Wool, the publishing sensation
Wool, the publishing sensation

In my experience, the bigger the hype, the bigger the disappointment. And so it is with Hugh Howey’s Wool, the first of his Silo saga. Wool began its climb to fame as a self-published series of short stories. Then those various pieces were collected into a novel when Simon & Schuster picked up the property. But despite the attention of a mainstream publishing house, its amateur origins show. While the novel gained considerable word of mouth buzz (including rumors that a film version might be directed by Ridley Scott), I think its literary shortcomings dim the luster and make the glowing cover blurbs seem completely overblown. Wool is reasonably entertaining, and may be in the vanguard of the new way of publishing, but it is a long way from great.

The basic idea is intriguing—a society contained entirely inside a deep, underground silo, the descendants of the last human survivors of a world-killing war. And the plot itself is plain and solid, with secrets, factions, civil war, and plenty of action. But the execution is blunt and unpolished, with several main narrative components suffering from it.

The first issue I have is with Howey’s character development. Wool presents as a typical teen dystopia—except it has a cast of adult characters who do not seem to have grown emotionally since their adolescence. The stubborn behaviors, the angst, the absolutism, the weepiness, would all make more sense if the characters weren’t mostly in their thirties. Overall, Howey’s silo inhabitants are not particularly well-drawn or differentiated, with even the main protagonists being plot-driven rather than drivers. The few who do stand out, though, demonstrate a profound lack of realism.

As a surprise survivor in another underground silo, Solo (Solo? Really?) is written like a mentally challenged child, not as a fifty-ish man who has spent most of his life in isolation. He jumps around like a preadolescent, although he was supposed to have been sixteen when he was left alone.

And as the chief antagonist, IT head Bernard is an almost comically hackneyed villain with his mustache, pot belly, and Napoleonesque habit of putting his hand inside the front of his overalls. He is grandiose and megalomaniacal and every bit the cartoon tyrant.

At intervals, Howey tries to add some flavor to his cast. “I just don’t figure he was happy up there. That weren’t his home” (184) is his repeated attempt at differentiating characters—the ones he would have us identify as older, good men. Unfortunately, inserting a few random country twangs into a limited, otherwise homogeneous (if stratified) population doesn’t ring true and does nothing to make those characters into individuals.

Inside a silo
Inside a silo

Howey seems to have done only cursory research on the physical aspects of the novel’s world, relying instead on his imagination to flesh it out. This makes many of his constructions come across as unlikely and conceptually flawed. Too many details are seemingly thrown in only to make the situation seem futuristic, and they do not bear much scrutiny before they fall apart—the giant spiral staircase as a highway for the entire population, the inefficient reliance on human porters, the ubiquitous, color-coded overalls, pig’s milk as a beverage, corn growing in underground farms, mining and oil drilling directly below the silo, rotten soup and intact bodies still existing after thirty four years. It all goes back to the old saw of “write what you know”—which doesn’t mean write what you have experienced, but what you have studied and understood. Howey didn’t.

In addition to the awkward and unlikely details, there are some really excruciating descriptions to be found here: “His husband eyes swam behind tears while he allowed his dutiful sheriff-self to intervene” (24); “The clouds…loomed like worried parents over these smaller darting eddies of windswept soil, which tumbled like laughing children, twirling and spilling, following the dips and valleys as they flowed toward a great crease where two hills collided to become one” (44); “Here was where silicon chips released their tangy scent as they heated under the strain of crunching data” (204). The messy attempts to build atmosphere only serve to show how rough this Wool really is.

Wool's backyard
Wool’s backyard

As an extension of the weak characterization and the bad prose, Wool is riddled with pervasive fifties-style sexism and gender-roles that seem an odd social trait to retain, post-apocalypse. For example: “The deputy possessed that distinctly male quality of pretending to know where he was, even when he didn’t” (90); “There’s this ritual, a man asks a girl’s father for permission” (152); in reference to a twenty-seven year old man, “She smoothed the front of her red overalls and allowed Lukas to help her to her feet. She puckered her lips, and he presented his cheek. “My little boy,” she said, kissing him noisily and squeezing his arm” (410); and the hyper-traditional “Young children lumbered reluctantly off to school; husbands and wives kissed in doorways while toddlers tugged at their overalls and dropped toys and plastic cups” (146). Howey evokes a social structure that harkens back to an idealized mid-century rather than putting the energy into something organic. I found it off-putting and a little weird, unless Wool’s world ended in 1960.

