Hugh Howley’s Wool & Near Death Experiences

Wool is a Science Fiction Story of Humanity’s Last Stand


I love these sort of ‘The Last of Us’ dystopian stories, where mankind is the endangered species. Neal Stephenson’s SEVENEVES is another great recommendation if that’s your fix. These stories bring out the best of humanity’s conflict with itself, and they’re often very well-done.

Illustriously written by Mr. Hugh Howey, who may be reading this as he sails the world in his customized catamaran, the story of Wool pulls us into a narrow world where humanity is divided and polarized by a government run askew of her people’s best interests. Sound familiar, America? Contentious as the political engagements may be today, we still live in a wide, open, free country. So how would we behave and make up the rules when we are confined to living underground in silo sized bunkers?

Hugh captures this idea with an intriguing story originally written in parts and now published as a single compendium that flows quite nicely from end to end. Now, despite his prose with its occasional flaws, I would still highly recommend reading Wool before the film adaptation. For those of us who enjoy some gritty and thrilling science fiction, this book is an essential read with an experience akin to The Martian (Andy Weir). So let’s jump in:

Math Steps


Sunk beneath the terrain of a hostile world, the silos of Wool take two days to descend on foot. The staircase fits a spiral along the wall from floor 1 down to 150, with an abyssal atrium in the center. Now, Hugh can be forgiven for not including an elevator in the story. But let’s add some birds for scale:

When climbing stairs, the average person might burn about 300 calories per hour. If we climbed for ten hours in a day we might expect to consume about 3,000 calories (Eat your trail mix). Now, on average, we burn about 0.17 calories per step on a climb, or say about 1.5 calories every 10 upward steps. Whether we dice it as 3,000 calories divided by 0.17 cal per step OR 3,000 calories by the 1.5 calories per ten steps, we get roughly 17,700-20,000 steps taken in a ten hour day. So there are perhaps around 40,000 steps in the entire silo if it takes two days to climb; or 266 steps in a ring around the silo for each floor.

Now, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest staircase in the world is the Niesenbahn funicular railway of Spiez, Switzerland with 11,674 steps and a round trip burning over 3,000 calories. OK, math checks out. Meanwhile, at the time of writing this, the record for climbing the most stairs in 12 hours was held in 2014 by Christian Riedl of Germany, who ascended 70,148 stairs or just under 43,129 vertical feet. So these Swiss-Germans are pretty good about their stairs (I know, because I’m one).


Death by Dehydration


Having backpacked and camped on several hiking adventures, I can sympathize with the tired legs of Wool’s characters, but what stands out in my memory is the thirst. The human body is recommended to consume about two liters of water per day. We’re going to expel a lot of water on a 10 hour climb, and that needs to be replenished. There are about 3.7 liters in a gallon, so I thought I would bring two gallons of water for my group, there being 3 of us. That’s 16.5 pounds of water (7.5kg), not too heavy. Maybe a little bulky, but whatever, I’m Swiss-German and I’m built to climb. (Flexes like Dolph Lundgren)

“Oh, no, Jon. For a day hike, you only need about a liter.”

“OK,” I said, trusting the better judgment of someone wise beyond my years.

So there I was, hiking Yosemite with a liter of water and a walking stick I found when a real Swiss-German passed us on the trail. He paced with us for a time, we exchanged stories of hiking adventures and thoughts of future conquests. Said I’d look him up, write him a letter, find him at the summit of another mountain some time. Then, as he passed us with imperceivable effort, I spotted the Grape Koolaid in the side of his pack and pondered the replenishment of electrolytes as I paused to gulp plain water from my canteen.

Several hours later, my water supply exhausted, we were reaching the summit of Half Dome and I was thirsty. Almost there, you can make it. I wasn’t husk-dry yet, but when I saw the Swiss-German a second time, as he was making his descent, he let me know I still had a few miles to go. Damn. Soldier on I did. Then, as I climbed the cables and made it to the summit, there I found a cache in a pile of rocks. The Grape Koolaid our friend had stashed, and also a note:

‘You’re halfway home at the top of Half Dome,’ the message was scrawled on a shred of yellow notebook paper. An email address too.

Ha! You glorious bastard, I thanked him as tasty-purple sugar water hit my burning lips. I was quenched, even saved some for my group. Ceremonious, that sharing of a drink on the summit of a mountain. And beautiful it was, for a time. The sun was getting low in the sky, and I can tell you from experience you don’t want to hike at night: It’s dark, you’re tired, and you’ve still got so far to go before the footsteps become footfalls and your feet feel like hammers.

So I ran down that mountain in the setting sun, chased by blood-thirsty mosquitoes buzzing in my ear. I’m told they home in on their meal by chemical sense of exhaled carbon dioxide. So I breathed out the side of my mouth for what good it would do. Must have thrown them off. I hadn’t quite been bitten as I made it into camp and collapsed for 40 minutes before my group caught up.

They drew water from the stream, purified it, replenished themselves, and offered me some. I made a mistake. I declined. I was thirsty, but more tired and thinking myself resilient (Dolph Lundgren half-flex/half-sleep). So I rolled over and crashed into sleep.

Hours later, I awoke with a feeling that can only be described as excruciating shrinkage of the brain. It was worse than a hang-over. It was as if my brain was throbbing in a vice, ripped from the walls of my skull, the last few strands still sticking. I imagined pink, gelatinous cobwebs between tissue and bone. This was visceral awareness that I could die of thirst; for certain I can tell you that our brains do shrink when we dehydrate. I moaned in agony, to this day perhaps a little embarrassed that other tents amongst the camp had heard me. I was weak. But I was given water, Advil, and some time later after wandering in the dark, crunching twigs beneath boot and looking up at the stars, I sensed my brain soaking fluids like a sponge and I was able to lay back down and go to sleep.

