The "Omnibus" part of the title refers to the collection of all five Wool stories, which function together as a novel. In 2011, Howey published Book One (just called "Wool") as a short story on the web, for free. It may have been billed as a short story, but I don't think it was ever meant as a standalone story. It's a teaser, meant to hook you, and it worked: readers found it and started begging Howey for more. He released the next four books serially, also self-publishing, although at some point he began requesting pay for his work. By the time the book went to print, the ebook had sold — get this — 400,000 copies.
And here's why: unlike the vast majority of self-published books out there, Wool is really good. It's not without flaws, but it's a compelling and thought-provoking read. The characters are sharply drawn, the action is exciting, the setting is so visually portrayed it's like watching a movie. The writing isn't literary, but it suits the kind of story this is: a post-apocalyptic thriller.
In the world of Wool, the remnants of humanity live in an underground silo, completely sealed off from the toxic world outside. We know it's toxic because being sent outside is literally a death sentence: criminals are sentenced to clean the cameras that show the silo's inhabitants the bleak world outside. The monitors get crapped up periodically by all the dust blowing around, and the condemned "cleaners" spend a few minutes scrubbing the sensors with wool pads before the toxicity eats through their biosuits and they stagger off to die: the first book walks us through one such instance.
Life inside the silo is so richly imagined, I can't help but wonder if Howey didn't spend his entire youth worldbuilding. The people of the silo move up and down the hundred-some floors by means of a single spiral staircase. While there is technology — emails and an entire IT department — most people live an almost preindustrial life, with fairly rigid castes marked off floor by floor. One floor is a marketplace; another is a farm, fruits & veg nursed along with growlights. One floor is a nursery for the carefully allotted babies; the bottom floors house the machinery that keeps the place ticking. People seem relatively happy and stable in this constrictive world, but we know there have been periodic uprisings. The details of these catastrophes have been wiped out by the fascist IT department, and the sheeplike people of the silo have been willing to live in ignorance rather than explore the fault lines of their world: too much is at stake. However, as the story begins, some of the natives are getting restless. As tensions build, our hero and villain come to the fore.
The villain is less interesting, but luckily Howey doesn't devote as much time to him as he does to Juliette and her allies. Once Juliette is sent to cleaning, the action of the story really takes off. Will she be the first to survive a cleaning? If her biosuit will keep her alive long enough to make it over the surrounding hills, what will she find?
Even if you don't love speculative fiction, you might want to give this story a try. It's not every day you find a book you can really disappear into, that you want to read in one giant gulp, and that leaves you thinking about the characters and the situation long after you're done. It's also not every day we get to stick our tongues out at the fossilized publishing industry, which seems hellbent on making life pretty miserable for aspiring writers. Not too many self-published writers create content that's worth supporting, but Howey has.
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