Subversive critique of the established order

Here’s a recent review of mine from the Irish Examiner




Hugh Howey

Century; £9.99

Review: Val Nolan

Once the last resort of narcissistic cranks and mediocre poets, self-publishing has lately been transformed from a curse into a blessing by the digital revolution. These days any scribbler with a Smashwords account can be a published author while any customer with a Kindle and a credit card can read their work without the need for traditional gum’n’pulp presses. Nevertheless, a self-published e-book successfully jumping from intangible virtuality to the physical embodiment of print and paper is still a rare event. It seems that publishers, who exhibit the same resistance to change as any major industry, will only take the risk on an e-title when real world sales are all but guaranteed.

American writer Hugh Howey is a case in point. Wool, his dystopian tale of the last community on an environmentally ravaged Earth, makes its hard-copy debut as a bone-fide online bestseller, one already optioned by Ridley Scott for possible film adaptation. Set in the enclosed world of a gigantic underground silo, Wool began as a 60 page novella offered through Amazon’s Kindle Direct for just $1. Selling 140,000 copies in its first six months alone, the story quickly spawned sequels, each longer than the next, and the Wool sequence collected here – more of an omnibus of five volumes than it is a novel proper – now runs to over 500 pages.

Of course buzz means nothing if the work itself cannot support it. Lucky for Howey, and for the reader, the former yacht captain can really write. Wool presents a world which echoes and exaggerates the failings of our own. The Silo, a society with unspoken “rules against dreaming of a better place”, is a microcosm of our modern-day existence, one peopled by compelling characters just awkward and broken enough to be real.

Though pitched as the story of Juliette, a no-nonsense mechanic who gains and loses a Sheriff’s badge, Wool is more about the community itself than it is any single protagonist. Constructed hundreds of years earlier, the Silo is a richly imagined vertical community where “the descent was like the uncoiling of a steel spring”. Sealed away from the corrosive pollution outside, the inhabitants observe “the rotting skyline” of a distant city through real-time video feeds. Criminals here are “sent to cleaning”, Howey’s ingenious form of capital punishment whereby offenders are banished from the Silo, their last task being to polish the exterior lenses. Every felon is adamant that they will not do it, and yet, in Wool’s inciting mystery, everybody always does.

The Silo so is a claustrophobic, often contradictory place. Though Juliette’s eyes, as well as those of Holston, her predecessor as Sheriff, the reader experiences its byzantine rules and obsession with continuance. There is a strictly controlled “birth lottery” to maintain population equilibrium. There is a system of apprenticeships to ensure vital knowledge is passed on. There is trade and travel up and down the Silo, with porters bouncing along the grand staircase with letters and parcels, but this is merely an illusion of connectivity in a highly stratified society where political and economic divisions manifest themselves through the architecture itself.

In the Silo, the Mayor, Sheriff, and other administrators occupy the upper floors. The rest of this self-contained world is subdivided between domestic apartments and a variety of factitious service sectors such as garment makers, hydroponic farmers, bazaar merchants, and the mysterious, powerful IT department, seemingly the last example of high-technology in a world of pipes and grease and wrenches maintained, a hundred and forty stories down, by the so-called “Mechanicals”.

While it may seem far-fetched, anyone who has ever had kids run past them in an apartment building stairwell will recognise the kind of life lived in the Silo. It is one mediated by screens, one where physical interiority has replaced intellectual curiosity as regards “the size and scope of the world”. There is a feeling of being trapped in one’s life and a sickening atmosphere of complicity in how one allows the powers-that-be-to mould and control their reality.

An unconventional choice for Sheriff in that she hails from the “Down Deep”, Juliette nonetheless discovers that the job is in many ways analogous to her previous role as a mechanic. People break down, she observes, people rattle, people “could burn you or maim you if you weren’t careful”. Political upheaval to her is as though “a great set of gears had been thrown out of alignment”, metaphorical machinery “lumbering off its mounts and leaving bodies in its wake”. She is a genre heroine who, in a breath of fresh air from the vampires and werewolves who have dominated speculative writing of late, derives her power not from supernatural sources but from her knowledge and her technical ability.

Through murders, coups, and civil war, Juliette discovers that the Silo is a more complicated and more dangerous place than she had ever imagined. Like Holston before her she becomes obsessed with determining the pattern of twisted things, the Silo’s spiral staircase a metaphor for the corruption which runs through the society, the hard steel of an original deceit worn down to sharp, cutting truth by “centuries of bare palms and shuffling feet”. Each part of Wool asks another question: Why do people always clean the lenses? What is the true function of the IT department and their power-hungry servers? How is all of this related to the state of the “uninhabitable wasteland” outside?

Howey so convinces in his depiction of Wool’s world that when Juliette queries, say, the cost of sending a simple email, or even the spacing of the Silo’s levels, it never feels like a mere plot-point but instead a subversive critique of the established order. Partly this is a result of the author capturing Juliette’s plainspokenness so ably, but it is likewise a consequence of how the book’s contiguous components originally appeared. Just as 19th century technological advances in printing and distribution saw the rise of serialized novels by the likes of Charles Dickens and Henry James, so the Internet today is engendering a new kind of structure which we might call the Howey model: serial texts which, though part of a greater physical whole, must first stand alone as complete units on initial e-publication and thus continually reintroduce and re-examine their settings and protagonists from a variety of perspectives.

It is tempting therefore to conflate the Silo’s conflict between low-tech and high-tech parties with the clash of traditional and electronic publishing, however to do so would be a mistake. Wool’s simultaneous real-world and online existences (Howey retains the electronic rights) in fact make the case for peaceful coexistence between the Kindle and the codex. Both forms and audiences influence each other, it says, and both have their places, something militant e-lit evangelists – apparently unaware that television never vanquished radio – continue to deny.

That a book which makes this point is also highly compelling and entertaining is a bonus. It is too easy to produce a poorly written or derivative dystopia, but in Wool Howey cleverly builds upon rather than imitates his precursors in the field. Like the best of science fiction, this book tells us something about our world today. It interrogates the structure of our society and the place of the individual in it going forward; it warns about the dangers of homogeneity and the concentration of power in an elite. With the Silo like a family of thousands, Wool further provides a metaphor for the difficulties of nurturing relationships in our career and screen fixated age. It is a multifaceted work, by turns exuberant and quietly horrifying, and one which more than justifies the hype surrounding it.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature, creative writing, and digital media at NUI Galway.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 2 March 2013 (pp.16-17).


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