IT Ends the World in Howey’s Wool

I first encountered Hugh Howey’s Wool while me and my Girls Write Now mentee were milling around McNally Jackson bookstore, waiting for the launch party of the Girls Write Now fifteenth-anniversary anthology, New Worlds, which features both of our work. Tessa picked up a copy of Wool from a stand advertising hot summer reads and flipped through its pages. “This one looks good,” she said and handed it over.

 

The book had a nice cover and intriguing cover copy—the idea of a subterranean society was something I had played with before. But after reading the first few pages of Wool, I knew I could never have written about such a world as well as Howey: Right away, he transports readers to a dank underground silo that made me immediately claustrophobic, though I was in a bright, airy bookstore. The silo goes underground for more than one hundred floors, and there is one big rule governing this post-apocalyptic society: never, ever, ever ask to go outside.

The minute somebody does they are escorted to the first floor of the silo, the one that’s closest to aboveground, and locked up in a holding cell with a screen that shows a view of ravaged Earth, complete with rotting skyscrapers, urine-colored sky, and the bodies of Cleaners past. That’s the punishment for wanting out—the guilty party becomes a Cleaner and must go out into the poisoned atmosphere and clean the sensors that provide the silo with its view of outside. Through the years and generations of the silo’s existence, a Cleaner always gets the job done, and within seconds of completing the task, he or she drops down among the other bodies littering the landscape to die. A Cleaning becomes a strange kind of celebration within the silo, and families take trips to the top floor (often lasting for days with all the silo’s levels and going uphill) to view the screen of outside with the kids, like somebody’s family today visiting Disneyland.

Wool opens with a Cleaning, an immediate downer, but it does get the reader into the rules of the society right away. The silo is governed by a mayor, who has to run for the job, and a sheriff and deputy, but all of them are overseen by mysterious IT. Unfortunately, the one who wants to be set free is the current sheriff of the silo, leaving a vacancy, and one of the recommendations for his replacement—the top recommendation—comes from the bottom of the silo in Mechanical.

Howey describes silo society as being divided caste-wise—at the top are the elected officials and IT, akin to our white-collar workers, and then come those who work with their hands, the farmers and the mechanics who provide the energy for the silo.

With this subterranean silo and the makeup of its society, Howey really knows what he’s talking about, having lived and worked on ships before, where there is a very distinct class system and the ship becomes your everything when out at sea, he says. The atmosphere he creates is compelling, but the amount of detail started to bog me down until the protagonist of Wool is finally revealed. Juliette is a mechanic who’s in her thirties and views the mayor and deputy (and their job offer) suspiciously. She reminds me of one of my favorite characters, Ellen Ripley, in the first permutation of the Alien series, where all she cares about is keeping her ship and crew together and everything functioning as it should.

Hugh-Howey-Photo-by-Amber-Lyda

Howey first published Wool with Amazon’s Direct Publishing program, so the novel I read is actually composed of several short stories/novellas that are still available in their original format on Amazon. As the Silo series evolved, readers would comment and sometimes reach out to Howey about the different plotlines. The repetitive details may come from condensing all these stories into a digestible novel, which is part of a Simon & Schuster deal for an intended trilogy. Movie rights have already been snapped up, with Ridley Scott attached to the project. (I think this would be a perfect fit as he did the original Alien where Ellen Ripley, so similar to Howey’s Juliette, is introduced.)

There is somebody who’s against Juliette’s appointment, the head of IT, Bernard, who wants the elected officials to rubber-stamp one of his candidates. He doesn’t like Juliette because he believes she’s made unauthorized requisitions for her department, which he likens to stealing from the silo society. Within Bernard’s first scene in Wool, it’s clear who runs the silo, not the people-elected mayor and her appointees, but IT. And that really frightened me because it reminds me of how things exist now and where we might go.

