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.


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.

James Smythe’s Rereading Stephen King Series Is Brilliant

I stumbled across James Smythe’s blog series for The Guardian while having my lunchtime Internet break at work, and I was immediately taken by the concept. Like me and so many others, Smythe has been a Stephen King fan since childhood, rereading his novels over and over again so much that he is intimately familiar with King’s work and recognizes the bigger patterns in it overall.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.
James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

King was the author who ushered Smythe into grown-up reading, and the same thing happened to me. My mom was checking in with me when I was eleven years old to make sure that I knew what menstruation was. I let her know that school had pretty much covered this. “Good,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you like Carrie.” I asked her what Carrie was, and as she told me, my eyeballs got wider and wider, especially when she got to the part about pigs’ blood and prom. I had to read that book! I went to the library to check it out, but Carrie wasn’t there. I settled instead for Salem’s Lot, which kept me awake all night at a Girl Scout sleepover, and I never went back to the juvenile section again. Not when there were so many horrors to be had in the K aisle.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister's well-worn Stephen King books.
One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister’s well-worn Stephen King books.

Smythe has grown up to be a writer himself, and he has set himself the task of rereading all of King’s work, aiming to post a blog entry on each work about every two weeks. He estimates this will take him about two years. This is an incredibly ambitious project considering some of the gigantic tomes that King has put out—It (1104 pages), The Stand (original version—823 pages; uncut—1200 pages), Under the Dome (1088 pages), 11/22/63 (880 pages), to name a few. Just rereading one of these books in a week or two’s time is almost a full-time job, and that doesn’t include the writing, research, or critique time that Smythe puts in. Each one of his King entries (he’s at Week Seventeen so far) draws many comments from readers, and Smythe gets down in it with them, arguing the finer points, coming up with Top Ten Favorite King Books and Least Favorite Five King Books as readers ask for such lists. And though he is a King fan, he realizes there are some real clunkers in King’s oeuvre and does not hold back in his reviews. He also mentions his first feelings about reading the book as a child or teen and how he views the work differently now as he rereads, and he is not afraid to change his mind about what he now considers King’s best. Sometimes, the entries get clogged with literary references, especially the short story collections where there are so many tales to cover and quite a few of them feed into King’s novels. How can you not cover them? Also, Smythe is a huge Dark Tower/Randall Flagg fan, which I never quite got into, and he points out appearances all the time. I’d probably like these parts of the blog better if I was in on the joke, and I might give the Dark Tower series another whirl so I can decide how I feel about this omnipresent character. So far Smythe has reviewed most of King’s good work, but I can’t wait to read his critiques of the really bad works, like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Black House (which I couldn’t even finish after reading one hundred pages of the narrator flitting around from scene to scene, “setting” the story). I only wish that it was easier to read these entries one after another. However, this is the book blogs section of The Guardian, so I have to page through or click on links in the sidebar and then go somewhere else to find readers’ comments, which is a big part of the fun with this series. Already, though, I’m envisioning this project as a book, and I hope Smythe does, too, and puts this out in a more user-friendly format. This far in, I can see Smythe having a nice pile of summary, criticism, and memoir that will be book length by the time he’s done. I’m happy to take this trip since King has been such an important influence in my personal and literary evolution. He’s been the backbeat for most of my life, and reading the blog posts and other readers’ comments, I can see that I’m not the only one. Smythe gives me ideas, too, for my own literary odyssey. I believe my lady, Joyce Carol Oates, has written even more than Stephen King. What if I read and reread all of her works in the order they were published? I think I would need more than two years, though, to complete this task, and a Medici-like benefactor to support me during all of this reading and writing.

Another shelf holding our King books--the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.
Another shelf holding our King books–the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Week One: Carrie

Week Two: Salem’s Lot

Week Three: The Shining

Week Four: Rage

Week Five: Night Shift

Week Six: The Stand

Week Seven: The Long Walk

Week Eight: The Dead Zone

Week Nine: Firestarter

Week Ten: Roadwork

Week Eleven: Cujo

Week Twelve: The Running Man

Week Thirteen: The Gunslinger

Week Fourteen: Different Seasons

Week Fifteen: Christine

Week Sixteen: Pet Sematary

Week Seventeen: Cycle of the Werewolf

Week Eighteen: The Talisman

Week Nineteen: Thinner

Week Twenty: Skeleton Crew

Week Twenty-One: It

Week Twenty-Two: The Eyes of the Dragon

Week Twenty-Three: The Drawing of the Three

Week Twenty-Four: Misery

Week Twenty-Five: The Tommyknockers

Week Twenty-Six: The Dark Half

Week Twenty-Seven: Four Past Midnight

Week Twenty-Eight: The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Week Twenty-Nine: Needful Things

Week Thirty: Gerald’s Game

Week Thirty-One: Dolores Claiborne

Week Thirty-Two: Insomnia

Week Thirty-Three: Rose Madder