Friday, November 21, 2014

The Politics Of: WOOL

The "Silo Series" is a post apocalyptic science-fiction trilogy set in a massive 144 story underground silo hundreds of years in the future. The books are something of a sensation, having been optioned by Hollywood and reaching best-seller status. The first part of the post reviews the books. The second talks about them in depth and assumes you have read them (or don't mind being spoiled).

The Silo Series: WOOL
The outside, above-ground world is a churning mass of toxic brown clouds. Humanity--all that is left--lives underground in a "silo." It's not, as you might think, a missile silo--this is a massive, fully self-sufficient habitat. A marvel of engineering, the technology is what we'd think of as 20th century: there are computers--but they are somewhat clunky. Everyone takes stairs: there aren't elevators. The lower reaches have giant, loud generators and grease-covered machines.

Humanity has lived down here for hundreds of years. The world of the past is vaguely remembered in  old books--but what happened or how humanity came to the silo ... is a mystery.

The government isn't a tyranny: there is a mayor. There are elections. There are social groups (the guys down at the bottom are lower-social class than those up top)--but everyone has their jobs and for the most part does them. It's a dreary life with a birth lottery (you can't have too many kids) and endless days of work to keep the machinery of life running. Travel up and down is exhausting endless stair-climbs. When you die, you are recycled.

That dreariness, however, has some darker edges: in the opening we are introduced to the ritual of cleaning. The outside world (a gray-brown crater that rarely shows the sky and has, in the distance, hulks of large above-ground ruins) is viewed only through cameras on massive screens. Those cameras get dirty over time. The dirtier they are, the more restless the populace gets. When a prisoner is condemned to death, they are sent out in an environmental suit to do one last job for humanity before the suit decays--to maybe redeem themselves. That job is 'cleaning'--they are told they are to clean the cameras of dust and grime--and then they can go as far as they are able ... never yet has anyone made it over the edge.

For the people inside, it's a mystery as to why the condemned don't just run off--but they don't. Maybe it's some needed sense of community? Maybe it's something else ... The story opens when the old Sheriff of the silo is near retirement and is thinking about selecting a new one ... and there are some mysteries about the last cleaning he'd like to look into.

Hugh Howey, the Silo series author, is good at his game. His characterizations are strong, he has a sense for having bad things happen to decent people enough that you aren't sure if the protagonists will make it and his story, for the most part, is very sensible. The WOOL books may not show us brilliant innovation in science fiction but the social-structure feels right and the mysteries are deep enough to unfold over three books and still pay off.

WOOL is a phenomena in the publishing world--it came out as a cheap E-Book and then was optioned for hardcover and film. The Wool series is a science fiction book that helped re-define the future of publishing!

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of: WOOL
In the Event of a Failed Cleaning:
  • Prepare for war (From The Order)
The politics of WOOL are the politics of Mutually Assured Destruction without the mutual-assurance. The scenario WOOL postulates is that nano-tech weapons, targeted human "kill-switches," are discovered already in the environment--waiting for an enemy to activate them. The architects of the end of the world decide to strike first. This makes a certain amount of sense: Historical nuclear MAD was based on the idea that we'd have both some early warning and enough surviving missiles to wipe out the Soviet Union (and vice versa).

Hence the massive "overkill" numbers of rockets--we expected most of them to be destroyed in an enemy first strike.  

The problem with MAD, is that if you can't be sure of surviving a first strike, the game-theory incentives to launch one become astronomical (in the 1995 science fiction book The Killing Star, they become literally astronomical where a race of aliens has a policy of light-speed bombardment of any race they can detect because that race might, eventually, do it to them first. Humanity survives ... as a couple of people in an alien zoo).

In the case of WOOL, the nano-soldiers were already in a bunch of our blood-streams: the first strike happened. What now? Their plan looks like this:
  1. Using black-budget funds build fifty massive silos near Atlanta.
  2. Create a book (the Order--World Order Operation L(50)) which will detail how humanity is supposed to act for several hundred years including directives like the cleanings and the various subterfuges to keep the silos both in-line and incurious.
  3. Place one silo as the control silo where the architects of the atrocity will take shifts of cold-sleep to maintain vigilance throughout the centuries of the silo-era. They will communicate with their factions and have the power to cull a silo (killing everyone in it) should it get wise and rebel.
  4. Populate the silos (apparently herding a mass of convention goers in with a series of explosions?). Rely on amnesia drugs created to fight PSTD to make everyone forget the old world.
  5. Selectively breed humanity in the other silos for maximal suvivability.
  6. In the end, kill all but one silo and direct them to an exit. Then the control silo commits suicide (the normal people working in the silo don't know this). These new people will have enough knowledge to get by--but won't understand nano-tech.
Notably, in the 2040's where the plan starts? It's the Democrats doing this. Is there anything especially democratic about this plan? Do the politics of it say anything?

It turns out they kinda do.

Firstly, the architect of the WOOL-plan is senior 'senator Thurman.' This echos real Senator Strom Thurmond--one of the oldest sitting senators and a Democrat turned Republican (he ran as an anti-civil-rights Dixiecrat candidate). In other words, he's as far anti-civil-rights as you can get as a Democrat (probably holding the all-time record, in fact).

In other words, the plan is run by a titular Democrat who is named after the most Republican Democrat ever. That's ... probably not a random coincidence.

