One day, in the very distant future, a man decides to go outside for a walk. Never mind that the outside air is a toxic mix of very unfriendly gases, that no other human would dare volunteer for such a pastime. Never mind that this walk will be a very short, one way trip.
This suicidal walk lays the groundwork for Wool (Silo Saga) by Hugh Howey. Begun as a series of self-published short stories, Wool introduces us to a world where above-ground living is impossible and the surviving remnants of humanity live in the confines of an underground silo. Society has been shaped for hundreds of years by the claustrophobic requirements of living in this vertical tube. Family reproduction is regulated, social groups are defined by the depth of the level they live on, and the mere mention of the “outside” is an offense punishable by death.
Howey’s story concept is fascinating and his characters (especially Juliette, one of the main protagonists for the length of the story) are, for the most part, appealing. Howey accomplishes an increasing sense of urgency that pulls the reader all the way to the end of the book, mounting an increasing number of obstacles against his protagonists. I consumed the last few chapters in a frenzy of worry and disbelief that anyone at all was going to survive. The prose is frequently poignant and haunting, especially in the opening chapter, “Book 1: Wool.”
However, I can’t help feeling that Wool somehow missed out on a final editing effort to bring it together for publication as a single unit. As stand-alone segments, the short stories are very nicely crafted; however, the overarching storyline frequently suffers, with characters and narratives coming and going with jarring suddenness. Ultimately, Howey more or less wraps up these strings, but the reader is left with the sense that some characters were expended too rapidly, their motivations unfulfilled, and their development disjointed. On a number of occasions, key characters are forced into actions contrary to their basic motivations and character traits in order to move the action of the story forward.
Additionally, a fundamental theme that Howey attempts to convey is a distinct separation of classes between the “Down Deep,” the middle, and upper sections of the Silo. It was difficult to envision the Silo being so large as to create an environment where people didn’t constantly intermingle, instead remaining isolated inside their respective sections of 50 or so levels. I was never quite sold on the idea that these sections of society would evolve to be so isolated. This is the kind of world that people end up knowing too much about each other . . . not the reverse. As a result, many of the social and political realities set up by Howey also felt artificially constructed and not a natural result of this very specific environment.
Overall, I don’t regret my time in the Silo. I continue to mull over and grapple with the themes and issues presented by this society of survivors. There are characters I want to hear more about, but I also have a long list of structural questions I wish I could have better answered.
This was frequently unlistenable, and I very nearly abandoned the audiobook experience. Amanda Sayle makes a tremendous effort at performing the “voices” of the characters, but drastically overreaches in her attempt. Especially troublesome was her performance of Bernard, the key antagonist in the story. Her performance of his dialogue put me in mind of a top-hat wearing, moustache-swirling villain getting ready to lash some frail damsel-in-distress to the railroad tracks . . . DASTERDLY! And, regrettably, so laughable that I was unable to connect in any way with this character. I definitely recommend avoiding this particular audiobook publication and sticking with the printed narrative.