Monday, July 7th, 2014

I’ve been reading a story called Wool, a hugely popular sci-fi novel set in a distopian future when the surface of the planet is so toxic that people have to live underground in hermetically sealed silos because one deep breath of the outside air makes people double over in stomach-cramping pain and die.

The story opens with a pretty good hook: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.” Holston has been the sheriff of the silo for years, but this morning, the third anniversary of his wife’s death, he has decided that he wants to go outside. Three years ago, his wife told him something about the outside world that he has wondered about ever since. He wants to go see if it’s true.

Any one of the silo’s citizens can ask to go outside at any time. Technicians will even provide a specially-developed suit that will protect them from the toxins for a short time, and in exchange they are expected to clean the cameras that give the rest of the silo’s citizens a view of the outside world. Coming back in is not part of the bargain, however. The outside world is much too toxic for that, so “being sent to clean” has become a euphemism for capital punishment. Only people who have committed the gravest crimes are sent to cleaning. Asking to go outside is the gravest crime of all.

That’s why Holston was facing his death in the opening hook of the story. He was climbing because the silo is a subterranean bunker that goes deep into the earth, one-hundred and forty-some separate floors that shelter thousands of people. And they have just one smallish spiral staircase running up the middle of it. Everybody’s always climbing or descending those stairs. Whole pages are devoted to describing how they trudge, trudge, trudge up and down those stairs.

Funny thing  about that: For a society of stair-climbers, born and bred, they’re woefully bad at it. It takes them days to climb from the bottom to the top. They shoulder backpacks stuffed with provisions and make arrangements to stay overnight after climbing thirty or forty floors. I’m in lousy shape, but I walk down the stairs of the ten-story office building where I work, then climb back up to the top, all in fifteen minutes. About fifty pages in I was expecting a Twilight Zone-like reveal: The people of the silo are all legless! They climb the stairs on their hands! But no. That’s not it. They’re just kinda pokey.

The Zoneish reveal about the silo is, unfortunately, the answer to the question: Why do people even bother to clean the cameras after being sent outside where they will die as certainly as every other person who was sent out and not allowed back in? The answer, when I got to it after two-hundred pages, was just about good enough to keep me interested in reading half of the next two-hundred: the half that told the story of the last person to be sent outside. The other half was the story of an armed uprising that I just couldn’t make myself believe. In the end, I couldn’t make myself believe the other half, either.

There are other reasons I didn’t like Wool very much: I thought the dialog was as dull and cliched as a lot of the description was. People who lived forty stories apart spoke different dialects; that seemed more than a little farfetched. And the Evil Villain of the story wasn’t scary. He was amoral and kind of a pig, but he didn’t once scare me. But I seem to be in the minority; Wool was on the New York Times bestseller list. There are internet wikis and fan pages devoted to it. Everyone’s eagerly awaiting the film version by Ridley Scott. I hope it’s better than Prometheus.

Wool | 9:39 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play
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