Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Wool includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Hugh Howey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the world of Wool, humans live deep underground in enormous silos underground, hundreds of stories deep. The landscape surrounding the silo is destroyed, the air outside toxic. The men and women live in a community full of rules and regulations they believe are designed to keep them safe from the harsh world outside, and from each other. Under these rules, romantic relationships must never be secret, the size of the population is strictly controlled, and certain topics, like going outside, can never, ever, be discussed. When Sherriff Holston asks to go outside, his punishment is having that very wish granted, and he is sent into the deadly outside world. His fateful decisions trigger a series of events that reshapes the entire silo, and his successor, Juliette, must grapple with the collapse of her world and a series of revelations that will change everything she thought she knew.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Wool follows several characters over the course of its five sections, with Sheriff Holston, Mayor Jahns, and Juliette playing the largest roles. Who did you sympathize with the most? Who do you feel you resemble most?
2. Although Sheriff Holston is one of the most important characters in the book in terms of story, we don’t spend nearly as much time with him as we do the others. Were there other characters you wished you could have gotten to know better? Why?
3. One of the most exciting things about reading Wool is coming to understand exactly how the Silo operates. Was there a moment when the logic of the Silo’s society clicked for you? What was it? Looking back, were there hints that you missed?
4. Even though the Silo is the only environment the characters have ever known, some of the values of our world seem to linger in the world of Wool, as characters derive status from their proximity to the top of the Silo, complain of the claustrophobic environment, and go to great lengths for a view of the outdoors. Do you think these are reflections of innate human values? Or do you think eventually humans could fully adapt to such an environment?
5. When Jahns is convincing Jules to take up the Sheriff’s badge, Jules claims, “I don’t think you get what a mess we’d be in without these machines.” To which Jahns replies “And I don’t think you get how pointless these machines are going to become without all these people.” (p. 103) How does this conversation reflect the larger problems of the Silo? Are the costs necessary to keep the Silo going worth their impact on the quality of life? How much sacrifice is too much?
6. Why do you think the rules of the Silo are designed the way they are? What are they designed to help, and what are they designed to hinder? What do the rules tell you about the ultimate goal of the Silo?
7. Both Peter Billings and Lukas Kyle struggle with their roles in the Silo, as the story progresses. Although they initially do their best to maintain the status quo, they eventually work against the roles they’ve been chosen for. What do you make of these transitions? What do you think led them to rebel against the system instead of going along with it? Why do you think they went along with it in the first place? Was it merely fear, or something more?
8. Peter realizes that he has a choice between doing what is expected of him and doing what is right. Can you relate this decision to any other situation in the book?
9. Section four of the book “The Unraveling” is full of references to, and epigrams from, Romeo and Juliet (referred to here as The Tragic Historye of Romeus and Juliette). What comparison can you make between the two stories? Why do you think the author chose this story in particular? With so few products of culture permissible in the Silo, why do you think Romeo and Juliet has been allowed to survive?
10. Why do you think the information in the Legacy has to be hidden? Would you hide it, or share it?
11. Because the Legacy is hidden, the residents do not have access to their own history, beyond the myths they are told. The frequent erasures of knowledge banks (as after an uprising) compound this problem. How does this effect the lives of the residents of the Silo? How might an even slightly larger historical understanding change their decisions?
12. Why do you think IT has the power, access, and knowledge that they do? Why not some other department? Why not the Mayor?
13. One of the strengths of Wool is that beyond imagining a new world, it allows us to see our own with new eyes. Do you think Wool has symbolic lessons for our contemporary lives? What aspects of modern society might you perceive differently after reading Wool l?
14. Compare the conversations that Juliette has with Lukas and Peter on pages 531-532 with the conversations that Bernard and Lukas have about the Legacy and the Order. Do you think Juliette’s proposal would work? Or do you think that the darker view of humanity that Bernard represents is more sustainable?
15. Juliette is viewed as a symbol of the uprising. Do you think an uprising would have occurred without her? Who else could have been a figurehead for it?
