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Wool, Hugh Howey

wool-by-hugh-howeyWool, Hugh Howey
(2013, Century, £9.99, 576 pp)

In the world of twenty-first century publishing, the story of the book is often more interesting than the story in the book. And so it is with best-selling science fiction novel, Wool. Originally self-published as a novelette on Amazon’s Kindle, its popularity prompted Howey to write further stories in the same setting. These were then fixed up into a novel. Which promptly sold in huge numbers. Howey earned enough money to quit his job. Publishers came knocking at his door and he sold the film rights to Ridley Scott. Hugh Howey has become the latest poster boy for self-publishing success.

Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Wool doesn’t deserve the praise lavished upon it. Its quality is immaterial; it is a success. That is the narrative of Wool.

The narrative in the book, however, is not so happy. There is an underground silo of 144 storeys in a world that is toxic and uninhabitable. The silo’s only contact with outside is via screens, the view on which degrades over time as dirt gathers on the external lenses. At intervals, people are sent outside as punishment–and the chief crime deserving this sentence appears to be… wanting to go outside. Clad in protective gear which gives these “cleaners” around half an hour of life, they leave the silo and clean the lenses. Then they walk off into the ruined city, but fall and die before leaving sight of the lenses. Why do they always clean the lenses? Why not simply walk off and see how far they get before their suit degrades? It is this first section which formed the original novella, and the puzzle at its heart makes no sense as motivation for cleaning the lenses. It also requires the “cleaners” to be wilfully stupid and ignore what they know…

The remainder of Wool’s 576 pages build on this opening section. Since the last “cleaner” was the sheriff, a new one is required. The deputy recommends Juliette, a mechanic from the lowest levels of the silo. The mayor seconds the choice. Bernard, the head of IT, disagrees, and also seems to think he actually runs the silo. Which, it transpires, he does. Nevertheless, Juliette is made sheriff, but her appointment has set the mayor at odds with IT and Bernard soon gets his way. Juliette is arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to “cleaning”. Her friends in Mechanical, however, secretly ensure she is a given a suit which will last more than thirty minutes. Juliette has also figured out the suit’s secret – this is the premise of the opening novella – and this allows her to find her way to… another silo.

The setting of Wool is science-fictional, the opening section is written in a science fiction mode; but once Juliette, who is not only a naturally-gifted mechanic and highly intelligent but also beautiful, is introduced, Wool turns into a small town soap opera. Unfortunately, this only emphasises the fact the novel’s setting does not stand up to scrutiny. The silo has a single metal spiral staircase to link its 144 levels, but such a design is impractical. The metal of the staircase would also collapse under its own weight. IT manages a server farm, but the servers do nothing. They don’t run the systems of the silo, because there are no such systems. The silos are sealed environments and possess hydroponic gardens, a mine and a well, but they could not be self-sufficient for the many generations the story implies. Wool also gives little indication of their size or population. They are deep – 144 levels must make the lowest level 450 to 500 metres below ground – but the area covered by each level is never mentioned.

Howey’s prose is readable, if very baggy, and his frequent flights of fancy fail more often than they succeed. His plotting, however, is driven by escalating jeopardy, but it is inconsistently applied, often implausible, and poorly paced. One character discovers something and is killed; another learns something different, and is arrested and sentenced to “cleaning”. Howey keeps his cast under constant pressure, and yet his writing is leisurely paced. His characterisation is typical of commercial fiction: Juliette is super-competent, and Bernard is a pantomime villain. He is, for example, the only fat person in the entire silo.

There’s an interesting story somewhere in Wool – now the first of a trilogy, to be followed next year by Shift, and then by Dust – but Howey’s writing is neither brisk, economic nor subtle enough to tell it, and his technique of applying constant jeopardy to his central cast annoys more often than it propels the reader forward.

Still, it is useless to complain. Wool is a self-publishing success story. The narrative of the book has already been written, and it says that Wool is good.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #246, May-June 2013.