The story picks up considerable momentum in the last hundred pages and becomes a reasonably compelling read, but the damage is already done. The improvements in the home stretch can’t disguise that Wool is overall rather artless, and the weak characterization, ungainly descriptions, and ill-conceived mechanics all combine to make this novel a prime example of the pitfalls of big hype. It’s an interesting story idea, passably told, and an amusing enough read. Not much more.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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When it comes to adaptations, I am normally a stickler for the purity of the source material (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). I realize there will always be exceptions like The Princess Bride, when a book’s narrative structure makes it difficult to film but it still has a viable story to be told, or adaptations which tell the core story in a way that is distinctly their own—inspired, rather than adapted, different yet equal—like Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And last there are those adaptations where the movie is far better than the book ever was, tapping into the story’s potential in a way the words on the page have failed to do. That, I think, is the case with P.D. James’s The Children of Men and the film made of it.

The Children of Men--the end of the world according to P.D. James
The Children of Men–the end of the world according to P.D. James

Since I thought the movie version of P.D. James’s foray into bleak speculative fiction was excellent, I figured I would check out the source novel. I was intrigued by the idea of James writing dystopian fiction, since she was well known for her literary mysteries and not for her near-future world’s ends. But dystopia is not something strictly relegated to multivolume science fiction epics. Dystopia is a concept that rears its head among the literary set with some regularity. Think 1984. Think Brave New World. James is respected. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. While the novel was undeniably well-written, I expected much more than I got. The Children of Men is a fairly dry story about not particularly nice middle-aged to elderly people, many of whom are Oxford University professors, all of whom are jockeying (openly or in secret) for control in a dying world. It is a slow-moving work, spending more than half its pages in setting the stage before anything actually happens. Told alternately as first-person diary entries and third-person narrative, the plotting is solid and polite and the characters’ evolutions not truly believable.

The end of the world has already happened when the story begins, and the novel unfolds in the long, slow decline that comes in its wake. Human fertility petered out twenty five years before. Society is crumbling at the edges, but the aging population can still go about a fairly normal routine that becomes more limited as the days pass. Their suicide is encouraged by the newly-totalitarian government as a means to preserve resources as long as possible.

The last-born generation, the Omegas, have become dangerous and uncivilized as their elders come to grips with the end of the world. James dwells on the collapse of society, and the re-embrace of the brutal pagan past: “that even the frozen sperm stored for experiment and artificial insemination had lost its potency was a peculiar horror casting over Omega the pall of superstitious awe, of witchcraft, of divine intervention. The old gods reappeared, terrible in their power” (8). She imagines a different kind of lost generation, one that has gone feral because they no longer represent hope for the future.

But James’s characters seem brittle and not especially likeable. Theo, the keeper of the diary, is a middle-aged professor of history whose conversion to the rebel cause is less than convincing. His falling in love with the blank slate of Julian, the first pregnant woman in a generation, seems built on nothing in particular, as does her mutual attachment to him. Theo’s main value seems to lie in his family connection to the head of the ruling council, a man so entrenched in his power that he can throw out grim philosophies like, “We plan for the sake of planning, pretending that man has a future” (102). There is little warmth to be found in the novel, and even with an eventual birth James leaves her readers with very little to hope for. But she does leave us with an intriguingly sharp observation about the lure of power.

And yet something more passionate came from it.

Police-state brutality in Children of Men
Police-state brutality in the film version of Children of Men

Despite its emotionally chilly source, Children of Men was a well-received 2006 movie that took a large number of action-oriented liberties with the plot, transforming The Children of Men from a mannered, upper-class dystopian novel into a deeply touching film about the fight to preserve human worth in the face of societal collapse, whatever the personal cost. The film shows the effect of the gradual loss of hope much more vividly than the book does, through younger eyes and by more violent means. But it also shows that while hope exists, there will always be people willing to sacrifice themselves to make it bloom. Resilience, kindness, and an unquenchable willingness to help underlie the grim, dehumanizing world of this Children of Men.

The story begins with the same triggering event as the novel. But it also begins in a crowded London with the populace soaked in government-sponsored nationalism and fear of illegal immigrants. The characters have considerably more emotional depth than in the book, and the actors have a lot to do with the humanity of the tale. Clive Owen especially brings a nonacademic fullness to Theo that is lacking on the page. And the script sees fit to give them all more realistic motives, with some tie to either current or past radicalism and a deep well of sympathy to draw from.

In this version, the British government’s Homeland Security rounds up its immigrants for transport to a city converted to a brutal internment camp. Everyone is armed and willing to kill, with rebel groups fighting a guerrilla war against the government repression. Julian is reimagined as a radical involved with a terrorist gang to protect a young, miraculously pregnant immigrant woman from government interference. Trading on old relationships, she draws Theo into their plot. Theo’s ties to power, so vital in the book, are no longer central—they exist, but he becomes truly valuable because of his own qualities and his commitment to saving the pregnant woman.

