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Old 11th Oct 2012, 18:32   #1
Noumenon
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Default Hugh Howey: Wool

A weary, sad and lonely man climbs a seemingly endless stairwell, and when he gets to the top he asks the people there to kill him. Or maybe to let him kill himself. All he has to do for the privilage is agree to wash the windows. At least, that’s how it seems.



So, more or less, begins Hugh C. Howey‘s Wool, which has become something of a mini-phenomenon. Possibly the name means little to you, and if so, likely it doesn’t matter which name I’m refering to. I only came across the book through a roundabout way, but one detail of that ties loosely into how and why Howey is making a name for himself.

I’m one of the countless multitude out there in the world who wants to be a professional writer, and as we all know there is now a lovely new way to go about becoming one: Amazon. Once the options were effectively limited to either Real Publishing (difficult, since if you weren’t an established name already you had to be both good and one of the fortunate few to be plucked from the slush pile) or “Vanity” Self-Publishing (easy, provided you had the money to pay for it and somewhere to store all your unsold copies after your house was repossessed). This led to three sorts of people: the frustrated, the homeless, and the bastards who actually knew how to write a decent book. And got noticed doing it.

Now there is a third option: Real Self-Publishing, for example through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, in which no-one has to pay for anything up front and the profits, if there are any, are shared between you and the enormous faceless evil corporation… that just gave you a chance to earn money… by expressing yourself the way you’ve always wanted to... anyway, in mid-2011 Howey wrote Wool, a post-apocalyptic sf short story, and “published” it “himself” in just this way. It became clear he could write a decent story when a bunch of Amazon reviewers noticed he had done, so he wrote a sequel that was about three times longer. Then he wrote three more, the last being more like a novella. This year he released them as an Omnibus edition and found himself selling a lot of copies.

The reason why is probably that the Wool Omnibus is really good.

Howey starts off with a straight-forwardly decent tale, sketching out a handful of interesting characters in an interesting environment, and I suppose one could either say “he’s not breaking any new sf ground” or “he knows how to play to the trappings of the genre”, depending on how mean-spirited one was. I enjoyed it – I could see where it was going, and that was were it went, but I was quite happy to buy the omnibus on the strength of the first story. I’m glad I did, because in the four tales that followed the little details of the world are explored very nicely, deepening a familiar concept into an original interpretation.

More than this though, with each new story the preconceptions the reader builds up around the principle characters are neatly undermined, lending them a similar depth. In particular it is the villains that come off well through this, despite the fact that the heroes consistently make themselves very engaging in a very short period of time. When they are thrown into peril, you want them to escape. And the guys doing the throwing – well, you start to feel more than a shade of sympathy for them as well.

That original title, Wool, proved to be a good one. At first glance it is dull, gives no handle for a prospective reader to latch onto – but as a result it also avoids the kind of over-revealing quality that tends to crop up in horror, fantasy and sf titles quite a bit. There is a punny quality to the sequels; each one prefaced by WOOL:, of course, in order we get Proper Guage, Casting Off, The Unravelling, and The Stranded. Yes, very clever, Mr. Howey, well done. Except, in addition to being knitting puns (and rendered via neatly unconventional covers) they all make perfect sense in the context of the developing story. Very clever, Mr. Howey, yes, well done.

First Shift, the sixth part of the (er) Woolen tapestry (that will have to do), is a prequel. I’ve not read it, and that’s not because the punning is a bit more obscure, but I may well do so when my big pile of ebooks starts to shrink. In the meantime I can only talk about the onmibus, which is also interesting for being not a Young Adult work (at least, not in my opinion) but something better: a story which, by the way, would be perfectly appealing and accessible to a Young Adult. I don’t have a problem with YA, far from it, but I suspect that – being distanced from the Real Publishing point of view – there are certain expectations that Howey hasn’t had to worry about, like focusing in on the lives of young adult characters for a start. It’s more than a little nasty at times as well.

So, what does MY interest in being a published writer have to do with how much I enjoyed Wool? Well, if it isn’t totally obvious, I see it as an inspirational example that, amidst the ever rising flood of dross pouring into this new oportunity, a few bubbles of quality can float to the surface. That’s why the new self-publishing is more like the real thing than the much maligned vanity presses of old – we’re not paying to be noticed, and there is still a chance we will be.

Plus it’s a fun little story too.



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Old 18th Jun 2013, 11:15   #2
Colyngbourne
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Default Hugh Howey: Wool

Firstly what is weird about Wool is that it’s title really doesn’t work, even when the premise of it does. Hugh Howey’s runaway best-seller (and sequel, and possible Ridley Scott film In the offing) is simply a manifesto for physics and engineering study to be taken up by teens of every kind. That, or it’s an extended subliminal advert for Stannah stairlifts.

