God-damn it, I hate it when I’m late to the party. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Howey and his self-published, post-apocalyptic series. If so it’s for one of two reasons. Firstly, Howey garnered quite a bit of attention for achieving 7-figure sales before publishers wanted a piece of the action. His subsequent acceptance of a mere 6-figure print deal and his retention of ebook rights is a glorious sign of things to come for the industry. Secondly, it’s fucking awesome. Sorry for the language but not since A Song Of Ice And Fire have I plowed through a book series with such fervour. It’s as good as the reviews say and then some, having me devour all 1,500 or so pages in a mere 8 or 9 days – and that’s while holding down a full-time job and finding a new place to live. So what’s the big deal?
Silo, originally published as 9 installments and recently released as three omnibus editions, kicks off a few hundred years into the future. The situation is dire. Mankind is reduced to a subterranean existence in a silo beneath the ground. Over a hundred stories deep, the gargantuan dwelling is subdivided into farms, mechanical areas, living quarters, even an entire mysterious IT section. The only evidence of an outside existence comes via cameras atop the silo, capturing images which are displayed on giant screens in the top-floor canteen. The images portray an ugly truth – an utterly desolate outside world, devoid of any life and totally hostile.
Life in the silo is strictly regimented. The floor-plan echoes the stratification of society, with the more affluent citizens up top looking down on the progressively grimier, less refined occupants ending in the mechanical department in the very lowest recesses. The rules are strict . Occupations, and therefore one’s place on the ladder, are chosen early on and rarely altered. Relationships must be officially approved and recognised and childbirth proceeds according to rare lotteries to ensure population control. The laws of the land are written in a book called The Pact, drafted by those who came before and enforced by the mayor, the sheriff and the head of IT. First and foremost among the laws is that you do not talk about the outside world or about any desire to leave the silo. The punishment for wanting to leave is simple – your wish is granted.
It’s difficult to say any more without giving away major plot elements so I’ll stick with the earlier parts of the series. It all opens with the silo’s sheriff breaking the ultimate taboo and preparing himself for his final journey outside. He knows what happens next, the cleaning. Offenders are sentenced to don a protective suit and proceed through an airlock, armed only with some rags and fluid intended to clean the topside cameras. After the task is carried out the cleaner is free to walk as far as they can before the suit breaks down under the strain of the toxic atmosphere and they breathe their last. So why did he do it, essentially committing suicide for no gain? It transpires that his wife took the exact same action years previously, leaving him to imprison and sentence her, but not without leaving some clues behind. It seems that The Pact might not be all there is to the world, that there may yet be hope beyond the silo walls.
From this launchpad, Silo proceeds to spin an epic tale covering all manner of topics. There are politics thrown in, from the state of the world at large to the way society functions in the microcosm of the silo. References are thrown about to such things as the Stanford Prison Experiment and other forays into the darker side of human nature. There’s the inevitable look at technology and how best to proceed with it, both the dangers and the benefits. It’s also a rather beautiful study of the characters themselves. Howey has some impressive insights into the nature of human resilience, our potential in the face of adversity and also the ease with which we can be drawn to the dark side and made complicit in the most awful of actions.
However the star of the show is surely the silo itself. It’s an amazing construction both in terms of engineering and of literary achievement. By the end of the first chapter you’ll already feel the walls closing in around you and be itching to escape. You can hear the water dripping down in the depths, sense the darkness approaching all around you, even feel your legs ache as the protagonists embark on days-long journeys from bottom to top. The bustle of life in the stairwells is almost palpable, faces of the citizens peering out from every corner. You can even feel the atmosphere change as you’re dragged from section to section – the sterile, pristine canteen of the top floor in sharp contrast to the sweaty, noisy, grease-covered generator room down in the depths. It’s a tiny, confined world but one which is as well-formed and perfectly realised as any planet in the epic sci-fi and fantasy canon.
I’m trying to be objective here but I honestly can’t pick fault with the series right now. I’ve read criticism regarding the flow of the books stemming from the periodic nature of their publication and the fact that much of it was being made up on the fly. I have to disagree strongly there. Everything hangs together well, the story arcs all make sense and the characters develop in very believable ways. The writing itself is never going to win any literary awards but Howey has a true knack for descriptive story-telling and is clearly well-read on the may themes present throughout the books. It’s hard not to like something written in such a deservedly confident style.
Long story short – go get started on these books right now. They’re going to creep into your subconscious like nothing else and your life will be the better for it.