Friday, April 7, 2017

Weird & Wonderful- Wool

For the March meeting of City Lit Books' Weird & Wonderful book club, we discussed Wool (2012) by Hugh Howey.

Noted as a self-publication success, Wool is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in a self-contained silo. The inhabitants live with an absolute taboo around talking about the supposedly-deadly surface or the outside world, and this society's worst punishment is to send someone "for cleaning"—going outside to clean the external sensors, before inevitably dying despite precautions. The Wool omnibus gathers the first 5 chapters of the story, introducing us to a few different protagonists as they discover the truth behind their situation.

Brief notes and possible spoilers below!

We once again had conflicting feelings about this book, with some people really lavishing praise on it, while others critiqued the writing and story-construction. A few of us (including myself) had some problems maintaining suspension of disbelief, due to some science/worldbuilding issues—internal combustion engines used in hermetically sealed environments, for one example—and some clunky plot constructions that don't hold up well to close inspection. However, even most of us with gripes praised the pacing and page-turner-iness of the book, and there were other things we quite liked—the female protagonists, sense of suspense.

Compared this a bit to Joon-ho's film Snowpiercer: that's a much less scientifically or realistically-grounded world, but it still works due to the way it's delivered. We talked for a bit about suspension of disbelief and how different reader thresholds work, as well as what kind of "reality level" the work is shooting for. As someone with a pretty twitchy disbelief-suspension trigger, I'm always looking for how and in what way the story wants to be taken seriously—what are the kinds of questions we should be asking (and expecting answers to), as opposed to hand-waves we're just supposed to see and accept.

We had an interesting debate as to whether or not this would fit into YA; it has a sort of intentional/emotional forthrightness and a kind of "grrr, argh, those lying ADULTS, let's revolt!" attitude (for lack of a more concise critical term) that put some of us in mind of young adult literature. In a good way. We compared it to works like Lowry's The Giver along a few different lines.

Some discussion of this relative to other "enclosed/survival" kind of tales—fallout bunkers, generations ships, there's a lot of those...I can't seem to get away from the heroic/pessimistic debate of some of those themes in Stephenson's Seveneves & KSR's Aurora. I'd also just read T.C. Boyle's The Terranauts, which, while completely different in tone and scope, was an interesting counterpoint to Wool—Boyle's generally not considered a genre writer, though he frequently uses genre techniques; The Terranauts is set in a closed bio-dome, and I thought it interesting that he takes the premise of the environment more seriously than Howey (e.g. closed ecosystems don't run smoothly) and yet focuses more on how the human angle goes awry for fairly petty, non-villainous reasons. Recommended if you like a kind of sordid black humor.

(Wool also got me thinking again about Jennifer Marie Brissett's Elysium, which Think Galactic discussed a while back; while reading Howey I once again got songs from Islands' album Return to the Sea stuck in my head. Especially "Humans", if you're looking for a catchy song about trying to survive underground.)

Our biggest question of the evening: why do the condemned bother to clean, instead of just walking away or otherwise refusing? We really weren't able to come up with an answer, image & psychological manipulations notwithstanding.

All in all, a fun book, and we noted that one can watch it improve over each successive installment; the writing improves a bit as it goes, and characters like Bernard who initially seem cartoonishly shallow get a bit more depth.

Next time, we're reading Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. As always check out City Lit Books for their many other clubs and events!

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