August 2, 2015

Wool by Hugh Howey: A Novel Story Well Told

The science fiction community leaves me confused. There are literally thousands of reviews for this book on Amazon. And they’re positive. That means that the word of mouth was good, bordering on great. This book is in fact a publishing phenomenon. The writer self-published this thing, without any gate-keepers, and just through the quality of it, he was able to get people to read it and then a traditional publisher came calling. Then Hollywood came calling. These are all the things that you want to happen when you write a book (unless you are the misanthropic sort that sometimes happens to write books about catching and rye).

I say the community is weird because I would not have come across this book unless I was doing what I was doing. What I was doing was making a concerted effort to read some of the more influential science fiction books in the genre that I had not read for whatever reason. This project of mine triggered the recommendation engine to say to me, “You should have a look at this one.” Were it not for that algorithm, I would have never heard of this book.

And heard of this book is something I should have done. There are a lot of aspects that make a book successful in my eyes. You have to have interesting characters, you have to have an interesting world for those characters to live in, and you have to set them at something novel and interesting. This book works on all counts. The three or four main characters have depth and a good back-story, the dystopia Howey places them in is novel (It’s like a giant cruise ship, but buried underground). Then there is a good payoff at the end.

There are a couple of things that detract from the narrative. First is that there is no real back story at the beginning. I like to have some sort of reasoning in realistic sci fi about how the setting and the characters got from where we are at to where they are at during the course of the novel. That’s a bit hinted at during the course of the book, but it is never really explained. I’m a bit hypocritical here, because if they over-explained things, then I get mad at the author for being heavy-handed. Second, reading the book, I had an issue with trying to figure out the scale of the silo in which the characters live. It seems really big, 150 or so stories, and climbing all the way down is a mult-day process, but it seemed a bit flexible in the narrative. There are no schematics in the book, so it is up the inference from the reader.

Finally, I have to just extol the narrative as a whole. I went to grad school for literature, which means that I over-think narratives. I look at the sentence level and just judge everything I come across. I must give the author high praise here. There was only one point in the whole of the 500 pages where I felt that there was a sentence out of place. It was in the last 20% or so of the book, and the author did that thing where a sentence fragment is used as a point of emphasis and not a whole idea itself. That one sentence didn’t work for me. All the others did.