All that’s left of humanity, it seems, is living in an underground silo-bunker in Florida author Hugh Howey’s page-turner novel “Wool Omnibus.” People have been surviving in what’s basically a 140-some-story skyscraper buried underground for about two centuries now because the air outside, on the surface, remains terribly toxic from some mysterious catastrophe.
The book, which began life as a best-selling series of novellas self-published via Amazon.com’s Kindle e-reader, opens with the bunker’s top sheriff being executed—voluntarily—because he’s begun to uncover dark secrets underlying everything. Troublemakers are sent out the airlock up top to die in the poisonous atmosphere—but not before they scrub down cameras that broadcast a view of the surrounding hills, distant crumbling skyscrapers, and the sky back inside to the cave dwellers. (The title is a reference to the steel wool the condemned use to clean the scanners—and perhaps to the wool that’s pulled over everyone’s eyes.)
Of course, the Orwellian powers that be aren’t above some additional unofficial measures to stop their new world order from unraveling—poisoning the mayor, faking a suicide, framing the police. Is it a small price to pay to save what’s left of humanity? Or is this the last gasp of a doomsday cult?
The novel is slow to get going, but with the appointment of a new sheriff, Juliette, previously an engineer who kept the bunker’s power plant humming, the story takes off. She quickly gets into trouble for continuing to dig into the previous sheriff’s questions. Is it really so toxic outdoors? Is the view through the monitors actually a digital mirage?
Howey’s pulp scenario chugs along entertainingly. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, some of the twists are too easy, and the ending screams for an immediate sequel, but that’s de rigueur for this sort of potboiler. The plot keeps revealing new vistas, keeps revealing new mysteries wrapped up inside enigmas, for a satisfying post-apocalyptic adventure.
The question the novel asks is can a pressure-cooker society really handle the truth of how its leaders attempt to maintain homeland security? It rhymes with our own nation’s tensions between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties. Ultimately it’s a story about how to balance safety and survival versus freedom and democracy.