By Ross B. Lampert
Wool is the title of both the first novella and the first five stories in the Silo series, and the book which rocketed Hugh Howey to science fiction stardom. Deservedly so.
WARNING: There are spoilers in this review. I’ll put them in a different font so you can spot and skip them if you wish.
Wool is the story of a large, thoroughly developed community of people (hundreds if not a few thousand) who have lived for a long time in a 144 story deep underground silo. One of many, as it turns out, but the residents of Silo 18 don’t know that there are other silos until late in the story. Until then, only a select few even know that they’re “Silo 18.”
The silo culture is divided into dozens of functional groups: the Mechanicals live in the “down deep,” the lowest levels of the silo and keep the power, water, and air-conditioning flowing; Supply lives in “the mids,” and does what you’d think a supply organization does; the IT department lives in the lower portion of the “up top” levels and provides an early 1990s-era level of technology. There are porters, farmers, doctors, priests, and others, all overseen by an elected mayor and a tiny police force: one sheriff and three deputies, one in each of the vertical thirds of the silo. Why everyone lives in the silo is a closely-guarded secret, however, but everyone knows that the outside is deadly. They can see it, thanks to four camera lenses mounted on a tower that bring in a panoramic view of desolation in to the cafeteria on the top level.
Those lenses need cleaning every now and then, but cleaning is not a job: it’s a death sentence. The silo’s Supply and IT departments have the ability to create environmental suits that allow someone to survive outside—but they can’t be allowed back in. Most residents don’t know why, they just know they can’t be. So when someone is convicted of a particularly heinous crime, which does not necessarily include murder, they’re sentenced to clean the lenses, and then die when their oxygen runs out.
So you’d think the condemned would fight being sent out, yet they never do. For one thing, the air lock to the outside is cleansed by fire after the outer door is opened and closed. For another, when they get their first look outside from the airlock, what they see is nothing like what they saw through the other lenses. The world is green and lush. The buildings in the far distance are gleaming skyscrapers, not skeletons. And so the condemned people get to work, scrubbing furiously at the lenses with their wool cleaning pads, trying to show the people inside what’s really there.
Except it’s not. And when they take off their helmets, thinking they can survive, well, you can guess what happens. Until one person learns the truth. And then another truth. And another.
Wool is a story of deception and a desperate attempt to keep the people of the silo compliant with the rules as enforced by the mayor and sheriff, in part because there have been uprisings from time to time in the past—whose history was then (supposedly) erased from the archives—and anyone who dared to mention them sent to cleaning.
For writers, Wool is an excellent story for studying world-building and character development. You’ll care about Sheriff Holston, and then your heart will break for him. You’ll care about Juliette, his successor and the protagonist of the story, and desperately want her to survive and succeed. And you’ll come to understand why Bernard, the head of the IT department, does what he does. He is the hero of his own story, and his story is rational in its own way.
One final note. A reviewer on Amazon or Goodreads, I can’t remember which, took Howey to task because there was no wool in Wool. Alas, the young lady was wrong. There are two kinds: the wool of the cleaning pads, and the more horrific, suffocating wool that’s pulled over the eyes of almost all the residents. There is one problem however: while there is wool in the cleaning pads, there’s no mention of sheep in the story. But this one oversight is easy to miss and almost as easy to forgive.
Very highly recommended.