My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Hugh Howey does a masterful job in this book. It is definitely a contender for my favorite book of 2015. So much of what makes this book great is how Howey subverts all of our expectations. It is technically a dystopian book, but it is unlike any I’ve read before. One of the ways in which it’s unique, for example, is how the dystopian element is almost irrelevant to the story. I found early on that it reminded me of the video games Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus with many of its elements. The video games take place on a generation ship that’s had so many generations removed from its initial launch that some of its early history is viewed as perhaps just stories. Additionally, there’s the erasure of a previous uprising from the computers. There’s also a dictator-like government masquerading as a democracy. That’s not to say that it’s entirely irrelevant to the story. After all, it is essentially the MacGuffin, in a way, setting the story into motion. But the story is more a character study than a treatise on the dystopia.
If one considers The Hunger Games or Mars Rising – the moral/message of the story is worn on its metaphorical sleeve. (Also see 1984, Farenheight 451, etc) Wool almost threatens to let us go without ever finding out why people are living in Silos. Oh, the metaphor with grain silos is plainly communicated. But we never TRULY find out why the population is in Silos – although Bernard’s explanation is pretty convincing. Speaking of that, if I may skip around a bit – his vitriol for the originators of Plan 50 humanized him in a way I wasn’t sure was possible. He wasn’t cartoonishly evil, but he wasn’t far off. The explanation he gives for why the Silos were built and how they could have gotten everyone into them in time is quite chilling. I could DEFINITELY see it happening in real like – the death throws of nations can be horrific. But it’s delivered so late into the story as to be mostly irrelevant – and one gets the feeling that was Howey’s intention from the start.
I don’t want to risk spoiling anything else, so I’ll go into a bulleted list of things I really liked about the story:
-Like George RR Martin (and many stories I’ve loved reading since I discovered the technique in middle school) the perspective of the story switches around to different characters. I always enjoy the opportunity to get in different character’s heads.
-Also like GRRM – no character is safe from death. This sets up stakes that make you really fear for your main characters and it’s nice to have stakes.
-I’ve mentioned on here and in various places that I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting narratives and so when a story can surprise me, it delights me – as long as it doesn’t feel like an M Night Shamalayan “it’s a twist”
-Related to that, Howey uses his chapter breaks like the best kind of cliff hangers – sometimes he doesn’t come back to a character for 1-3 chapters.
-Related to various things I wrote above – I’ve come to read a few literary criticisms that have been formative on me. One is the journey itself being a valid story. The other is that sometimes it’s better NOT to know. When an author leaves the source of the zombies (note: no zombies in Wool) unsaid it can often be more satisfying than a horrible reason that few find reasonable
-It seems mandatory for science fiction to have love interests and even sex scenes between main characters. It can fall anywhere between expository and revealing to lame and gratuitous. But what was awesome about Wool was that not only was the love/”sex” scene the former, but it was also between two elder characters. I know that gives away a plot point, but it’s telegraphed almost since the moment we meet the characters. It was so tender and awesome and genuine and we NEVER see that. (I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong when I read Old Man’s War) Still, it’s an important part of life – even for older people and it was awesome to see it portrayed rather than the sexy hero/heroine.
-Finally, I love that for about 2/3 of the book our main character is a woman. Sure, she’s ‘one of the boys’, but the voice Howey gives her sounds like a tomboyish woman. Not, as we often see in comic books, a man with lady bits. The ship is making a huge course correction and we’re starting to see a lot more women in fiction (including SF and F), but I always enjoy having a female perspective character for its freshness. For me it’s doubly neat – first of all, because women have been underserved outside the romance genre. Second of all, as a man it’s neat to get in the head space of a woman. It changes the way I see the world because I’m able to be more empathic with members of the opposite sex – to think about what is the same and what is different about the ways we see the world.
This book was great and not the dystopian book you thought you were getting – for better or for worse.