One of the nice things about getting to the Supanova Expo rather late on the last day was that I missed the crowds around the Dymocks stand. That stroke of luck allowed me to spend quite a long time chatting with Hugh Howey about his work, in particular Wool.
Wool started out as a one-off, science fiction short story about a man who lived in an underground silo with the last survivors of an unspecified catastrophe. The life, and death, of that man captured readers’ imaginations, and made them want more. Howey gave them more in a series of installments which ended up becoming the Wool Omnibus.
Coming late to everything, as I do, I did not discover Wool until the whole story was complete, so I read it as novel. And loved it. I loved the characters, and I loved the small, tight world in which they lived.
Imagine a huge skyscraper with no elevators, just stairs. Now imagine that skyscraper being buried underground, and becoming your whole world. Imagine mining, generators and workshops in the basement levels, food production in the mid levels, a few floors devoted just to IT, and finally a top section where huge view screens bring in real-time pictures of an outside that is dead.
Now imagine what kind of a society would develop in that underground skyscraper after countless generations. Population control would be critical, as would the justice system. How would you deal with crime in a world that has no room for a prison?
In Wool, those who break the laws are fitted with environment suits and sent out to clean the sensors that bring the view of the outside into the silo. But becoming a cleaner is a one-way trip because the suits can only hold back the toxic atmosphere for a short time.
That is the world of Wool. The story, however, is about people like you or I. People with dreams and aspirations. People who can’t help questioning the status quo in a society where questions can lead to a one-way trip outside.
The whole concept of Wool had me intrigued, but as in any good story, it was the characters who made the story compelling. Nonetheless, there were a couple of points towards the end of the story which had me a little puzzled.
Caught up in the excitement of talking face to face with a writer I admire, I lost all my inhibitions and began peppering Howey with questions that must have bordered on the critical. If someone had done that to me I’m sure I would have become defensive, or even offended. Not so Hugh Howey. When I asked him why the relationship between the protagonist, Juliette, and Lukas, a member of the IT group, seemed to happen so quickly, he explained without rancour that he is a romantic and believes in love at first sight, because it has happened to him.
Listening to Howey speak with great passion about his wife, I suddenly realized the question was not why the characters had fallen in love so quickly, but why had I forgotten what it was like to be young?
The second issue I broached with Howey had to do with the unexpected twist at the end of the story. I can’t discuss it in any detail because that would spoil Wool for everyone who hasn’t yet read it. What I will say, however, is that Howey’s explanation gave me a real ‘Ah hah!’ moment as a writer. It also made me admire his mastery of the craft even more.
To understand exactly what I’m talking about you really should read Wool for yourselves. The story combines detailed, and highly believable world building with some of the best character development I’ve read in a very long time, and yet the pace never drags.
The point about character development is particularly important because the main character is female.
I’ve mentioned before how hard it is to write a character, a believable character, of the opposite sex. Yet Hugh Howey makes it look easy. He has that rare ability of climbing right inside his characters, and making them real. He did it with the character of Porter in Half Way Home, and he did it with Juliette in Wool. Two completely different characters, of different sexes and different sexual orientations, yet both feel authentic. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great writer.
If I had to choose my favourite Howey novel, I would still have to say ‘Half Way Home’, simply because it is so innovative, ground breaking, and brave. Nonetheless, Wool comes a very, very close second.
20th Century Fox, and director Ridley Scott want to adapt Wool for the silver screen. Clearly I, and the multitude of Howey fans are not the only ones to recognize talent when we see it. The fact that talent belongs to a charming, unassuming indie author is just icing on the cake.
My thanks to Hugh Howey for answering a stranger’s questions with grace and honesty.