This is the kind of science fiction that is very close to realism. Hugh Howey deals with a very believable dystopia, where humanity lives in a vast silo set in an environment so poisoned that no one can survive in it unprotected. The silo, very highly organised and well-functioning, is deep, over 140 levels, with many levels devoted to such imperatives as mechanical maintenance, nurseries, healing areas, IT, recycling, supply and so on. These areas are all connected by stairs, which are thronged with porters and others moving about their daily business:
It was lunch time, but neither of them was powerfully hungry. Jahns nibbled on a cornbar while she walked, priding herself on ‘eating on the climb’ like a porter. They continued to pass these tradesmen, and Jahns‘s esteem of their profession grew and grew. She had a strange pang of guilt to be heading down under such a light load while these men and women trudged up carrying so much. And they moved so fast.
In this setting, full of vitality and verisimilitude, we are shown certain shocking matters. I hesitate to expound too much here, as it is the slow revealing of these aspects of life in the silo that constitutes so much of the compelling narrative drive. I’ll risk a spoiler and say that the silo has a viewing room from which inmates can see their surrounding world and that the cleaning of this viewer is a distinct and important thread in this powerful story:
He looked past the adults and playing children to the blurry view beyond, projected on the cafeteria wall. It was the largest uninterrupted vista of their inhospitable world. A morning scene. Dawn’s dim light coated lifeless hills that had hardly changed since Holston was a boy. They sat just as they always had, while he had gone from playing chase among the cafeteria tables to whatever empty thing he was now. And beyond the stately rolling crests of these hills, the top of a familiar and rotting skyline caught the morning rays in feeble glints. Ancient glass and steel stood distantly where people, it was suspected, had once lived above ground.
The most significant character, Juliette, is a mechanic, skilful and single-minded, who works in one of the deeper levels, where real bonds of trust and comradeship prevail. It is these bonds which allow a degree of safety for Juliette on her vital trajectory. The characters we meet are all vividly developed, whether they play large or small roles, but the narrative drive doesn’t really allow for too much subtle development of character. It is the subtext of the story that is the real treasure; and this is the exploration of human values: hope, loyalty, trust and, most importantly, truth.
Those people who wonder about their world have very little to go on. There are rules, strongly enforced, and information is controlled, so access to the history of life on the silo is not easily discovered. Here is Juliette musing:
And then there was the rotting skyline and the images in the children’s books, both of which seemed to hold clues. The priests, of course would say that the skyline was evidence that man wasn’t supposed to exceed his bounds. And the books with the faded colour pages? The fanciful imagination of authors, a class done away with for all the trouble they inspired.
A clash of values comes when those who have control of the silo are challenged and that challenge reveals a wider and more threatening world. The main controlling character is particularly nasty, blandly intending to sip fruit juice while sending an innocent to a horrible death. Punishment is horrible precisely because it involves being sent to the poisoned outer world in such a way that hope might exist, but a ghastly death is intended.
Values are the motivating force of the story but it is the inexorable power of the narrative that captured this reader. I read it on tenterhooks, waiting for the next inventive twist. Howey has melded imaginative quirks and fast-flowing events into a gripping work. He deals with the stuff of material life and the work needed to sustain it with panache; I learnt a fair amount about pumps and machines. It is such a cleverly integrated story that to reveal any of the threads would be to damage the effect of the cumulative discoveries for the reader. So all I can do is suggest that this is a gripping and thrilling read. The title is delightfully appropriate.
There will be more from this author (as he promises in an afterword) who has achieved a large following for his initially self-published works.
Hugh Howey Wool, Century, 2012, PB, 576pp, $29.95
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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