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Ancillary Justice

Every couple of years, a science fiction novel appears which seems to generate a tremendous amount of positive buzz among my online genre friends and acquaintances. In 2011, it was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, the first of a trilogy, which went on to win the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award and appear on the short list for the Nebula Award. This year, it’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is also a debut novel and the first book in a trilogy. I’m also seeing a lot more word-of-mouth for Ancillary Justice than I remember seeing for God’s War, and I suspect it will do better in the various genre awards than Hurley’s debut.

ancillary

But then Ancillary Justice is located much closer to genre heartland than God’s War, and the interesting things it does – and it does a number of interesting things – are, I suspect, more generally acceptable than those in Hurley’s book. Both suffer structurally, but where God’s War had a choppy start, Ancillary Justice has a weak ending… and I have to wonder if that is felt to be a more forgivable sin. Having said that, Ancillary Justice is a richer brew in heartland sf terms than God’s War – richer, in fact, than a great many 2013 science fiction novels – but I don’t feel it fully explores everything it has to say. God’s War at least aggressively interrogated its tropes. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Ancillary Justice or feel it is a bad book. It is a very strong debut, and I have every intention of picking up the remaining two books in the trilogy when they are published.

First of all, let’s get the gender thing out of the way. Throughout Ancillary Justice, “she” is used as the default pronoun. This is allegedly because the narrator, Breq, comes from a culture which speaks an ungendered language. The problem here is that an ungendered language by definition possesses no gender, whereas “she” is very much a gendered term. The effect on the reader in English of using the word “she” as a default is not the effect it has on the characters within the story. Cause and effect are uncoupled. However, the effect on the reader does force a specific reading of the story. Leckie is making the reader interrogate their own perceptions of gender by using “she”, even if the argument for its use in the world of the story is weak. When Breq deals with speakers of other languages, ones that do use gendered pronouns, she frequently exhibits confusion over which pronoun to use. She uses visual clues to decide which is appropriate – there are, for instance, several references to clothing making this process difficult. But gender is not biological sex – and this is something that has been explored by science fiction over several decades. Numerous people have drawn comparisons between Ancillary Justice and Samuel R Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand which, I think, interrogates the concept of social gender more rigorously than Ancillary Justice. I like that Leckie has forced the reader to examine their own gender defaults, and I think that’s an interesting thing to do… but I’m not totally persuaded the world Leckie has created fully explores that aspect of the story.

Breq is the only surviving “ancillary” of an AI. Ancillaries are human bodies used as avatars – real-life “meat puppets”, if you will. As a result, AIs operate in effect as distributed intelligences. It’s a neat idea, but Leckie only skims the surface of it. Admittedly, for much of the book Breq is confined to a single body – once she was an avatar of the controlling AI of a warship, but now she is as effectively human as the person whose body she hijacked. Leckie plays the ancillaries as single intelligences with simply a much vaster range of sensory inputs. When Breq was One Esk, a troop of ancillaries on the troop carrier Justice of Toren, Leckie makes numerous references to the narrator’s ability to know what is happening in various different places, to call up information at will, and to monitor in great detail the human officers under whose command she serves. I’m not entirely convinced by Leckie’s presentation of an AI character, or its distributed nature – but then, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever found the presentation of AIs in science fiction especially convincing. Further, the plot of Ancillary Justice is actually hung from this incomplete version of a distributed intelligence – although how incomplete, or indeed different, is difficult to judge as unlike Breq we do not see that character from the inside.

While the gender thing and Breq’s once-distributed nature are the two most obviously arresting aspects of Ancillary Justice – and also appear to be the most remarked upon in reviews; as, er, I am doing in this review myself – there are a number of other elements to the story and world-building which I think are much more fascinating. I said earlier that Ancillary Justice was a rich brew, and it’s the combination of tropes Leckie has used, tropes which are not normally thrown together, or on which she has put a different and original spin, that I think make Ancillary Justice such an interesting sf novel.

Justice of Toren, the ship Breq-as-AI originally controlled, was operated by the Radch, a human civilisation led by Anaander Mianaai. Like the AIs, Mianaai has many bodies, thousands of them, and so rules the Radchaai by effectively being ubiquitous. The Radch is fervently imperialist, and has been operating a campaign of “annexation” on other human-populated worlds for over a thousand years. The Radchaai economy demands this – the Radch seem themselves as “civilised” and superior to all others (especially non-humans), and obviously they cannot maintain a society based on such a view without an ever-expanding underclass. There are many ways of reading the politics embedded in Ancillary Justice – an attack on neoliberalism, on neocons, on contemporary US politics… They all work. Nor do they overwhelm the story.