At one of my first in-house jobs in New York, there was an IT guy who had gone rogue. Probably the biggest reason for the problem was that one guy was given too much power and no oversight existed, so he did whatever he wanted without any checks against him. I started to notice a certain icon at the bottom of my screen when IT was checking activity on my computer. At first, this seemed to be set on a random timer, and I was okay with that, realizing that a company does have to monitor its employees somewhat, making sure they’re not looking at porn in the office or finding out how to build bombs. Eventually, though, I noticed that icon on my screen more and more, especially as I was checking e-mails with more salacious details.

Once my mother forwarded e-mails about a family member who tried to commit suicide right before he was due to turn himself in on a sex-crime charge. The company’s IT guy, who had never spoken to me before, made a point of going by my cubicle that day to ask if I was okay. I knew then what was going on and that I wasn’t being paranoid.

As technology and tracking gets more and more sophisticated, I notice strange ads and pop-ups appearing on my personal computer while doing freelance work. Sometimes it takes me a minute to figure out why I’m being targeted for a particular product or service as I have to google some bizarre things, depending on what books I’m editing at any moment. But it all leads back to some program monitoring every keystroke I make in cyberspace. As leery as this makes me now, Howey increases it a thousandfold with Wool, where IT leads to humanity’s downfall.

Prometheus Gets Bogged Down by Bad Creationism

I guess I should have know what I was in for after seeing the movie posters with a head reminiscent of the statues from Easter Island, but I had seen the trailers for Prometheus a couple of months before the movie debuted. The music from Alien was used, along with a similar chase scene, making me think I was in for another hunter-hunted story like Alien delivered. But no, I was duped once again.

What did I want from Prometheus? I wanted an explanation for how the aliens came to be and why those pods were hanging out in a spaceship, like Venus flytraps, waiting for willing victims to dock. A simple explanation would have sufficed, but instead Prometheus delivers a heavy-handed origin story that references world mythologies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Christianity. The movie creaked with all the symbolism and religious overtones loaded into it, and all I really wanted to see was a good sci-fi/horror story. I didn’t need everything else about where we come from. I look to Joseph Campbell for that, or simple stories that hit the right points.

Prometheus opens with a humanoid character drinking something coffeelike that causes him to disintegrate—he falls down a waterfall into a stream and his blood and specifically his DNA and chromosomes start to corrode and morph. I’m guessing this is an allusion to the original Prometheus, which is never completely followed up. Flash-forward to a similar environment several thousands of years later, where a team of archaeologists have uncovered an artwork that corresponds with that of four other ancient civilizations, who could have had no contact with one another. The two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green), puzzle over what the message means; they interpret it as an invitation.

The two are then shown in stasis aboard a ship as an android, David (Michael Fassbender), tends to them. David acts like a kid left home alone with complete access to the ship for years while the others sleep. He plays basketball in the large, arenalike spaces. He taps into the dreams of the crewmembers in stasis. He watches a movie over and over again, mimicking the speech patterns; studies a language that seems vaguely Arabic; and cuts, dyes, and styles his hair so as to appear as one of the characters that he likes to watch.

Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is the first human to wake from sleep and informs the android David to wake the others. I appreciate how the chronological time order of the Alien series is considered at this point, and the humans coming out of sleep have a rough time of it, spewing all over. In movies that are supposed to have come later in the time line (though they were filmed earlier), the human subjects rise from years-long sleep easily, seeming only to crave some food and coffee.

The crew is summoned and realize that they are chasing the dreams of a very rich and old man, who says he will be dead before they come back to Earth. Their ship is docked outside of a large, unnatural structure, and they go exploring. Inside, they find holograms depicting what happened thousands of years ago, some nonorganic “pods,” and fossils of these humanoids (called Engineers by the archaeologists), who turn out to have the same DNA as humans. A storm comes up, artifacts are brought back to the ship, and the crew is split up. Some cross-contamination occurs, and then the real purpose behind the mission is revealed, which seems to cancel out the first three-fourths of the story.