16. Juliette is an inspirational female character in the novel. What other strong women appear in the story and how do they gain or use their power?
17. Although Wool does answer many of the questions raised in the first few sections, there are many that remain a mystery—what lingering questions do you still have about the world of Wool? What are your speculations about the origins and destiny of the community of the Silo?
18. One of the questions that is never fully answered in the book is the central question of the Silo: Why do those condemned to the outside always (or very-nearly-almost-always) clean the sensors on the cameras? After you’ve shared your own theory with the group, read Hugh Howey’s thoughts from his blog on this idea at www.hughhowey.com/why-do-we-clean/
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The genre of science fiction often focuses on circumstances about the survival of humanity after an apocalypse. Wool is distinctive in its portrayal of the way in which humanity survives when most of the world is uninhabitable. What kinds of strategies have other authors explored, in fiction or nonfiction? Devise your own new method for surviving this kind of apocalyptic scenario. Which strategy do you think would be able to sustain human life the longest? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of your chosen method?
2. In addition to his other books about the world of Wool, Hugh Howey has a number of other books set outside of the Wool universe, including The Molly Fyde Saga, and standalone novels Half Way Home, The Hurricane, and The Plagiarist. Check out one of these other books—how are they similar to Wool? Are there characteristics of Howey’s writing style that you understand better after reading another book? Does it change the way you feel about Wool?
3. The excerpt from the Order on page 387 is from a real-life experiment that tested Realist Conflict Theory and it is implied that those who built the Silo based much of its design on the results of psychological experiments with human subjects. Look into on the Robbers Cave experiment and some other more famous psychological experiments like The Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment and the Third Wave (the links below can get you started). How do you think these could have influenced the rules, regulations, order, design and construction of the Silo? What do these experiments imply about human nature? How is this view of human nature confirmed or negated in the Silo?
A Conversation with Hugh Howey
1. Where did the idea for Wool come from? Which element presented itself to you first?
Wool began with a question: Can we know the world by viewing it through a screen, or do we need to go out and see it for ourselves? From my reading of history, the world seems to improve for most people year after year. Our freedoms expand; our values improve; we become less cruel to one another. Serious studies by Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond in the last few years came to the same conclusion. But you would never think this to watch the news. Our perception of progress is colored through a very dark lens. When you go out in the world, you often find it to be a much better place.
2. Instead of one continuous narrative, Wool is broken into several shorter pieces. What was the intention behind this format? What were some of the advantages of writing this way?
Wool began as a short story. When readers began begging for more, I decided to follow the structure that was already working, which meant shorter works released more rapidly. There were advantages and challenges. The ability to switch points of view and tone gave me a lot of freedom to tell each story in the most natural manner possible. The challenge was to craft the plot in advance so that the second book could foreshadow the fifth. I released them as I wrote them, which doesn’t provide the opportunity to go back and edit what is already out there.
3. One of the most satisfying parts of reading Wool is catching the little bits and pieces that tip you off to something fundamentally different about how this society operates. As an author, how do you balance these subtle reminders of the wholly different nature of the world we’re reading about and the need to rely on some of them to propel the story? For example, the treatment of birth control?
It’s certainly a balancing act. It would be unlikely for a character to marvel at the world they are perfectly used to in order to allow the reader a complete understanding. The challenge is to reveal pieces in an organic and believable manner. I largely rely on my wife reading early drafts. When she looks at me with me with one eyebrow raised and another lowered, that’s when I know I still have work to do.
4. Science fiction is a genre that is frequently slighted in favor of more realistic or literary fiction—does this bother you? Do you see a significant difference between sci-fi and “normal” fiction?
It only bothers me in the sense of loss to readers. The genre is full of brilliant themes and soaring prose. What I noticed as a bookseller was that we tend to pluck the shining best out of science fiction and shelve them among general fiction. Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, David Mitchell, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley — When we take the best of genre fiction and remove it from the genre, I believe we beg the question we are trying to pose.
