Friday, 17 May 2013

Hugh Howey: Wool

Hugh Howey has come out of nowhere, or at least the internet, to a book deal that sees Wool stacked up in boxes in my local supermarket - which, as I mentioned when talking about Justin Cronin, is how you know that someone's expected to sell in much the same way that baked beans do.

Based on Wool, I think he's pretty much earned it. Howey's a solid writer. I downloaded a sample of Wool weeks ago, just the first couple of chapters which set the scene for the rest of the book, and knew I wanted to read the rest of it when I had time. That took a couple of weeks, and then it was out in paperback, so I decided to do my bit to keep my local bookshop afloat and got it in dead tree at the same time as The Twelve. Reading that took a while, and then I was clear for Wool. And everything from the opening chapter I'd read was still clear and crisp in my mind; no need to go back over it and refresh my memory. Most of Wool is written to that same solid standard; the characters feel real and grounded, and I was worried about what was going to happen to them - particularly since Howey kicked off those compelling opening chapters by bringing two of them to life and briskly polishing them both off. After that, it was clear that anyone could get the chop at any time, no matter how much time Howey had put into them. 

Wool is in one way a high concept novel, since the hook is more or less, what would it be like if we had the apocalypse and all the survivors got stuck in a bunker in the ground they could never leave? The whole of the book is devoted to unpicking that thought, letting us see it only through the eyes of the people in the bunker, who've never known any other world. 

If you stick a load of people into a bunker they can never leave, and expect them to stay there for generations, on the one hand, they're going to have to live on a closed cycle, reusing everything and never increasing the numbers of people or of anything else. And on the other hand, like the proverbial rats in a coffee can, they're going to completely round the bend in a matter of months. If you want to keep that show on the road, you're going to need truly insane levels - and methods - of social control, and a commitment to preserving the status quo which would make Best Korea look like the Paris Commune. 

Wool opens up by showing us what happens if anyone asks what's outside the bunker; they get a one way trip to find out. And then slowly we start to see what happens to more subtle questions about the status quo. By the time the novel's central character, Juliette, starts to edge her own way towards questions, the smallest things create a sense of creeping dread. Juliette is doomed; it's just a matter of time, of how and when. I found myself putting the book down and taking breaks from it, rather than reading it in a rush. 

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, 1984. I read 1984 when I was a teenager and never needed to come back to it; Orwell wrote so well, so precisely, so harrowingly that the book stays with me even now. Howey's not that good. But it's the first time in a long time that I've read about someone in a police state and even thought about 1984 as a comparison. There are books you can't read quickly; Wool  is one of them.

Strangely, Juliette remains the most cryptic character in the whole book, despite being the engine that makes everything else go. Halston, her doomed predecessor as sheriff, gets the opening chapters and comes completely to life. Jahns, the mayor who hires her, Marnes, the deputy; the list goes on and on, characters fleshed out and vital. We get a sense of them, and through them a sense of how Juliette looks from the outside, but we never truly get a sense of Juliette's inner life in the same way. This is not, I think, an accident. Howey is simply too good at all the other stuff to have overlooked the need for depth in Juliette. There's something we haven't seen yet, as they say in Alien. Right now we have a sense of how Juliette feels about things, but not how she feels about people. That's still buried.

Wool just growed; Howey wrote it on the internet, putting up chunks of it and refining them, with the final published version pulling together what were originally written as almost self sufficient chunks - which is one reason why the ancillary characters are so compelling; as the book evolved, they were the centres of nearly self-contained sections, and that solidity has persisted as the chunks were grafted into a whole. But as is often the case, the early stuff is paradoxically more finished than the later material; the final act feels rushed compared to the careful and slow construction of the early stages of the book. As the plot resolved, I found myself wanting more detail, more of a sense of how things had suddenly switched. It's not often that I want a book to be longer, but Wool left me wanting more.

Which, in a way, there is. There's a second volume out now, Shift, which widens out the background, and a third one on the way, Dust, which is going to bring it all back around to Juliette and some kind of larger resolution. I have a lot of confidence that it's all going to work out, because Howey is a man with an eye for the telling detail, the little character moments which show you what a character notices, and by showing you that, tells you what they really care about. Like KJ Parker, he's a man with a feel for the mechanical things which make the world work, and I expect his world to work. 

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