(And, yes, I do know that UnShelfed should be spelled unshelved; grammar Nazi – yeah, YOU – stop spoiling my fun!)
This review originally appeared on Amazon in February of 2015. The novel in question blew up the Internet and Publishing world in 2014 by initially being marketed direct to the public from the author’s own website. This prompted Simon and Schuster to pick it up and publish it through the industry norms. For that alone, Mr. Howey has my gratitude. Without that, I would likely have never started this website. That doesn’t mean this novel is worth reading, though, as you will see.
Wool by Hugh Howey (7 February 2015)
Scene: our hero is trying to force herself back inside an airlock: “The puff of outside air that she’d allowed inside seemed to claw at her back like a horde of mad insects. Juliette staggered blindly down the hallway, trying to put distance between herself and the dead she’d left behind.”
Beautiful string of words and imagery. Evocative of her reality and full of symbolism. Wool has these moments of pure poetic prose throughout; causing one to feel like they never know exactly how any sentence is going to end. This makes it a careful, thoughtful read. There is no breezing through this one in one night, at least not for this reviewer. And the character building is gorgeous! They pop off the page into real life! Well done, sir. Very, very well done, sir!
So, you’d think 5-star writing like this shouldn’t be receiving the awful review to follow, huh? Well, seeing how you asked (and even if you didn’t), let’s begin with 5 stars and see if it holds up. We won’t recount the plot for you here; others do that, the dust jacket does that, and reading it will do that also. But there are some serious problems for this reviewer, and some of it comes under the heading of “Parental Caution.”
First of all, there are three SF tropes that are WAY over glutting the market: Vampires, zombies, and dystopian futures. This is another dystopian future. We’re down to 4-1/2 stars now. Seriously, SF authors, can we all take a hit off the reefer and chill out? Or some Zoloft, maybe? How about a little Bobby McFerrin: sing it with me now, “Don’t worry, be happy…” The future just might be glorious, not interminably depressing.
Then we go to language. There is – I think – NO f-bombs dropped in the first 230 pages. A welcome relief. Maybe we should go back to 5 stars. But no, a cluster of them occur, all out of the mouth of the bad guy (presumably the bad guy, though no clear evidence is presented except he is majorly paranoid [note to authors: signalling the bad guy through profanity is just lazy character building]). Later the good guy and the bad guy exchange another cluster (so, I guess even the good guy talks like a bad guy sometime, ho-hum), and from there they are sprinkled around haphazardly. And yes, the word “cluster” and “f-bomb” is a deliberate harbinger of things to come. It’s as if someone told the author it was too clean and wouldn’t appeal to an adult audience without some childish language in it. Whatever. Maybe 4 stars.
Sex? None. A little nudity, but none of it titillating or prurient. Holding steady at 4 stars.
Violence. Well, most of the last half is a full scale civil war, so the body count is huge. But the body count was huge before the story even started.
There’s not a lot of blood and gore, but there is a lot of tragedy. And it is here that we start losing stars right and left.
Death #1 is – for all intents and purposes – a suicide by cop. The victim learns something in computer files that causes her to want to go outside, where the atmosphere is toxic and will surely kill her, even if she does wear a suit. Just wanting to do that gets you arrested by the Sheriff and sent outside to clean the cameras. She knows this, and does it anyway. Sure enough, the Sheriff sends her outside to die. Suicide #1.
Compounded by the fact that the Sheriff is her beloved husband who must now do his duty. Three years later, he is so depressed, he opts for the same suicide. Goes outside, lays next to his wife’s remains and holds her while the atmosphere flenses his body to death. Suicide #2.
The Deputy is too old and doesn’t want the job, so he and the mayor go in search of another Sheriff, whom they find in young Juliette.
Death #3 comes shortly after this. Someone murders the mayor. We are never told why, nor how, nor when, nor whodunit.
Death #4 comes immediately after this, when the aforementioned Deputy – who harbored a deep love for the mayor – decides he can’t live without her and hangs himself with his own belt. Suicide #3.
What will the new Sheriff do? Explore what happened to Suicide #1. Ask questions of a computer geek she knows. The geek is murdered also. We again are never told why (though the Sheriff surmises the questions got him killed, even though no evidence is presented to confirm this), nor how, nor when, nor whodunit. It would’ve been nice for someone to gather all the main characters into one level of the silo and declare affirmatively, “Colonel Mustard did it in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe!” But alas, no resolutions.
Now it’s time to accuse the new Sheriff of something wrong. Uncertain what, but there it is. She is sent outside. But lo! She survives to go over the hill and take off into the toxic wilderness! How? Well, that is explained rather nicely. But, what does her tentative lover-to-be think when he fears her certain death? Why, of suicide of course. In fact, several characters contemplate suicide in this novel, and a sub-theme is Romeo and Juliet (cleverly mangled to Romeus and Juliet, just to let us know the future is a bit off).
I have lost friends to suicide, and it is no fun. When I think of teenagers reading this book, all mixed up with hormones and confused about who loves them, do we really want them to think suicide is an option? Any parent who lets their kids read this better be prepared to have many conversations about loss, depression and suicide; about love, hope, and life; about what is a tragedy and what is romantic; about how many people find several “one-and-only-true-loves” in their lives, and continue hopeful in the face of severe, even crippling despair. About all the people who love them and whom they love and will hurt irrevocably. Suicide is NOT an option. Not for any mentally balanced person.
That one alone gets us down to 3 stars, at best. I know the elite literati love depression and suicide as genuine art . . . maybe they should try it sometime.
It isn’t until the last 30 pages of the 500+ page tome that we start getting explanations of why everyone is living in these silos anyway, but even those explanations are lacking. We learn that the people who build the silos did something to pretty much wipe out all life on Earth except themselves. But what? How? Nuclear? Why? Unknown. And why would people who can destroy the entire civilization of Earth build silos and . . . forget to put elevators in them!?!?!? So much time spent plodding up and down stairs for no good reason! 2 star territory now, folks.
Then there are a couple of problems with marketing. The publishers (Simon & Schuster) put this nice blurb in the inside front cover: “In a ruined and toxic landscape, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep.” Erk. 150 stories to be exact. 150 does not equal “hundreds of stories.” Did they even read it?
Oh, but catch the “About the Author” page in the back! Two paragraphs long, the first one is four lines long and tells us precious little about the author, other than that he didn’t write this page. The second paragraph is fourteen whole lines long and tells us the wondrous story of how this volume got into our lucky hands. Apparently, it started as a short story self published on Mr. Howey’s website. Fan reaction was good, so he began releasing more of it in serialization. Then, “always taking feedback into account, Wool was born through a collaboration with readers.” Now a huge bestseller and movie rights sold to Ridley Scott, et al. My question is: Where is the acknowledgement page where Mr. Howey thanks his readers for their input and collaboration? There isn’t one. Will he be grateful enough to share some of the money with the others who helped him write it? (Yes, I’m laughing too!) Or, is this just all made up by his publishing house?
We are now in 1-star territory. But . . . that phrasing; that lush character building. I’m generous and will stick to the 2 star range, then tell you not to bother at all. If Mr. Howey isn’t grateful to his fans, he sure isn’t going to like this reviewer.
But hey, it’s not like I’m going to kill myself over it.