Hugh Howey: 'If we're free, then we all die'
I am a little nuts about post-apocalyptic fiction, so it was with a great deal of anticipation (and some trepidation), that I picked up a copy of Hugh Howey's Wool. Howey, who is being hailed as the science fiction equivalent of Fifty Shades author E.L James, is a self-publishing success story.
And the film rights to Wool, his post-apocalyptic trilogy which will conclude this year, have been bought by none other than Ridley Scott. It's in pre-production and Howey will have the surreal experience of having a novel that he's written turned into a movie by one of Hollywood's biggest names, something that he says he had no intention or ambition of ever achieving when he wrote the series and self-published it on Amazon.
Wool is followed by the sequel Shift, and the final in the trilogy, Dust, will come out late this year.
I met Howey for a chat while he was in Auckland, at a hotel overlooking the harbour, which turned out to be quite apt, as Howey worked on boats for years.
"It's where the layout of the silos [in Wool] came from, because the boats I worked on were laid out very similarly. The nicest decks are on top, where you have the owner's suite and the salon...the owners are treated very nicely. The crew are often down below with the grease and the engine room."
In Wool, the world's air and environment has turned toxic. A small pocket of humanity has survived in an underground "silo", where they mine what fossil fuels are left to eke out a kind of hardscrabble non-existence. Howey says the inspiration for the silo came from months of drifting out at sea, where the isolation has the potential to become claustrophobic.
"On one level, it can be beautiful and it can be paradise but you could look at it another way and see that it's a wasteland. If you lose that boat, you're dead. You can survive longer in a desert than you can at sea, where you have not just the water but sharks and other dangers. You can lay down and take a nap in the desert, but you wouldn't want to do that in the water. You're basically in the slammer."
Howey was also inspired by the political situation in the US, particularly the conspiracy theories around the Arab Spring.
In the Wool series, he poses the question of whether people are better off with a more restrictive government, trading off liberties for safety and a certain kind of caged contentment, or whether humanity should fight tooth-and-nail, like Neo in The Matrix, to hang on to utter freedom no matter the price.
The characters of Wool reflect this dilemma. The protagonist, Juliette, a woman in her mid-30s, is romantically drawn to Lucas, who is nine years younger. The nemesis they are fighting is a man called Bernard, who comes from an older generation steeped in tradition.
"It was bucking tradition to have [Juliette and Lucas] be together, but it happens. I've been in situations like that in my dating life. But the reason Lucas is younger is because I need someone who is between the two philosophies. Their two ideologies don't work in the extreme - that's been tested throughout history and failed. So I needed Lucas to be young enough to be in between those two...
"In Wool, if we're free, then we all die. If we live like Bernard, then we're all miserable and living a life not worth living because you end up thinking, you preserve these organisms but why? For what?"
It's the central question around Wool, and what makes this good, fast-paced science fiction, up there with the two books that Howey says inspired him to want to start writing at age 12 - Ender's Game, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
How will the series end? Howey isn't giving too much away, though he knows what will happen, having already written the last chapter even though the full manuscript isn't due at the publishers' till July.
"I think the happy ending is wildly optimistic [in a post-apocalyptic scenario]. I feel like the author's saying that things are good right now, so we'll stop and pretend that nothing else will happen. There's humans involved - of course things are going to go bad again.
"On the other hand, something like Cormac McCarthy's The Road...Cormac's book is beautifully written, but you have to be in the right mood to read something so dark and depressing, and that's a lot coming from me. I think you need to have the potential for improvement of the human condition by the end of the story, and that's what I aim to achieve in Dust."
If you're keen to get hold of a copy of Wool, the first of the Wool Omnibus, I've got one to give away. Just leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion!
Are you a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction? Have you read, or will you be reading, Wool?