Novel * Hugh Howey * Stay Inside Forever * 2012
Here’s the apocalypse pitch: to go outside is to die. The air is toxic, everything is dead. As far as anyone knows, all of humanity is contained within a single “silo,” which an enormous vertical city mostly underground. There’s maybe a few thousand people left. That’s enough to ensure genetic diversity, but reproduction is strictly controlled as to not overwhelm the silo. Nobody is exactly sure how long the silo has been in existence, but it’s been several generations at least. Nobody remembers knowing anybody who remembers the before time. The entire world has been the silo, which is an impressive bit of technology. It’s a self-contained unit, of course, capable of producing power and food indefinitely. It’s cool and all, but society has gotten a little strange within these confines. Classes are still stratified, with the mechanics living down below with the power plant and the administrative elites living up top. From the top of the silo, one can view a screen of the outside, which is possible due to some cameras mounted on the only bit of the silo to protrude from the ground. Those cameras present something of a problem.
The first section of Wool is illuminating, and does an effective job of introducing the difficulties of this nearly terminal world. I almost don’t want to spoil it, despite it only comprising the first 40 pages or so. Suffice to say, there is a ritual surrounding the physical act of cleaning the camera lens, so that the citizens of the silo might enjoy a non-blurry view of the grey wasteland outside. The three most powerful people in this society are the Mayor, who is in charge of the overall operation, the Sherriff, who keeps everyone in line, and the head of IT, who manages the smooth running of the silo’s computer system. All three of them have a role in the cleaning ritual. When someone violates the most significant taboo, which is simply expressing a desire to go outside, they are condemned to cleaning. IT puts together a suit in which they might survive outside for a short time. The Sherriff arrests them and the Mayor makes it all official. The person who publically expressed this desire to leave the silo is then suited up, marched out of an airlock, and is set to clean off the camera lens before they stumble off to die.
I don’t want to get into specifics above the break, but if you’re looking for a quality post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, look no further. Wool is great. There is an array of well-drawn, compelling characters and the story is tense without being bleak or dire in the way these stories can get sometimes. The world which is eventually revealed is fascinating, and I’m impressed with Howey’s restraint. He doesn’t over-explain, never feels the need to show us the entire drafting document of this particular apocalypse. This is not to say that anything feels vague or undercooked, mind you, Wool just avoids the pitfall of excess exposition. I’m happy to report I was pretty satisfied how this particular story is handled, even if there is a larger sense of stifled frustration. That’s not a negative thing, mind you, it’s simply reflective of the compressed, limited world of Wool. Okay, time to talk details.
Let’s go back to that first section of the book, because it does an exceptional job of setting expectations and tone, not to mention sketching out the structure of this weird, damaged society. We learn from Sherriff Holston’s sad march to death a few useful things. We are told about some of the aforementioned structure of the silo, but more importantly we discover something behind the psychology of the place. Conspiracies are hinted at. From here, Howey is merciless in fucking with the reader, subverting expectations of how this is all going to go. We’re told right away that to go outside is death, and we’re introduced to the cleaning custom as well as the oddity of said custom never failing. Like yeah, it is weird that those condemned to death by their own people inevitably perform the cleaning ritual, despite seemingly having no motive to do so. Then Sherriff Holston is forced outside, and our suspicions are confirmed! It’s not death outside at all! The screens were a lie! And this motherfucker makes us believe this for like three pages before he subverts the expected subversion. No, outside is still death. The screens were telling the truth. The suit is a lie. Damn, that’s cold.
Yet despite that opening fake-out, there are plenty of fun twists to come. None of them feel cheap, and when they come the revelations are limited to what makes sense for these characters to understand, but still manage to satisfy reader curiosity about how all this happened. As with any kind of story about a post-apocalypse featuring people who don’t remember the before-times, there’s a heavy amount of dramatic irony happening. Part of the fun is watching characters react to learning what we already know. In Wool, this moment never really comes. Yes, Juliette is expelled from her silo and makes the shattering discovery that there is more than one silo. More than one self-contained world. And yes, even more significantly, Lukas discovers the secrets of IT and how all this came together in the first place. Eventually, we even get a location. Atlanta, of all places. And yet we’re never privy to any documents. There’s no 1984-esque info dump. Which is good, because Wool isn’t terribly concerned about the past. Like Juliette, this novel is concerned with how this society is going to move forward.
I’m not sure what the deal is, but I’ve been engaging with a lot of fiction featuring woman protagonists who are mechanics lately. I guess it’s a way to toughen up your lady character, which sounds cheap and exploitative, but so far none of these characters feel unearned. Anyway, Juliette is very much practical-minded. She’s used to working on machines, after all, and despite everything that happens to her, Juliette’s approach to society seems to work the same way. Obviously, after the uprising and the downfall of IT, things are going to have to change within the silo. Everyone knows about the existence of other silos now, and so they must proceed accordingly. Either they continue along the path they were assigned over a century ago, or they take stock of their situation and move forward in violation of the founder’s intent. Considering how downright evil the founders were – considering they essentially destroyed the living earth so that their own culture could survive – it makes sense to renounce their plan.
One of the reasons apocalyptic fiction is so effective is because it reduces humanity to its basics. The silo is a self-contained unit, filled with a manageable amount of people. There’s enough people inside to represent a significant segment of humanity, in terms of personality if not race or culture, while at the same time not overwhelming the individual. There are enough people to form a significant class structure, but not enough to form significant wealth inequality. If anything, most people are aligned to their coworkers more than anything, although there is a secondary stratification between levels of the silo itself. This clarity of structure allows for an examination of human nature, of our hostility, our camaraderie, our short-sightedness, our curiosity and ingenuity. All that shines through over the course of this novel, and it’s in large part to the depth of these characters. Juliette is almost too cool, as if Howey didn’t want to tell us anything bad about her. Meanwhile, Bernard is an exercise in how to write a proper villain. He’s a nightmare, but a plausible one. He’s one of these assholes who makes you stop hating him from time to time to actually gauge what he says. All in all, I don’t really have anything bad to say about this book. I mean, other than I’m annoyed I didn’t write it, of course.