I hadn’t heard of Wool till a week ago, when I saw it mentioned on an Internet forum about “great” self-published books. As the great Dan Holloway was doing the mentioning, I googled it, and found articles on Slate and WSJ about this best-selling phenomenon.
The initial story is FREE. That’s right folks, free! So you have nothing to lose by downloading it right now! It’s approximately 58 pages by Amazon’s estimate. My estimate would put it between 14,000-18,000 words – short enough to be read electronically, even by people who aren’t crazy about reading electronic books. It exists in print as well, but the self-published paperback is currently being sold as a collector’s item, and the traditionally published print version isn’t out yet.
The story takes place in the hours before Sheriff Holston’s scheduled execution for the crime of asking to “go out” of the underground silo, in which he and thousands of others live. “Out” is a poisonous landscape where no one can survive. This stand-alone tale reads like classic science fiction, or maybe simply classic fiction, and begins: “The children were playing while Holsten climbed to his death…”
Howey’s creation is one that Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick would have been proud of, the type of story Harlan Ellison might have scooped up for his Dangerous Visions series. There are shades of other stories – The Lottery, certainly comes to mind. It’s there even from that first line, referencing the children playing. As in Jackson’s work, there’s a celebratory feeling in the air. Holston isn’t simply being executed. He’s being sacrificed for the greater good. Like those before him, he’ll survive long enough to clean (with the eponymous wool) the lenses of cameras set out on the awful outside, so that the inhabitants may get a clearer view from the large screen inside the silo.
What’s masterful is the depth and tension, established from that first line. Beginning your tale with your hero about to die, is a neat literary trick. It worked for Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude, who may have picked it up from Ambrose Bierce in An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge, who was no doubt influenced by someone else. But magic doesn’t work unless it’s properly executed. Here, it is. Howey gets us to care about he-who-is-about-to-die, how he got there, and whether or not there is any possibility of his fate’s being averted.
We not only care about Holston, but about his deceased wife, who may or may not have been mad, and who was also sent out to “clean.” We care about the deputy and the mayor, who are not happy about sending Holsten out to his death.
There is a mystery to the silo. Howey gives us details, but we never know more than Holston, and there’s a lot he doesn’t know. Tension builds as the sheriff is sent out. Is it possible that everything he’s told is a lie? We hope so, but we don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither does Holston until it does.
While Wool, the short-story, is perfectly capable of standing on its own, we live in the era of sequels, and so its success led Howey to create a series. My options were to buy the next story for 99 cents or spend $3.99 for Wool Omnibus Edition. I bought it, but in retrospect, there’s no savings over buying the individual stories since the first one is free.
The next story focuses on the deputy and the mayor, characters we “met” in the first story. This familiarity got me to read on, but Part 2, Proper Gauge, lacked the tension of the first story. While the reader learns more about life inside the silo, its origins are still hidden, and I had a little trouble imagining the structure. Possibly, Howey, who was creating the series bit-by-bit may have been making up, at least some of it, as he went along. It’s only towards the end of that story that we are introduced to Juliette, the new sheriff, who will become an important presence in the remaining stories, and that we are exposed to a mystery that will become Juliette’s first case.
While I devoured parts two through five in a few days, I didn’t love them the way I loved part one. On the one hand, Howey has created a “new” twist on the post-apocalyptic story, one that thankfully is zombie free, and character driven; on the other hand, nothing in the rest of it matched the near-perfection of the first story. After completing Parts 1-5, I downloaded a sample of Part 6, which moves from the Silo Series to the Legacy Series – an origin story. While I’ll probably pick it up eventually, I don’t feel an immediate need to. Just as the initial story could stand alone, the initial omnibus of silo stories can stand together as a complete work.
Regarding the commercial success of the series, I’m still a bit mystified. Wool deserves its attention, but then so do a lot of self-published books that will probably never be read by more than a few hundred people. With so much out there, it’s difficult for any book, no matter how it is published, to get noticed, and stand-alone short-stories are a particularly hard sell. That this one has succeeded is a good thing. That it may spawn a gazillion imitators who will all be uploading to Kindle, is not.