Wool – Book #6

Of course I got behind. Some setbacks are inevitable, but I’m not giving up this easily, and certainly when the year’s barely six weeks old. I’ll admit that the Saroyan book left me a little dispirited – I feel like I used to like it, or maybe that’s just a projection of the idea that it’s a book that I’m supposed to like. And I certainly liked parts of it, but I struggled to make it through.

Perhaps it’s one of those books that’s not really meant to be read straight through. My undergraduate advisor, who studied Vico and Joyce, told me once that the best way to read the notoriously difficult (at least for most humans) Finnegan’s Wake was to consume a little bit just before a nap – that the prose was meant to come alive and make sense in a dreaming state.

I’ve yet to make it through Finnegan’s wake. Maybe I don’t take enough naps.

In any case, after Saroyan, I wanted something that was plot-driven and a little easier on the mind. But not so easy on the mind that its slipshod prose slides off like a Vaseline coating on the cerebellum. So no Da Vinci Code. (It’s worth taking a minute to check out one of the many online collections of bad Dan Brown sentences like this one from the Guardian.)

So I picked up Hugh Howey’s blockbuster first work, Wool. I absolutely devoured this the first time I read it, and was so entranced that I read the next two books in the Silo series over the course of maybe a week. Howey’s an incredible inspiration to those of us who’ve wanted to write books but never seem to have the time. Not only did he write this book in his off-time while working at a bookstore; he self-published much of it in five chunks, then got what seems like it was probably a giant pile of money to write more books. And now he owns a boat.

Wool has everything I love in a good piece of speculative fiction – an especially engaging beginning, an interesting setting, not too many characters, and (maybe most important) not too much backstory. I definitely don’t want to spoil it for folks who haven’t read it, but the basics are these:

  • The setting is a massive underground silo where people have lived, worked, farmed, raised children and died for what seems like all of their collective memory – maybe many thousands of years.
  • Although occasionally people leave the silo, this is only because they are banished. If you leave, you die. We’re not sure why.

Part of what makes the book so compelling is that it is powered by an old-fashioned mystery story (like lots of speculative fiction: Bladerunner, I, Robot, A Wrinkle in Time, The Expanse). The story’s also one of the oldest that humanity has ever told: utopia works just fine until somebody does something human. Finally, Howey’s good at dropping clues that show you just enough to keep you reading.

Although I read all three books in the series, I only kept Wool. It met my criteria for keeping: would I lend it out, re-read it, or use it as a reference? The other two books were pretty much all backstory with less compelling characters, and I found them disposable. I would still lend Wool. But I would not re-read it again.

This second read was considerably slower than the first. I didn’t need to race through to find and connect pieces of the plot. So I became mired, a little bit, in the writing – and not to good effect. It’s not bad writing. It’s just not that great. The characters aren’t drawn with much precision, so they are forever doing things and having feelings to get established when a few lines would do the trick. Also, some of the dramatic moments get stretched out painfully long – there’s about five pages devoted, for example, to one character’s crawl across the floor which seem positively endless.

Worth a first read, not as good on the second. Onward.

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