In July 2011 Hugh Howey released a short post-apocalyptic SF-story called Wool as a download on Amazon. It was well reviewed and sold well, so he wrote a few sequels, which also became quite popular. Now the first 5 stories are available in print as The Wool Omnibus, and here’s the thing: it’s completely self-published. Most self-published books are unreadable hokum, or vanity projects only interesting to the author and (maybe) his friends and family or simply the ravings of a mad person, but Wool – even though it hasn’t been professionally edited or approved or groomed by a publisher – is pretty good. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but by and large it’s better than a lot of other stuff on the shelves of our bookstore.
It’s hard to go into the story without giving too much away, but here’s the gist of it: there’s a community of people living inside a huge 150-floor underground silo, which they can’t leave because the air outside is toxic. Anyone who does express a desire to go outside gets his or her wish: they are sentenced to spend the last few minutes of their lives – before their hazard suit succumbs to the toxins in the air and dissolves – cleaning the outside sensors of the silo, so the people inside get a clear picture on their monitors again.
The premise of the original short story is of course that someone has to go outside and do a little cleaning. Will he survive? I ain’t telling. The first story is fun, a bit high on drama but I guess that if you only have a couple of thousand words to get a reader engrossed in your narrative, you have to lay it on pretty thick.
The problem is that in stories 2-5 – all direct sequels to each other – he slows down the pace but doesn’t let up the drama. Every important character seems to have lost someone in the past, or is about to lose someone, and I got the impression that this is the only way Howey thinks it’s possible to get the reader to invest in the characters. He certainly doesn’t give them many other characteristics.
But even though the characters lack depth, the world Howey creates is very interesting. After the first story he takes his time to explore the rest of the silo, and of course everything is not completely as it seems. He creates a very convincing living, breathing underground community, and the slow descent the protagonists of the second short story make to the very last floor really feels like an exploration of strange new lands, which in a way it also is to them. When the only way to go up or down is climbing long, winding stairs, people tend to stick to their own floors.
About three quarters through the omnibus Howey runs out of world to explore, and the shallow characters are barely enough to keep to keep the reader interested from that point on, but his concise writing still doesn’t make it a chore to finish the book.
Howey is still expanding the Wool-series, but I have a feeling after part 5 it’s pretty much played out and am more interested in several of his other projects, which I hope will also be available in print in the future. Still, I heartily recommend the Wool Omnibus, it’s one of the few books of which I finished the first half in one sitting. It’s an especially good read for fans of the Fallout-games and other post-apocalyptica.