Also, while the end of the world plan isn't based on moral judgment of humanity (although the Suicide Pact for the control-silo more or less is) the concept here is a vicious first strike as pre-emption. That, well, that is the Bush Doctrine innit?

Let's also not forget that while the master book isn't exactly a bible it is effectively one. It contains various laws and must me memorized, cited, etc. There is, it turns out, another bible that the priests use--which contains explicit "Be fruitful and multiply" guidance (which is hard to reconcile with their need for a stable population--but the architects were thinking ahead). The overtones of the control strategy are a bit religious (as well, perhaps, as the death-and-rebirth of the cold-sleep for the control-silo).

Certainly, to undertake a literal slaughter of humanity, a selection of a few, and a series of life-and-death decisions for the "flock," one must consider oneself an almost literal god--or at least possessed of god-like judgment over others. Hey, wait, maybe that is liberal.

In the end, though, The Omnivore doesn't know the author's politics--but the guess is that the choice of Democrats is simply window-dressing for what is effectively old-style slash-and-burn governing. The choice of Thurman as a prime-mover antagonist (The Omnivore won't say exactly villain because while he is morally, he's textured enough to be less than a simplistic evildoer--he does plan to die in the final suicide pact, after all) is all you need to know: the party label is less important that how you vote--or what you do with a multi-billion dollar black-budget and an end-of-the-world virus.

A Few Notes
The second book, Shift, pulled a mind-scramble on The Omnivore when, half way through, the main character did the obvious thing and found Thurman sleeping in his pod and shot him. This was like in No Country for Old Men, when the narrative relentlessly drives a showdown between two people and then half of the climactic battle is abruptly killed . . . off screen.

In No Country, it was a jaw dropper. In Shift it was a jaw-dropper until the guy, thanks to nano-re-builders, got better. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--stories work the way they do because they are usually designed for maximal satisfaction--but holy crap, if the author had just killed off the head bad-guy half way through the second book, The Omnivore would have been totally stunned (in a good way).

Secondly, The Omnivore was not all that impressed with the herd-people into silos with explosions as a method of populating them. Firstly, the plan hinges (it seems) on the forgetting-drugs. That's actually clever: create trauma so that the people involved will forget the past--which is your plan. The problem is that it's the kind of thing you will only ever get one shot at and if the people don't disperse equally into the silos, what then? It's not clear (maybe The Omnivore missed this?). If they choose to write down histories of humanity all over the place (and this actually does get addressed in the book--but as a very rare event) your plan will be almost terminally damaged.

For a plan that is literally world-stopping, one would think you'd need a better way of selecting your folks. Maybe an evacuation order from select communities? Maybe ... choose a couple of universities to drain? This might not create the trauma--but it would theoretically be less failure prone.

Finally, there is The Order. It's not clear to The Omnivore how the control group came up with it previous to the event. How did they know a failed cleaning would lead to an uprising? The Order is designed to crush the spirits of the populace enough that they are mostly docile and don't figure out that they are part of a larger world. It acknowledges regular revolutions as necessary--and tries to plan for them--but it seems like they're even required. That's another dice-roll: even though The Order gives the secret society (IT) superior weapons (real rifles) if Snowpiercer taught us anything it's that revolutions are dicey things even if you have superior firepower.

The Omnivore would like to know a lot more about the social engineering that gave the ruling class such faith in the order in the first place.

However, all that said, WOOL is pretty darn well thought through. It isn't an especially political story but it doesn't have to be: the drivers behind it will make sense to anyone. 


  1. OK, just wrote a long comment that got deleted by accident (damn delete button). The gist of it

    1. Thanks for the write-up - good stuff.
    2. Did you notice/thoughts on parallels to Asimov's Foundation?
    a. To come up with the Order, you need something akin to psycho-history;
    b. Knowledge of the future leads to actions from the antagonists/protagonists:

    In Wool, they kill nearly everyone off in a global reboot, the goal to have their way of life persist rather than the other 'bad guys' who control the kill switch in everyone's blood (though not sure why the other bad guys didn't activate this when the world started dying off, or maybe they did and the silo ppl had antidotes). Sort of an ultimate 'my way or the highway' philosophy - they don't care about human suffering, only that their way of life/beliefs persist.

    In Foundation, they try to minimize suffering by guiding future events down a pre-ordained path, so instead of ten thousand years of darkness there are only a few thousand. This is a much more 'liberal' outcome than the politics we see in Wool.

    Will be interesting to see if Howey continues the series with a world-building post-Dust series.

    1. I did liken it to psycho-history--but: in The Foundation trilogy, psycho-history was like the focal-point of the novels. It was (to my read) kinda 'assumed' for Wool. I'm also not clear on which (exactly) beliefs they were defending.

      Yes: Western-way-of-life--but only in the broad strokes. Not in the specifics, really (for example, we don't see a super-capitalist wealthy class. They have money but it's clearly a -social- democracy as far as that goes).

      Certainly Howey has incentive to keep writing these--he's making over 100k a month and I'm sure a 4th book would sell out instantly.

      -The Omnivore

    2. The ultra-low-level doomsday strategy is faintly reminiscent of the backstory Fred Saberhagen set out in his Empire of the East series, though of course the net effects are completely different. In chess, you can't block a knight's check, so if you can't capture it or escape, the only remaining (wildly out-of-the-box) winning strategy is to alter reality itself.

      By the way, the Senator you reference was Strom Thurmond, if it matters.

      -- Ω

    3. Got it--thanks!