Hope exists in Children of Men
Hope exists in the film of Children of Men

While I normally enjoy a film less than its inspiration, this is a case where the original material left me cold. I found The Children of Men to be beautifully written but so full of unpleasant people that I can’t honestly say I cared what happened to them. The movie, though…if you are looking for an adult dystopia, Children of Men will serve well. Despite the terrible imagery that fills it, this Children of Men still ends with fragile optimism. Same characters as the book has. Same events. In some cases scenes transcribed verbatim. But by shifting the perspective from the machinations of power to the power of hope, the effect on film is something wholly different than the original material can produce.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Once, he thought, I would have seen the stars. But now it’s only the dust; no one has seen a star in years, at least not from Earth –Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Familiar to many as the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another classic of science fiction. Published in 1968, it dresses the traditional tropes of nuclear apocalypse, religion, and artificial intelligence in a brittle dystopic modernity. But its real subject is the eternal puzzle of our own humanity.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? describes one very long day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who is charged with “retiring” six  androids who killed their human masters on Mars and escaped to Earth to try to live as human beings. The novel considers the issue of artificial intelligence obliquely—it is assumed that the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s  dwindling Earth have their own desires and motivations, and are all but impossible to tell from natural humans without highly specialized empathy tests. In this world, it is not the androids’ ability to be self-aware that defines the difference, but their inability to feel for anyone but themselves. Or so the humans believe, in order to justify how androids are treated. Decker “had wondered… precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted with an empathy-measuring test” (30). This question, and the assumptions it carries, twist beneath the plot in a way that never quite reaches an answer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is full of quiet desperation laced with dry humor. Every smile, every scrap of joy in this dusty world seems to be poisoned with sadness and disappointment. The apocalypse has come and gone, and the world still straggles on: “The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties” (8).

Normal, Special, Other

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?

Radiation-damaged humans are kept separated and dispossessed: “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16). But even a special can instinctively grasp what the normal human characters often overlook: “You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all” (204). On an Earth where the damaged are not considered truly human, it is the androids who can become the “other people,” who enable even a special man to fully live.

Human and android characters intersect frequently, both openly and in disguise. But they are all still dogged by loneliness, isolation, and the long slow drag of dehumanization. Decker’s wife explains that, “although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it… then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.'” (5). The absence of appropriate affect is attributed to androids by their human masters, but the androids, enslaved on Mars, feel the emptiness, too: “‘nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age'” (150). Distinctions are not so clear as the humans would have them.

Over the course of the novel Decker passes through stages of doubt, belief, and renewed doubt in android empathy. There are many descriptions of the range of emotions in the androids. “He did not like the idea of being stalked; he had seen the effect on androids. It brought about certain notable changes, even in them” (57); and “The androids,” she said,” are lonely, too” (150). But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  leaves such references only partially explored by unreliable narrators, making them hard to evaluate. Even as the androids express needs and desires of their own, their reactions are presented as distinctly not human—at least not as humanity is defined by the human characters. When threatened with death, “The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to” (200); when using facts against faith, “They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed” (214); when asked to react to a rare-to-vanishing living wasp, “‘I’d kill it.'” (49). But the differences described are vague and subjective. Decker’s inconsistency is understandable.

Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion

An Android Owl
An Android Owl

It is not only Decker. Many of the human characters are themselves adrift, searching for a way to connect. Post-war society has warped into something that enforces separations. Yet faith still endures. “At the black empathy box his wife crouched, her face rapt. He stood beside her for a time, his hand resting on her breast; he felt it rise and fall, the life in her, the activity. Iran did not notice him; the experience with Mercer had, as always, become complete” (177-8). Mercer, a Christ-figure, is the means through which believers experience community. But they do it in their own separate cells, using their own individual machines. They commune in solitude.

Empathy boxes are not the only mechanical attempt to connect with another being. With most animals dead, humanity has created artificial ones like the title’s electric sheep, robotic pets to fill the void left by extinction. But the nostalgia these imitations beasts produce is palpable:

“For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came to his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day–foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits” (42)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? purposely muddies the distinctions between human and android, electric animal and living beast. It is never cleanly established what makes the androids truly different from humans. Aside from a short lifespan and a slower emotional response time to human-centric questions, they resemble their makers in all essential ways. What Decker believes about the androids is not always supported by what he observes, yet he clings to his version of the truth even as it seems less and less true. He has to. In a world where humans fill a void by embracing clockwork substitutes for real, living creatures, he cannot afford to embrace a substitute for himself.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!