5. Juliette and Mayor Jahns are such memorable, strong and different heroines. Are they based on people from your life? Do you see yourself more as a Jahns or a Juliette?
I’m surrounded by strong women whom I admire. My wife, mother, and sister are all amazing people. They each combine Juliette’s cunning and bravery with Jahns’s wisdom and compassion. I’m not sure I live up to either of these ideals. Perhaps my Juliette days are behind me and my Jahns days are ahead. At least, I hope they are.
6. Many of the characters, Juliette and Walker especially, have a deep appreciation for mechanics, machines, and tinkering—are you a tinkerer yourself? Do you have this kind of respect for machines?
I’m a hopeless tinkerer! My problem is that I’ll tinker with something that is operating perfectly. I believe my true appreciation for machines and our reliance on them came from my years as a yacht captain. Finding myself away from shore and needing to repair a critical system, I learned the art of scavenging parts from something else, making decisions on what was necessary and what could be done without. I also learned the value of preventative maintenance, so these systems wouldn’t break down at all.
7. Wool presents two drastically disparate views of human nature. Juliette espouses a more optimistic and open viewpoint that towards the end of the book (p. 531-532) yet Bernard expresses a much darker, pessimistic view similar to the principles encoded in the Order. Can you explain a bit of your perspective on these differing viewpoints? Is the survival of the Silos over hundreds of years proof that the Order, dark as it is, is the more realistic take?
I believe Bernard and Juliette represent a very real schism in the world. It’s similar to the classic Hobbes/Rousseau debate. By the end of the book, I believe it’s Lukas who possesses the right mix of optimism and caution. His experience in the server room combined with Juliette’s voice leaking through a headset gives him a mixed perspective.
My own view is that a free and truthful life is the only one worth living, even if that were to mean a truncated life. Keeping people “safe” by penning them up and restricting their freedoms is a sort of safety I abhor. My parents allowed us to take chances and swing from great heights, and the scrapes and scars I have from my youth were worth the risks.
8. Post-apocalyptic literature is one of the hallmarks of science fiction, and seems especially popular now—what initially drew you to this kind of story? What did you like about working with that premise?
I love tension in the stories I read and write. The beauty (or horror, as it were) of post-apocalyptic fiction is that the entire world is endangered. All of humanity hangs in the balance. So it isn’t just the protagonists we’re rooting for, it’s the legacy of mankind.
To my mind, the only thing that makes our mortality bearable, is the belief that we’ll be survived by our children, our friends, our family. Perhaps the fascination with this genre is the terror that even this will ultimately be taken from us, that not a one of us will survive past some date. That’s difficult to bear as a reader, and yet fun to explore as a writer.
9. So much of the mysteries of the Silo are revealed through the characters themselves, and their interactions with each other. Was this an intentional technique? Is it challenging to orient your readers and parcel out an understanding of what’s going on?
It was absolutely intentional. I’ve never been a fan of telling the reader everything they need to know at once. I’d much rather tell the story through characters who are not privy to the truth of their circumstances and then watch them slowly peel back the layers. The true challenge is to provide clues in a way that the reader sometimes figures it out on their own and has that satisfaction. And then you mix this up with shockers they didn’t see coming, and that often makes for an enjoyable read.
10. What’s next from Hugh Howey? How many more stories can we expect from you of the world of Wool? Are you planning something new for when you’ve finished the story of the Silos?
There are two more books after Wool. Up next is Shift, which is a shift in perspective and pace. It tells the story of those behind the Silo project, but it also intersects with the events portrayed in Wool. Wrapping up the series will be Dust, where these two narratives collide.
I have a ton of stories I want to tackle once this saga is complete. If you are a reader, you know the incredible thrill of finishing a good book and being able to choose the next. That’s how I feel as a writer. I have a half dozen outlines and works already begun. I’ll sit down and sort through them and see which one I want to tackle.