Which, such as it is, is presented in a format which hides its simplicity. Justice of Toren becomes inadvertently embroiled in an internal Radchaai struggle, kicked off by a pair of historical incidents involving alien races, most especially the Presger who are more powerful than the Radch. Ancillary Justice tells its story in two narratives strands. One is set in the present. Justice of Toren now survives only as Breq, a single ancillary survivor from thousands that had been used, or held in storage, on the ship. A second narrative takes place years earlier, when Breq was One Esk and is policing a city on a world that has been annexed. A Radchaai conspiracy intrudes, and One Esk and her officer, Lieutenant Awn, are caught up in it. Breq is the sole survivor of the fall-out from that incident and vows revenge on Mianaai. to that end, she travels to the world of Nilt to find a special undetectable gun which renders Radchaai armour useless. On Nilt, she stumbles across Seivarden, a Radchaai lieutenant recently revived after a thousand years frozen following the loss of her ship in battle. Seivarden is also now a drug addict. Breq remembers Seivarden, and decides to help her return to Radchaai space, although Seivarden is initially reluctant and ungrateful.

The two narratives build one upon the other, the historical one revealing the motivation for the present-day one, and the present-day one in turn making clear the actual events in the past. While it makes for a slow start, the structure actually allows Leckie to dole out exposition without interrupting the flow of the story. As the novel progresses, so its pace increases until the point where the two narratives meet – or rather, one is folded into the other – at the climax. Leckie’s world-building throughout Ancillary Justice is superb, and she manages to evoke multiple distinct cultures in detail. Perhaps at times the novel feels a bit like a Le Guin story crashing into a Susan R Matthews one, but that’s no bad thing – both are authors whose works I like and admire. Some have also remarked on an element of Iain M Banks to Ancillary Justice‘s world-building, though that may have been prompted by the presence of the AIs (ie, Minds) and the names of the characters. I don’t see a Banksian sensibility at work in Ancillary Justice, even though Ancillary Justice and Banks’s Culture novels are, beneath their space opera patina, both political sf.

Ancillary Justice is novel whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet some of its parts still manage that intellectual punch to the head – a “wonderpunch”, if you will – you expect in the best science fiction. There is a point in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) where the main characters travel out to the Oort Cloud and discover why aliens have been transmitting the eponymous beam of free information at the Solar System. In a meeting with these “Traders”, Varley throws away entire science fiction novels in a handful of lines -

“A few thousand. To get a representative sample. After that, we can learn humanity from each other.” He paused. “We know this is a strange request. The fact is, it is the only thing your race has to offer us. It is the only reason we have bothered to send you the things we have discovered and collected over seven million years.” (p 222)

Such a massive change in scale, delivered offhand in a few lines of dialogue, can’t help but provoke sense of wonder. Leckie does something very similar in Ancillary Justice, and it is the implications of this which I think proves one of the novel’s more fascinating elements:

When most people spoke of Radch, they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines. Very, very few of Mianaai’s clients had ever set foot there, and only a few houses existed who even had ancestors who had once lived there. (p 235)

Bear in mind that a Dyson sphere with a radius equal to the Earth’s distance from the Sun would have a habitable inner surface equivalent to 550 million Earths. Imagine the size of a civilisation which filled that and still needed to expand in order to fuel its economy. I would also guess the Dyson sphere is an artefact colonised by the Radch, since nothing in Ancillary Justice suggests they are capable of building it.

Not everyone has reacted positively to Ancillary Justice, although it’s hard to see how in comparison to other science fiction novels published this year it can’t fail to stand out. If I was afraid that the success of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes meant that space opera was regressing, then I’m glad to say that Ancillary Justice shows that progress is still possible and desirable. Leckie’s novel gives me hope that science fiction is a genre it is still worth reading. Recommended.

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