Tuesday, March 20, 2012
100 Books #24 - Hugh Howey's THE WOOL OMNIBUS
Since I have been unable to ride my bicycle for a few months, I have taken to climbing the stairs at my workplace from the basement to the sixth floor four times a night for my main cardiovascular exercise. I started out wheezing, out of shape, after just one floor; now I make two climbs to the top in a row each time I take a break from my night gig. I was really, really proud of this until I started reading these stories set in yet another vertical city (c.f. Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World and Ian Whate's City of Dreams and Nightmare), its floor-districts linked only by a spiral staircase, up and down which all goods and services must tramp on human feet on ancient metal stair treads, for some 140 floors. Ow.
Now I feel like a huge, huge wimp. All the more so for having spent hours immersed in the world of Wool instead of my own, eyes glued to the page, butt to various seats, instead of getting more exercise...
A bit of explanation here: The Wool Omnibus is not really this volume's title, more of a descriptor for a collection of short stories, novels and novellas, five in all, that the author later gathered into one book to give his fans a great deal.
For fans Mr. Howey has, and rightly so, for this post-apocalyptic world he has created, in which Earth has become a toxic sewer completely inhospitable to life and what's left of humanity lives deep underground in a vast silo. There are "windows" in this silo in the form of what amount to vast computer monitors that render images captured by a bank of sensors aboveground -- but these sensors get blurry, dirty, exposed to corrosive air and dust storms and all manner of filth...
The wool in the stories' titles refers to the cleaning pads people are given to clean off these sensors every once in a while, and perhaps also to the thick tangle of inherited folk belief and carefully fostered ignorance in which the silo's inhabitants live, for no one knows how long, for how many generations, humanity has lived this way; many don't believe the planet's surface was ever inhabitable at all. And to question the dogma perpetuated by priest and sheriff and IT staff (who function themselves as sort of the ultimate priesthood) is to get sentenced to cleaning, to be packed into a barely functional anti-contamination suit, handed a set of wool pads, and sent outside to clean the sensors -- and die.
These are seriously compelling tales, full of wonderfully imagined characters and a well-envisioned culture with unique rituals and folkways and mores. Howey has a particularly deft hand with taking up the metaphor of the silo as a vast machine for survival and making it an overarching theme even before introducing his primary heroine, Juliette, a machinist and handywoman with a passion for preventative maintenance and real knack for problem-solving, for following the trail of effect back to cause and fixing what's wrong. She's a completely engaging and wonderfully strong character right from the start, so when circumstances draw her out of her world of generators and pumps at the bottom of the silo and she applies these talents to the (comparatively) larger world, the results are unforgettable. Her story is a marvel of tension and release, of the acquisition of awful knowledge, of misguided fervor and unbearable loss. It's not a terribly uplifting one, but it's a compulsively readable one.
Never have 548 pages gone by so fast for me.
This is (and I only even noticed this as I raced toward the very end of the last novel, Stranded), in part because the prose is damn near flawless; I have seen books coming out of the Big Six publishing houses with considerably more errors. And Howey published these himself, and by so doing has really set the standard for what indie authors should be striving to achieve. Because there were next to no lexical howlers to drag me out of the story, I became, for a few tangled days, reduced to a thing that wanted to read Wool stories.
And so I read. And rubbed my calf muscles in sympathy with my heart in my throat. And then I went and bought some of Howey's other work, because this guy, this guy is good.