Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Wool

I really had a hard time settling on one book to review this month: I read five good books, and am nearly done with a sixth. Not a stinker in the lot. I'm settling on Hugh Howey's "Wool Omnibus" because not only was it an addictively good read, not only has it stuck with me, but it has an unusual backstory.

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 Mechanic
Juliette, our plucky hero, is a brilliant mechanic who lives in the deepest bowels of the silo and prefers machines to people. I immediately though of Kaylee from Firefly, of course, and it seems likely Howey had her in mind when he created his hero. But unlike Kaylee, Juliette isn't naive and sweet. She's clever, brusque, confrontational, and impatient. Her vocation may have been inspired by Kaylee, but her personality is all Zoƫ. She is not merely your standard kickass heroine, either. She gets scared, she gets hurt. Her strength lies in her mind rather than her ninja fighting skills.

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.

Check out these other Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.Counterintuitivity
3.Subliminal Coffee4.Scouring Monk
5.A ARTE DE NEWTON AVELINO6.The Random Book Review
7.StrangePegs -- The Ocean at The End of the Lane8.Ed & Reub
9.What's Up, MOCK?10.My Creatively Random Life
11.Jim Devitt12.Hungry Enough to Eat Six!
13.Bird's Nest14.Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood
15.Words Incorporated16.Spill Beans
17.M.J. Fifield18.Servitor Ludi


  1. Wow, Steph: Fantastic! I gulped up your review, actually. And now I'm curious, what does, 'allotted babies' mean?

    1. Because of the size limits of the silo, the population has to be kept in check. There's a lottery for babies, meaning, if you and your spouse win the lottery, you get a year to get pregnant. You are allowed two babies total. If you can't get pregnant in that year, you have to pass on the lottery next time. (Or something like that.) Which, I thought, is almost certainly what *would* happen in that circumstance. That's one of the things I liked about this book ... the way society was structured seemed highly realistic.

      I'm glad you liked the review! :) You should join me on Goodreads. I try to review all my books there; mostly just so I can record my impressions while they're fresh.

    2. This response actually wants to make me read it more. It wasn't what I expected and feels a clue to his tight worldbuilding skills -- which you mention with praise.


  2. Post-apocalypse is a VERY common theme in comics these days - too common. It's gratifying to be reminded that there's still room for something original and Wool sounds fascinating. I like the idea of sending the condemned to clean the cameras.

    Your Firefly references are wonderful. That show sure packed a punch in 14 episodes (plus movie)!

    1. I don't read comics but in fiction generally dystopian/postapocalyptic really is becoming ubiquitous, isn't it? Although I don't seem to be getting tired of it, myself: I read The Hunger Games, 1984, the Delirum trilogy, the Divergent trilogy, World War Z, The Year of the Flood, the Dog Stars, and now this one. All in the last year or two. (The only one I didn't like was World War Z. Which, apparently, is nerd sacrilege.) So I think I can say with some authority that Wool really is original. :) Not only did it remind me of Firefly, but also of Battlestar Galactica, in that there's only a few people left, and they exist in a confined space. So the usual rules and freedoms we cherish don't necessarily work, and might not even be "moral." Although BSG explores that concept a bit more fully than does Wool.

      I am still mad at Fox for canceling Firefly. >:( But a tiny part of me admits that having it contained the way it was allowed something special to happen in that show.

    2. What's great about Firefly is that the principal players have gone on to other exciting things. We just saw Much Ado About Nothing this afternoon. Major kudos to Whedon for his mega-success and also, Nathan Fillion's an awesome Dogberry. Sean Maher's a good Don John, too.

      Meanwhile, Firefly's legacy in the geek-verse is secure. One could do a lot worse!

  3. Good review: I read and liked Wool recently and was struck how dark a lot of fiction is getting. I am sure there is a tie in to the feeling of foreboding in the world.

    1. Ah, finally — someone else who read it! It is dark in the way post-apocalypse often is, but like a lot of them, it ends on a hopeful note. Thankfully it's actually rare to go the George Orwell or Ray Bradbury route and have things even suckier at the end than they were at the beginning. (Although 1984 is grimmer than Fahrenheit 451.) I have been wondering why these books are suddenly so popular, too — especially for teenagers.

      I'm not even sure why I like them, except I always have. I like survivalism and fighting tyranny, at least in fiction. (People who describe themselves as "survivalists," on the other hand, are best given a wide berth.) And I tend to come away from these books feeling good, like my own problems suddenly seem so small and manageable. Because: world no endy! I think for teens, there's a huge cloud hanging over them right now with the economy and climate change. I know my teen feels like her generation is inheriting a vast mess, which they have to solve to survive. So books like the Hunger Games, where teenagers take control and fix the broken world, would naturally be appealing. In any event, I don't see the proliferation as necessarily a bad thing.

  4. What a cool success story for a self-published author! It's always exciting to see that other venues for publishing do sometimes work.

    The premise of this book is not one that interest me much, but given your glowing review, I might give it a try one of these days. BTW, I finally started The Dinner. :-)

    1. Oh, you will have to come back and tell me what you think of The Dinner! I finally got C to read it, and he didn't care for it much at first ... too draggy, he said. But in the end, he really loved it.

  5. I'm not huge on speculative fiction, but I've come to realize that you are! ;-) But that's okay, I still like you.

    I think what kind of turns me off about a book like this is 1) the idea of another village living underground in a post-apocalyptic world, and 2) the whole lack of technology thing, or should I say, technology only when it's convenient. I've always felt that when the world is trying to get back on its feet after nuclear war that there should be a clear assessment as to whether technology exists in some capacity or not. Spec. fic. tends to make it convenient when the purpose suits the storyline.

    But, wow! 400,000 sales in ebooks alone is an awesome record!

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I've read about 40 books so far this year, and about 1/4 of them could be described as speculative fiction. Most are realistic fiction, but I do retain a fondness for spec fic (and I'm glad you still like me in spite of it!:)). One thing I really liked about this book was how realistic it was about the silo's structure, including how they used technology. It didn't feel arbitrary, or merely for plot convenience.

      But also, I think one key to enjoying speculative fiction is not to get too caught up in details, like how warp drive works or why Klingons have wrinkly foreheads. You're delivered a premise, and you just need to accept it and go from there; if the author spends all their time explicating, you-the-reader may find your skepticism eased (or not, since as many questions will be raised as answered), but you will wind up with 800 pages of exposition before the plot can move ahead.

      On the other-other hand, there's no need to work at enjoying speculative fiction. There's loads of excellent realistic fiction out there; enough to keep a reader happy for her whole life!

  6. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews about this, but, ultimately, I'm so over post-apocalyptic and dystopian books that I'm just not interested. Maybe again some day but not right now.

    1. I can understand the burnout. There's a lot of apocalypse right now.

  7. Had never heard of this one.. Thanks for sharing.


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