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Fri, 7 Sep 2012

Wool, by Hugh Howey

This is an omnibus edition of what was originally a series of five linked short stories. It shows, with four clear, evenly-spaced cliff-hangers, all obviously intended to squeeze another few quid out of the addictreader. It is a story of how hope and the human desire to explore can never be completely suppressed, and has strong similarities to Arthur C. Clarke's "The City And The Stars": both are set in worlds where the urge to explore and to push the boundaries has been almost eliminated; both have a population that is kept under control by limited information and fear; both populations consist of people whose roles in society are largely pre-determined. In Wool that fate emerges from a quite literally stratified society where moving up the social ladder is not only socially difficult (those from lower down are seen as very much the lumpen proletariat) but is also physically difficult.

The people of Wool live in a gigantic underground silo, sealed off from the rest of the world which has become inhospitable to life. It's a huge silo, split over 140 levels, but I get the impression that each level in turn consists of several floors, giving a total of around two miles from top to bottom. And, because the place was designed with limited social mobility in mind, there's no lifts. And while there is electronic communication, it is deliberately made phenomenally expensive so people have to rely on porters tramping up and down those miles to deliver hand-written letters - written on rare, expensive paper. Science appears to not be practiced at all, with advanced technology not really understood by its users. It's really quite a nice little authoritarian setup.

Howey does a great job putting you in other peoples' skin. He does it in "I, Zombie", and does it here again with great characterisation. He communicates bone-weariness, terror, pain, longing, and everything else that separates us from the machines that some characters wish people were.

It's not perfect, of course. I question whether a small population would be capable of maintaining its technological level with only very limited access to raw materials - what they can filter out of the poisoned air outside and what they can mine beneath their silo. Only a handful of minerals will be available, and I don't care how good your recycling facilities are, you will not be able to re-use things for ever. There is a glaring error, in that the temperature is described as going down the deeper you go, and so they use artificial heating for the deep levels. In reality, two miles down and the temperature is something like 75°C higher than at the surface and they'd need some monster air-conditioning. Both of these are a bit irksome, but don't detract from the story and the fine writing.

But the biggest flaw is in the last few pages, where The Conspiracy that created this world in the first place is revealed. It's a conspiracy that doesn't make an iota of sense and manifestly doesn't even attempt to achieve what the conspirators wanted. And so I deduct one star, for the dodgy ending. I can see ways in which Howey could have set up exactly the same world with a different conspiracy that actually made sense. But despite that it's a fine book, well worth reading.

Posted at 22:44 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi
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