Originally published March 29th, 2012 on Wired.com’s GeekDad blog.
Here is a pop quiz for you: In early 2012, what author owned six of the top ten spots on the science fiction best sellers lists at Amazon.com? Would you believe it if I told you that author was an indie author who hasn’t sought out a traditional publisher for their work? Hugh Howey’s dystopian science fiction series Wool still remains firmly affixed on the top of the best seller lists at Amazon, rating number one in three different categories (although some of the individual stories which make up the Omnibus volume reviewed here have since dropped off the list). If you are interested in knowing a little more about Howey, I will be posting an interview in which we discuss his journey as an independent author. In Part Two of the interview we will also have a spoiler-filled discussion of the Wool series.
However, Wool is a series which deserves a spoiler-free introduction to readers wary of sorting through the piles of dross created by the ongoing ebook revolution. Howey is among a growing list of authors who are making successful careers of publishing without the assistance of agents and traditional publishing houses. The traditional argument has been that if a book couldn’t find a publisher it probably wasn’t worth reading. However, just as iTunes changed how consumers found music and the way in which bands made their bread, ebook readers, and in particular the Kindle, are changing the ways in which authors find their readers and make a living. All of this means the old assumptions about indie books no longer hold true and readers need to be prepared to adjust their expectations accordingly. The Wool Omnibus is a great book and deserves recognition as a full fledged contribution to the science fiction genre.What would human beings be like if for several hundred years they had been forced to live in a giant container, a refuge from the destruction of the planet? Would we recognize them? Would they have changed? Would we understand their concerns and desires? Our ubiquitous human nature and some of its seemingly unchanging characteristics are major themes in Howey’s Wool. Tens of thousands of people are packed into a silo buried in the Earth, protected from the toxic atmosphere which surrounds it. Yet despite hundreds of years, the occupants still long to explore, to expand their horizons. Howey explores the traditions, mores and laws necessary to protect this remnant of humanity from the creative urges and deep desires which always seek to push beyond the safe confines of the silo into the unknown.
Wool argues that the underlying claustrophobia of such living conditions are hardwired into the human being and even hundreds of years cannot breed it out. His writing style captures this claustrophobia as occupants of what is essentially an over-sized buried skyscraper climb the single stairway which threads its way through the heart of the silo. Trips up and down the stairway become overnight adventures taking up to a week. There is room underground, but inevitably someone will decide they need to go outside and have a look around. This is a one-way trip from which none have ever returned. In fact the atmosphere outside the silo is so toxic that all those who make the trip out the airlock die within sight of the great view screens which line the top level of the bunker.
Howey’s strength is in his characters. They are distinct and yet familiar in their desires. They love, even when it isn’t allowed, they explore even within the confines of the silo and they create. So much happens in Wool that little more can be said about the characters without giving much away. Let’s just say that this is storytelling based upon good characters placed in difficult situations and not simply on world-building or laser guns, and that makes for brilliant science fiction.
Readers who pick up the Omnibus edition without understanding that Wool developed out of a single short story may be a little confused by the episodic five sections in the book. The Wool Omnibus is really three different related stories packed into one. Impatient readers like myself may find themselves frustrated by some of the events as they unfold. I confess there was a moment in which I flipped to the end of the book just to check how it ended. All I will say is don’t give up on Howey; you are in good hands. Like all thrill seekers he knows how to give his readers a great ride.
Howey’s work and its success demonstrates the ongoing maturing of the indie author market. As ebook readers free themselves from the shackles of the arbiters of publishing, more and more great work will be coming straight into their hands without passing through the publishing houses. The old assumptions about indie book no longer apply; Wool clears away the grime of the past and reveals the new truth. Here is a non-traditional author who can stand proudly in the company of traditionally published writers. Hugh Howey has arrived, and his arrival heralds a new day for indie authors.