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Wool #1
by Hugh Howey
Simon & Schuster, $15.99, 509pp
Published: March 2013

This is an apocalyptic story and generally I can’t resist them.  It is a very fast-paced story with some very clear-cut characters.  And it has very good world-building. 

The story starts in a silo.  As with many generational stories, humans live in an enclosed ecosystem and are separated from the outside world.  This group of humans live in a huge, multi-level silo protected from the poisonous apocalyptic world outside.  And it’s been this way so long that everyone has forgotten how they got there.  They have one single small window that still looks outside.

A complete society, with classes, has grown over the generations and the story starts with Sheriff Holston who lives at the top.  He is tired and dispirited since his beloved wife, Allison, unexpectedly chose to go outside.  He puzzles obsessively over the ‘why’.  Going outside is, of course, the ultimate punishment for wrongdoers and the action of putting someone outside is called “cleaning”.  One of the infractions that will get someone sentenced to “clean” is the simple act of questioning the validity of the process or even expressing a desire to leave the silo – which is what Allison did.  The reason for the term is that each individual sent out is expected to clean the outside of that one single window that still looks out – before the lethal atmosphere kills them.  An occasion of ‘cleaning’ tends to foster a holiday mood within the silo.  Whole families make the trek from below to look out the clear window.  It also tends to help defuse pent-up tensions, as the leadership well knows.

Allison had been digging into deleted files in the mainframe as a personal research project to understand ancient references to “uprisings” of which every citizen is warned.  What she discovered led her to believe they might be victims of lies about the true condition of the outside world.  Finally, Holston comes to the realization that he has no life without her and with his faith in her, decides to join her on the outside.  What he sees as he exits the silo justifies his decision and, as all others before him, he happily cleans that small window and then follows his wife’s footsteps.

Mayor Jahns is more than devastated by the loss of her good friend and right-hand.  On the advice of the Deputy Sheriff, she makes the trek all the way from the top to the deep down where the engineers and mechanics keep the generators going, to interview a potential new Sheriff.  Along the way, they make a mid-way stop at IT to speak to Bernard, the man in charge, about interviewing the Sheriff’s replacement.  It is only a courtesy call as the final decision is, of course, hers to make.  Surprisingly, Bernard has some strong objections to her choice and delivers what is, essentially, an end-run around her by offering a contract to another.  IT occupies a unique position within the society.  By the Pact rules, IT is outside the rules in many ways drawing both fear and resentment from other levels.  But everyone depends on IT to keep their computers running and provide certain technologies such as the environmental suits needed to keep ‘cleaners’ alive long enough to clean that window.

Jahns and her oldest friend, Deputy Sheriff Marnes, continue their two-day trek to the bottom of the silo.  Once there, she finds the young woman, Jules, that Marnes recommended is exactly what she needs and wants.  Convincing her is yet another task.  To gain Jules’ trust she agrees to a very unpopular action.  She agrees to shut down all but emergency power for a couple days while Jules and her team take down the main generator for a rebuild.  She and Marnes begin their trek home in the dark but when they stop again at IT to present the signed contract, they meet only anger and resentment about the power shutdown.  And Jahns never makes it home; she collapses and dies on the stairwell. Marnes is convinced that someone at IT poisoned the water when they refilled their canteens but he can’t prove it. When Jules finally joins Marnes and begins her own investigation as the new Sheriff, she immediately runs into opposition and suspicious behavior as the Acting Mayor Bernard intentionally stalls her fact-finding.

As Jules investigates both the apparent murder of the Mayor and the closed file on Sheriff Holston, she uncovers much more than she expected.  As a rookie, she depends on Marnes to guide her but he is lost in despair over losing the only woman he loved.  She has no one to help her except her old friends in Mechanical.  What she finds is explosive and earns her a sentence to “clean” from the Acting Mayor.  But the unexpected happens – Jules refuses to clean the window and she doesn’t die within feet of the silo as every cleaner ever.  No one has ever refused to clean and no one has ever survived but Jules trudges off over the hill, past the bodies of Holston and Allison, and out of sight.  She now understands exactly why everyone enthusiastically cleans that little window and in just a few steps, she also knows exactly what Bernard has been hiding from everyone.  And everyone sees her; confusion reigns as everyone tries to interpret what just happened.  Bernard is in a rage and determined to discover who sabotaged the process that has always worked in the past.  No one is ever expected to survive and he now has to answer for it.

Jules’ friends in Mechanical know part of the secret – they understand why no one ever survived because they now know the secrets IT hid in the suits they fabricate.  This knowledge festers and before long, plans are in motion for an uprising...a cautionary horror tale that every child knows.

What Jules discovers over the hill changes everything for her.  It could change the fabric of their society if she can survive long enough to make a difference.  Others are also finding secrets that have been buried for generations, including the biggest secret of all:  what really happened to drive the last surviving humans underground?

The world-building was fascinating; the silo was chockfull of interesting tidbits. The characters were well-realized and the author did a great job of building the plot, bit by bit.  I don’t think there was anything wasted.  The pace, while not very fast, was steady. My only criticism was a loose end that I felt could have been easily tied up.  One imagines, of course, that it is there to encourage a second book but that could have been better done.  Overall, it was entertaining and I get why it’s been optioned for a film, but I don’t expect it to resonate in my mind for very long at all.  It just wasn’t that original. ~~ Catherine Book

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