WOOL began its life as a self-published short-story of about sixty pages. It has grown into a five-part novel and a potential film. It’s easy to see why: a community stranded in an apparently unique silo buried beneath the dead earth, taught from birth never to question their position on pain of being ‘sent to cleaning’: the ultimate sanction, ejection from the silo in a suit that will disintegrate in the toxic air, but allow just enough time to clean the lenses which give the silo its limited view of their immediate environment. Why does everyone so condemned perform this final duty? From a slow start in Parts One and Two the series builds to become very compelling indeed in its creation of a world of hope, despair, and simmering discontent. That slow start is entirely understandable given that they are very much short stories rather than the opening chapters of a pre-planned novel.
The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.
The original story ‘Holston’ is nicely self-contained, if occasionally clunky, and builds to surprising conclusion. It examines the grief of Sheriff Holston, whose wife apparently lost her reason and demanded to go outside. Her body lies in a gully visible from the camera. In other words, a solid short story. It is, however, clearly ripe for development, and one can understand the clamour for a follow-up, which came in the form of Part Two ‘Proper Gauge’ which adds many more layers to Howey’s creation. In search of a sheriff to replace Holston, Mayor Jahns travels the great stairwell at the centre of the silo, passing through hydroponics, IT, Supply, living quarters, recycling plants, before reaching the Mechanical section of the ‘down deep’ where Juliette, her preferred but controversial candidate works. By structuring this story around the descent and ascent and a burgeoning romance with her friend Deputy Marnes. Howey great develops the world of the Silo and, crucially, its inter-departmental and individual tensions. The IT department and its head begin to emerge as powerful forces with a shadowy agenda. The story ends in tragedy and one senses that this is where Howey really began to envisage the greater arc of the final five-part work. The threat of disintegration looms ever larger as his plot becomes more involved and begins to pull the reader along.
Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.
From Part Three ‘Casting Off’ onwards the book begins to feel far more like a novel than a collection of linked stories. Indeed, one feels Howey’s expressive ambition grow: ‘And he only distantly felt, but for a tremble of time, the end of him that came next.’ Juliette emerges as the central figure as the silo becomes an ever more dangerous and rotten environment shot through with the awfulness of hope. In some ways WOOL resembles the television miniseries of recent time: developing slowly as detail builds and the premise begins to arrest the audience, with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. As a novel it wouldn’t quite work, but as a series of stories developing the reader’s commitment as Howey begins to flex his muscles it is effective. Part Four ‘The Unravelling’ and Part Five ‘The Stranded’ become more ambitious and in some respects conventional as more of the world in which the Silo sits is revealed. Yet the core story is as compelling as ever, well-paced, and always very readable.
What God would make so much rock below and air above and just a measly silo between?
WOOL is is out today (17/1/13) from Century
My thanks to Century for this review copy.