Still though, pack enough water. Even if it looks like rain. Because dying of thirst hurts worse than you think.


Reflection on the Story of Wool


The people of Wool have a hard life, but they never complained like I did. When they were thirsty, Hugh gave them water. He gave them tangible characteristics, he gave them perspective, and sometimes a quite realistic and jarring sense of suffering. But what he didn’t give them was an adequate degree of interpersonal tension and substance to their motives. Our minds can fill in the blanks, but fantastic drama is costly to conceive.

Now, I could be putting too much emphasis on this because Hugh’s world is so vividly painted, and certain absences of detail appear intentional as to increase the story’s allure. But there remains a missed potential in the drama. The characters seemed swept up in the tsunami that is this story, rather than being the drivers of it. Perhaps a little emphasis on motives sprinkled here and there would have served to charge the sentiment. Hugh accomplishes this impressively in so many other places. Yet, other parts could have been written to make the consequence of character’s choices more developmental of their persona. Still, Wool’s characters are resonant. You will remember their choices if not their names, and I would argue that the lack of emphasis on the drama gives that power to Wool’s hostile world and its gorgeously realized minutia.

Maybe I was just thirsty for more of this awesome story. I am deeply inspired by Hugh’s work after all. My imagination periodically traveling down new developmental tangents, adding my own descriptors to his exceptional work. Yet, some how this seemed wrong to me because I was pulled out of the flow of the real story. But again, we are open, wide and free to read and pause as we choose, and that may be one advantage literature has over other media. Food for thought.

In retrospect, these indicators might be evidence of a hasty developmental edit, yet Hugh’s rapid, episodal release strategy has proven incredibly lucrative and successful. It’s because his stories are bold, with a solid and adherent framework in place. He brings his world to life and we truly experience the danger of it.

In wool, there are many things you would expect to find in an underground silo, and some you would not. But what becomes familiar are these special suits which are worn in hostile environments. I love when an author can reuse the same plot device instead of introducing a new one. It gives the reader a sense of affiliation with an inanimate object. We begin to have expectations which can be exceeded.


Death by Asphyxiation


So, in our final story, we will consider this space suit, pressurized with air. Hugh does amazing things with these suits. But you have to read the story to find out. As we know, air-tight suits tend to have a limited supply of Oxygen and thus our characters can be put in dire situations once exposed to the elements. Hugh’s action scenes are so vivid that I am reminded of the real dangers from my own experiences with Scuba Diving.

There is a different fauna of sea life a hundred feet below the ocean. The corals don’t really grow here, there is a desert of sand and the water is royal blue. Schools of fish, sand rays, and the occasional shark meander about. However, on a good day at twilight, you can roll onto your back and witness an incredible sight fifty to sixty feet above you.

In-between you and the setting sun, which seems to change to an oily liquid in the translucent waves above, you come to realize that you are at the bottom of a giant box of water. Within this box (your field of view) there are small fish schooling on a cloud of plankton, medium fish are picking them off, and larger predators take bites out of the medium fish. It’s a food chain unfolding before your very eyes. A feeding frenzy in your very own, giant box of water.

But this was not one of those days. It was high noon and I was chasing a school of Goatfish with a camera a hundred feet below the surface. The thing about chasing things under water, is that we humans are not built for efficiency. Paddling your fins expends energy, which consumes oxygen faster. Before I realized it, I was in the red.

Now the thing about running out of air a hundred feet below the water is that you wouldn’t simply make a break for the surface. At such depths, in your box of water, the hydrostatic pressure is increased to something like 40 pounds per square inch (PSI). Our atmosphere is 14.7 PSI and things tend to expand when depressurized. In this scenario, an emergency ascent would have released the nitrogen in my tissues as gas bubbles that would have entered my blood, rendering me unconscious (or dead) before I ever reached the surface.

So I reduced my breathing, conserving my air as I approached our dive master and signaled that I was running out of air. She scribbled something on a little white board with her underwater marker and held it up for me to read:

“Do what you can”

Whoops. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I remember feeling a little offended at how nonchalantly she reacted to my ply for help. But in hindsight it was the right first step. There are a dozen good reasons to dive with a buddy. So we always pair up before we submerge. I got my buddy’s attention and flashed the hand signals for:

‘Hey, I’m out of air. Share air?’

‘OK. Share air,’ my buddy says, and hands me the spare regulator from her tank. Its marked yellow so we can find it in an emergency. I remove my regulator. Make a mistake now and I’m dead. I blow some bubbles, would be shitty to inhale water right now. Take the yellow regulator, press the button which expels any water in the mouth piece, there are more bubbles, and I put it in my mouth. I bite down hard on the mouth guard, expel any remaining water and take my first breath of air from my partner’s tank. I can hear the hiss of air moving through the regulator.

I feel awesome actually. This was handled quite well. Sort of like what heroes would do for each other in our situation. We lock arms and float to seventy feet for a decompression stop, about 4 minutes. I feel the spongy tissues in my sinus expanding. You can actually hear it too, there is a pinched-squeezing sound that eventually releases in a pop. It’s an odd sensation, satisfying actually. Gives perspective to the anatomy: spongy stuff between hard bone. We float to thirty feet and repeat the decompression stop. Eventually we make it to the surface and I’m a little wiser.


Wool in Conclusion


In conclusion, Hugh Howey’s Wool reminds me of two times I felt the possibility of death. If he didn’t like my review, maybe third times the charm, eh? That’s pretty riveting. But for those of you who can take proper care of yourselves, prepare to feel real danger in the reading of this masterpiece. Seldom do we come across a work of science fiction so believable that we are forced to turn a page. You may even be so inclined as to read the followup works of Shift and Dust. I know I will. Hugh Howey made me do it.


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