There are some good things in Prometheus. There’s some great acting by Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba, and Michael Fassbender, but the motivations for these actors’ characters all fall a little short by the end. Some nice, gory parts crop up in the film, one in particular with Noomi Rapace in an impossible situation, hanging on with pure grit. However, these good bits get lost when the screenwriters, director, whoever, try and weight this movie with more importance than it can support. Allusions are made to great works, but their meanings are lost because they’re not used effectively. It all seems like so much great material thrown to the wall and what happened to stick is Prometheus, which comes off as flimsy considering its origins.

2011 The Thing Is Just Meh

Last week we experienced our first summerlike days and nights with temperatures in the high eighties and lots of humidity. It was too early to turn on the air conditioner, so I kept cool another way: by opening a can of frosty beer and popping in a DVD of an Antarctica-based horror movie. You can think yourself cold this way.

The 2011 version of The Thing is billed as a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and I think that’s where the movie goes wrong. It starts out so sincerely, trying to root the movie in the early 1980s. Grad student Kate Lloyd, a paleontologist, who ends up being the lead in this movie, gets a little tired while working in the lab so she slips on large, wonky headphones and pushes a button on her Walkman to listen to Men at Work. I thought, Aw, how cute.

Later, she’s recruited by a scientist and his American assistant, and the illusion is ruined for me. The grad student and assistant end up looking like kids from my neighborhood. It made me think, Did they do the casting call at my local bar?

These scientists are transported to the Norwegian base in Antarctica where an unnamable “Thing” has been found, and I tried to line up the similarities that fit with the opening of J.C.’s The Thing. There are a few characters who could physically pass for the living and videotaped Norwegians from J.C.’s The Thing, and they’ve got a husky. Okay. I tried to will myself back to a certain time in 1982, a few months before the Thing bursts into the American camp, but I found it impossible.

The sets are too shiny and new. The equipment is streamlined and compact. Don’t these people know anything about the ’80s? Everything was big and clunky and buzzed with electricity. As I followed these characters, I had a very hard time believing that they are functioning in a world, a time, without palm-held devices that tell them everything.

I can see that the filmmakers are being respectful to J.C.’s The Thing, trying not to step on any toes. Instead, they make many homages to the 1982 version, replicating many scenes with just a little twist. But nothing new is brought to the table in this 2011 version. I found myself just not caring anymore, especially when the tenuous links to the opening scenes of J.C.’s The Thing are destroyed. I thought I had been watching the prequel here. Now, it turns out there’s a pre-prequel?

Later, in the very ending credits, after the Norwegian/American team is killed off, a new crew comes in, and now things start lining up with the beginning of J.C.’s The Thing. These scenes are shown in eyeblinks, and it turns out that this is the “prequel” I was duped into watching.

I have to say I felt cheated, but looking at all the ice did make me feel a little bit cooler on this early summer night. Next time, though, I’m going to be cooling off using John Carpenter’s The Thing or maybe the X-Files episode “Ice” that brings a different take to the Thing story line.

This prequel to a classic horror movie also has me a little worried about the upcoming Alien prequel that’s coming out this week, Prometheus. Am I going to get a satisfying backstory to one of the scariest creatures of all time, or is Ridley Scott going to do me wrong?

Top Five Horror Movies Featuring Old People

My Girls Write Now mentee hates horror movies, but she likes to make sure I’m keeping up on mine. A few months ago, Danni and I were talking on the phone about writing projects, but then we got to horror movies and she wanted to know if I was excited to see Cabin in the Woods and The Raven. At the time I hadn’t even heard of them, so she e-mailed me the trailers; then she asked me, “Why are so many horror movies about teenagers?” I gave her what I’ve been told so many times—that one of the scary things about being a teenager is having your body change so dramatically in such a short amount of time and a horror movie mimics or shows what a teen might be feeling inside and outside. Then I told her that not all horror movies are about teenagers, and I would make her a list of some. So here it is: my top five list of horror movies featuring old people.

