were said to have been “wiped out” by the rebels during the previous uprising, but Allison, and later Juliette, discover that the records weren’t lost but purposely hidden. In fact, there have been multiple uprisings. Teachers read from books depicting days of lush green grass, cloudless blue skies and animals, but silo children and adults alike are led to believe these stories are simply fiction.

Howey’s Wool delivers an incredible world, sympathetic characters, and great suspense, but it also offers a cautionary message: There is a fine line between protection for the good of citizens and protection for the good of those in power. When the balance tips too far to one side, there will be conflict. In the case of Wool, uprisings begin when individuals finally get fed up with the lies, and they end with devastating destruction.

Wool reminds that the earth will change; in fact, it is changing now. Can we counterbalance the poison we are creating in our environment? Can we overcome the very acts that poison society and threaten our liberty?

 

Erin Strybis is a Marketing Manager at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She lives and works in Chicago.

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