Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey

In 2011, a then-unknown Hugh Howey self-published a short story named Wool for e-readers. Reviewers clamoured for more and, as the author penned further instalments that built upon his initial vision, his admirers grew in number. When the first Wool omnibus was bundled together and released as a stand-alone volume, it made The New York Times bestseller list on word-of-mouth alone.

That original novelette - the first chapter of the newly released collection - simply bristles with promise. The setting is a titanic silo stretching a mile into the earth in which the last members of humanity have been holed up for centuries. Outside, the planet has been ravaged by some biochemical plague but, unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, the emphasis here is on the fully functioning community that has managed to live on.

Wool isn't about the anarchy of a world without order; it tells of the sacrifices that might need to be made to keep it intact.

Virtually the only contact the silo's inhabitants have with anything beyond their walls is via the cameras mounted above its roof to transmit images of the crumbled landscape. Anyone found guilty of a capital offence is exiled into the waste, and their last action before succumbing to the atmosphere will be to scrub the accumulating grime from the mounted lenses.

The philosophical question that begins proceedings focuses on why the condemned always say they won't carry out the cleaning, and why they invariably do. But in keeping with the piecemeal writing process that formed the book, Howey never leaves you hanging for long.

The rate at which Wool throws up new puzzles, moral conundrums and reversals of fortune is dazzling and, while the bunker setting might suggest an air of claustrophobia, the plot itself is a constant space of expansion.

Central to its success is Howey's keen sense of character. Every chapter delivers emotionally complex personalities deeply embedded in an intricately stratified social system, and the manoeuvrings of each has subtle impact on the rest.

It's science fiction with a deeply humanist bent; how many science-fiction novels devote as much time to a shy romance between two people in their 60s as anything else? When a villain is introduced - the head of the IT department, no less - he's much more than a mere convention.

Written in a warm style that never attempts to get too clever, this is the kind of terrific read that's both respectful towards and transcendent of its own genre.

Director Ridley Scott has already bought the film rights, and it's safe to say Howey's own future is looking blue-skied and bright.

Wool Hugh Howey (Century, $29.95) Reviewed by John Bailey