1. CRONOS: This one’s got a special place in my heart since it was my first horror magazine assignment. I was supposed to be reporting on a cult movie Raw Meat, but the magazine I was working for couldn’t get any art from the movie. Thankfully, Guillermo del Toro was introducing Raw Meat as an inspiration for his work, and he talked quite a bit about Hellboy, which was in preproduction at the time, and that ended up being my first horror movie article. At this event, del Toro showed his first full-length feature Cronos about a vampiric device created in the Middle Ages that gives users eternal life. An elderly antique dealer stumbles upon it and is menaced by the nephew of a dying man who will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Ron Perlman plays the nephew, and this movie is the beginning of the artist-muse relationship shared by Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman. It gets extra points for the most innovative use of a toy box that I’ve ever seen.

2. ROSEMARY’S BABY: Though Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is barely out of her teens in this movie, I chose this one because of the evil old people that surround her, never letting her make a move without commenting on it. Once Rosemary and her husband move into their dream apartment at the Bramford, the elderly in the building start to take an unusual interest in her. At a critical point in Rosemary’s pregnancy, which has been accompanied by constant pain, she decides to throw a dinner party and tells her husband, “I’m having a party for our old…I mean our young friends—Minnie and Roman are not invited. Neither is Laura-Louise nor is Dr. Sapirstein. It’s going to be a very special party. You have to be under sixty to get in.”

3. ALIEN: I think this is such a groundbreaking movie, and since it came out in 1979, not many other movies have been able to touch it. It starts out slow, building up the tension. We have a group of workers out in space starting their mission: They wake up, get dressed, eat a little something, drink coffee. Then they get their assignment, but it’s work—a little boring but something they have to do. First up, go check out this alien spaceship. They do, and worker Kane (John Hurt) provides the first scare of the movie with his alien rape from a pod, which leads to one of the scariest movie moments ever: the Alien birth scene. Probably the most brilliant part of this movie, though, is casting thirty-year-old Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. It was her first major film role, and she tore it up.

4. DAWN OF THE DEAD: While I love George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, I prefer the 2004 remake because U.S. shopping habits have changed so much and that is the main point of the movie. After flesh-eating zombies have taken over the world, a few surviving humans hole up in a mall, which is perfect for their needs. There’s food, water, furniture, supplies, and most importantly, security. Zombies, too, are attracted to the mall, remembering it as a place of importance. I love the casting of nurse Ana (Sarah Polley); it’s always important to have a medical authority in a zombie apocalypse who can tell you exactly what’s going on. And Ving Rhames as tough guy Kenneth is a joy to watch. I enjoy apocalypse movies so much because you have a large cast representing the general population and how it reacts after Earth is blighted by a natural or “unnatural” disaster.

5. THE THING: This is such a scary movie, and I’m glad I didn’t see it until my twenties. My friend’s teenage daughter was permanently traumatized after seeing this one at a tender age. It starts brilliantly, a beautiful panning shot of mountains, white, and ice and endless expanses of it. You know these characters, working guys, are out in the middle of nowhere and nobody’s around to help them. A helicopter mercilessly chases a beautiful husky dog, taking shots at it. When the copter crashes, you’re glad because these guys were trying to shoot a beautiful dog, but later in the kennel, all hell breaks loose. I knew a few guys in college who modeled themselves after the main character MacReady (Kurt Russell)—to the point where they would only drink J & B whiskey. I’m still not sure if that was deliberate product placement or not. Knowing John Carpenter, probably not.

Looking back on this list, I see that all the movies have to do with body horrors—using a vampire device to stay young, giving birth to aliens or a devil, or fighting off dead people who want to eat you. So maybe there is some truth to teenage horror movies being rooted in that scary thing known as puberty. Anything I’ve left off the list? What are some other horror movies with older people that should be included?