Apocalypse Underground

Out of the blue last week a friend loaned me a book on Kindle. I’ve read loads of books on my Kindle but have never been loaned one. I’ve fallen further in love with the device. It also helped that the book, Wool Omnibus, is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read in a long time. That it is self-published by indie author Hugh Howey makes its success even more fantastic. Science fiction fan or not, you’re guaranteed to be enthralled by this imaginative and suspenseful tale.

It’s hard to imagine any first rate sci-fi publisher passing over Hugh Howey’s dystopian narrative, but we’ll never know as he chose to self-publish from the start. You can read more about his experiences as a self-published writer here. Wool Omnibus is in fact a collection of five interconnected stories that were originally published separately. For a time, they occupied the top six spots in various best-seller lists. In this series, he has provided us with a post-apocalyptic setting unlike any we’ve encountered, and one that sets the backdrop for chilling reflections on human nature and the work and lies necessary to ensure survival.

A tragedy has occurred some time in the past. The enticing thing about Howey’s series is that he never tells us exactly what happened or precisely when it did (but apparently those explanations are in store for the next three installments in the series–spoilers in the link!). Survivors were herded into a collection of underground silos, 50 to be exact. Think enormous, wide skyscrapers buried under the earth that include farms, refineries, infirmaries, mess halls, schools, apartments, plastics works, and everything necessary to keep civilization going indefinitely…or at least until the machinery or humanity breaks down. They are planted in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where the air is toxic and survival outside the silos is impossible. To question the nature of the outside or to express interest in it or dissatisfaction with life in the silos is paramount to treason and punished by being sent to “the cleaning.” Guilty parties are sent out of the silo to clean the camera sensors that give the silo inhabitants a view of both the desolate landscape and the corpses of those exiled form the community. They soon after die from asphyxiation.

Author Hugh Howey

Howey focuses his attention, in the first five entries in the series, on Silo 18 and the political machinations and social interactions therein. The series is broken down into 5 interconnected short stories and novels of increasing length. The first tells the story of Sheriff Holston and his reaction to his wife’s decision to be sent into the cleaning. Books 2-5 pick up and run with the story following Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marne’s search for a new sheriff. They believe Juliette, a mechanic from down deep, will be perfect for the job. But the powers in IT, led by Bernard, have a different opinion. As the power struggle plays out and lives are lost, we learn more about not only Silo 17’s history but the existence of other silos.

There’s much to reflect on in Howey’s brilliant series. It’s sci-fi page-turner of the first order. The strength of his narrative lies in effective characters and the silo setting, which both feel supremely real. He walks the fine line of foregrounding life in the silo and of letting it simply be the fact-of-life backdrop against which an intriguing tale of politics and survival plays out. Howey seems to be more concerned with developing accessible characters and a captivating narrative than creating a world for us to get lost in…even though that’s easy to do too. I found it almost impossible to put down.

Howey’s imaginative vision of how his humans survive the apocalypse is interesting. That they have done so in relative peace and comfort is a welcome addition to the genre in which cannibalism often so quickly rears its head. However, all is not well in Silo 17, where most of the action takes place, nor have survivors in other silos experienced such long periods of peace and “prosperity.” There are hierarchies and dissension in the ranks. The ways in which, and the rapidity with which, these survivors can resort to violence of mass destruction is a disturbing reflection on our own pre-apocalyptic violent tendencies, ones that we are yet unwilling to honestly encounter.

The whole notion of cleaning as a form of punishment recalls philosopher and literary critic Renee Girard’s scapegoat theory, complete with ritual killing and subsequent celebration. It is as if there has to be a “state-sanctioned” death to help keep the peace in the silos lest the natives grow restless. There seems to be palpable tension and release around cleanings and odd frustrations when they do not occur. Later in the series, we learn about the guide book that instructs the powers-that-be in the silos. It’s called The Order and it offers this advice for a failed cleaning: “Prepare for War.”

Howey’s Wool series also has contemporary implications beyond the violent and should raise several questions for attentive readers. In what ways are we prisoners in our own communities? In what ways do we imprison others? There are lies being told to and by us on a daily basis that help to preserve order. But at what expense? I am reminded of the line in The Cabin in the Woods in which stoner Marty says, “Society needs to crumble. Maybe we’re just too chickenshit to let it.” Silo society doesn’t necessarily need to crumble, especially if we want the human race to continue, but truth must be spoken to the masses. At the end of the 5th volume, the conclusion to the Wool Omnibus, Howey leaves the narrative wide open for just such truth-telling. Like thousands of other readers, I’m anxious to see what happens…after we learn about how they all got there, of course.

Take my advice, buy the Wool Omnibus now! You’ll be scrambling for the rest as soon as you finish. This is one independent author that deserves readers’ support!