If Plato was still around today, it’s likely he would have been a big fan of science fiction. After all, he used fantastical constructs to explore the human condition, pioneering a unique exploration of individuals’ perception. That’s pretty sci-fi.
We can assume, too, his favourite sub-genre would have been dystopian sci-fi, if his Allegory of the Cave is anything to go by. In it, he imagines the plight of chained captives, held in position underground, their reality controlled by restricting their vision to view nothing but shadow puppets cast upon a wall by the light of an unseen fire behind them.
With no frame of reference or experience of the outside world, the shadows on the wall would constitute reality for those hapless captives. The sounds of the captors’ footsteps and voices would reverberate in the cave, Plato thought, and thus the illusion would be formed that the sounds were made by those very shadows. This was Plato’s dystopian vision – a populace imprisoned and manipulated by their overlords to such a degree that they knew nothing of it.
It is perception and the revelation of truth that drives dystopian fiction. At its best, it represents a functional, albeit oppressed, society, unaware of the shackles that bind its citizens: take for instance the controlled happiness of Brave New World; the Papa John’s clones in Cloud Atlas; the history-incinerating regime of Fahrenheit 451. Drama is drawn from characters finally noticing their prison, and rebelling against it.
The end is nigh!
“Dystopian” is a label too often attributed to “post-apocalyptic” fiction – zombie plagues, wasteland societies and such. Station Eleven is not dystopian, for instance, nor is I Am Legend or The Road.
Rather, dystopian is the opposite of utopian; it is the opposite of a perfect civilisation. It is a society tricked and controlled by its ruling class, for the perceived benefit of all. It is the Allegory of the Cave, and rarely is it as evident as in Hugh Howey’s Silo series.
The world of Wool – the first book of the series – takes place in the 134 subterranean floors of a silo, buried in the crust of the planet for protection from Earth’s now-toxic atmosphere. The silo’s denizens have known only this world – indeed, their perception is tightly controlled by hampered communication, the restriction of history and societal segregation between the floors of the facility. No one knows there was once another way of life.
In their cave, they are ignorant of a world beyond their masters’ screens.
The first fifty pages of Wool are stunning. The world-building is rich and detailed, the lead character Holston is likeable and dramatically consistent, and the pages flit by with ease. Then a twist throws the whole thing into disarray and you’re left begging to find out more, while lamenting Howey’s authorial brutality.
After a hundred pages, and another mighty twist, you start to feel this writer is more merciless than Plato’s prison guards. Those early periods rival George R R Martin for characters killed, and in such a bleak world it gets increasingly difficult to love again.
Thankfully we meet Juliette, who drives the rest of the narrative with not a little elbow grease. She’s a bit too perfect, if I had to find criticism, but at that point, I wanted someone who could survive long enough for me to give a shit, and the trials through which she must toil are so fraught with peril, she needs every genius trait she can crowbar into that character of hers.
How to view the world
I’ve spoken about appropriate metaphors before – deep POV can be enriched handsomely with similes that fit the personality of the person with whom they are attributed. Howey uses them abundantly. When Juliette – a mechanic – considers her new role as sheriff, it’s with a mechanical analogy:
“Being sheriff, like being a mechanic, was as much the fine art of preventive maintenance as it was the cleaning up after a breakdown.”
When Bernard from IT thinks of the silo, it’s with the imagery of data flowing through it and servers humming. Another example uses imagery from the world – the silo’s central staircase – to represent other concepts:
“Juliette felt a wash of fear and relief, those two opposites twisting together like staircase and rail.”
Unfortunately, all these metaphors contributed to a narrative that roamed into the realm of ruminative musings, which all too often became too wordy for its own good. The first section has wonderful pace, as does the third. But many others become buried in detail, albeit well written. The book might have benefitted from a further edit, easily cutting a hundred pages and not losing an awful lot.
Another Indie success story
It was not surprising, therefore, to discover that Wool was originally a self-published short story that became immensely popular, with fans asking for more – much like Andy Weir’s The Martian.
Beyond those first original pages, however, the story begins to feel a lot like filler, to elevate the novella to reach “novel” length.
Though Holston, Jahns, Juliette, Walker and Solo are all interesting characters, too many times we must endure the travails of unlikely love-interest Lukas, who does little to download our attention in the bowels of IT. Or Shirly, who arrives late, is tacked on to the narrative and summarily receives a chapter from her own perspective. All well and good… if we cared. But she’s under-developed and fairly shallow as a result. Cut!
In the end, I enjoyed Wool a lot, but it didn’t quite have enough to hook me into the prequel-sequel, Shift, or the subsequent finale, Dust.
There are two underlying plot elements that niggled at me, which I couldn’t fathom happening (spoilers, again): the psychology of inevitably “cleaning” seems unlikely, as are the stupendous lengths IT go to in manufacturing that decision in others. We are asked to believe that by fabricating a toxin-free world teeming with life, every single person banished outside completed their task of cleaning the camera lenses. Not one person tore off their helmet thinking they could breathe? It’s too central to the story and too flimsy a proposition.
My second problem might be addressed in the follow-up prequel, Shift, but having only read Wool, I found the decision that was made to poison the Earth due to economic disparity with larger, more powerful countries too ludicrous a notion even for the most idiotic person, let alone a whole nation.
Valuable lessons learned
Wool did make me think how I can improve my own writing – some of the deep POV is exceptional, even if there’s a little too much detail at times – and I hope my own work can reach some of the evocative highs of Wool. Of particular note is the dive sequence, which is too tense to be read on the tube, thank you very much.
So I’d recommend it, without a doubt. And it’s another barn-storming success from the indie industry, which is always a good thing.
And Plato would have loved it – strong praise indeed.