Because there are stairs in this post-apocalyptic-type scenario. Hundreds upon hundreds of steps, stairs, on one long helix of stairwell which runs through the centre of the underground Silo where the only surviving citizens have been living like ants, servicing the systems that enable their future, despairing and yet desperate to see the meagre windows to the poisoned atmosphere of the outside-above. Wool is a novel of decent ideas that are not quite given enough leg-room to stretch out: any contained system has to provide its own method of working, a politics that defends and upholds the status quo, a social system with rules and rigidity to automatically prevent dissent.

And like any decent autocratic system (here ruled by a Book called The Order), there is an underground where leaks and whisperings become vocal and open rebellion. Here the “underground” is even more literally under-ground, as the protagonist rises from the oily stench of the mechanical underbelly of the Silo, unwillingly pressed into service as the Silo’s new law-enforcer. The reader has already seen the previous incumbent doubting his position and the wider implications of his lonely life, staggering on the outside of the Silo, beyond its viewing windows which he has ritually cleaned. The threat of Outside is oppressing and seemingly insuperable: how can a people rebel when there is nowhere to escape to?

Howey sets his drama going with some strong emotional investment from the reader but this falters and weakens with a protagonist and side-characters who really never become fully focused. Partly this is the result of the ‘set-up’ – the Silo’s inhabitants are raised to not find their own love interest or to discuss such matters, and as such the emotional or inner life of the characters never really takes off. They are, however, strong in other aspects: Juliette, the principal character, is 34 and an intelligent skilled engineer – a Sigourney/Ripley of the Silo in personality, as it turns out – and her potential love interest is a more youthful star-gazer, Lukas, aged 25. The dynamic is unusual and all the better for being impeded by a multitude of disastrous and dangerous events: these lovers meet briefly, touch barely, talk sparingly in secrecy.

There are no real spoilers here (apart from a brief few words hidden below) but it’s possible for the reader to work them out not far into the book. An extended foray into regions Juliette has not come across before brings a slightly implausible new character to light – a Ben Gunn scenario that is requisite for the action to continue – followed by more revelations that are a little late in the day and belated to work satisfactorily in their setting; one extended foray leads to another, infinitely more claustrophobic (and incredibly filmic). Some of the science which comes into play towards the last third of the book seems so obvious that it may be a serious world-building error of Howey’s that he has none of his engineers or scientist attempting it before now.

Wool is wooly in that it really does jumble one’s head – characters are forever descending or ascending stairwells, pausing on landings, looking through railings; when uprising begins, there is a welter of confusion with minor characters, the sudden appearance of firearms and explosions: the eye skims over some of this. Wool is not woolly, despite chapters being called Unravelling and Casting Off, crowbarring a soft-craft metaphor into a world that never speaks of fabric unless it is high-tech; more often and more aptly the book utilises metaphors about the maintenance of good machinery, cogs, grinding wheels, oil and grit, wear and friction. However, a little mild Wiki’ing explains that Wool as a title is not all it seems. The second novel, Shift, takes a prequel slice out of the timeline, concluding this September with Dust.

It’s a read that kept me up until 2am to finish it, so Wool gets ½
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Old 20th Jun 2013, 11:38   #3
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Default Re: Hugh Howey: Wool

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Old 20th Jun 2013, 13:03   #4
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Default Re: Hugh Howey: Wool

How come I didn't spot your review before!!!

I see we don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on the Wool analogy (Proper Gauge made me think of railway tracks rather than knitting needles, I guess), but it is interesting how I picked up on this via someone who is a YA fiction reader but I wouldn't have necessarily classed it as a YA book and in Waterstones, it was shelved amongst the general fiction. I think I was less generous with my rating also because I have felt that YA-style books have taken a serious dive in quality of late, and very little has inspired me to buy any books of any kind at all: this is the first new YA book I've bought in a year, I think. I am looking at getting the latest Melvin Burgess, but like yourself, Nou, attempting to be a published writer is a frustrating business and seeing the examples that have made it (and which seem "the real thing" rather than tired re-workings and series of declining quality) is an encouragement.

I particularly like Juliette - even down to the contrast between the natural associations of her name and the kind of character she is , one that is strong and intelligent without being obviously "feisty" in a clichéd way; and an unobvious Lukas as a secondary character is an additional bonus.
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Old 22nd Jun 2013, 23:34   #5
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Default Re: Hugh Howey: Wool

Quote:
Originally Posted by Colyngbourne View Post
Firstly what is weird about Wool is that it’s title really doesn’t work, even when the premise of it does. Hugh Howey’s runaway best-seller (and sequel, and possible Ridley Scott film In the offing) is simply a manifesto for physics ...
You mean Wool is based on String Theory?

I'm sure I'm not the only person to think of that.

Without having read Wool, I'm reminded of the 1980s roleplaying game, Paranoia, thought it sounds a bit less cheerfully psychopathic. The rule book for Paranoia stands up as a piece of dystopian writing in its own right.
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