I love reading fiction. I read it while I am eating my lunch, standing in line at the grocery store, and late at night when I really should be sleeping – whatever it takes to cram a little fiction into my day. Until recently, I was reluctant to admit what kind of fiction keeps me up until 1am – dystopia fiction. I cannot seem to read enough about what happens to society when, for one reason or another, everything begins to (or already has) fallen apart.
There are lots of books that I have gleefully consumed in the wee morning hours – Mira Grant’s tales of free press and politics in the wake of the zombie-apocalypse, Veronica Roth’s coming-of-age stories in a crumbling utopian society, and Margaret Atwood’s terrifying description of the ultimate feminist backlash. What made me feel better about my preferences in fiction? Reading The Hunger Games trilogy and, more specifically, my decision to integrate the series into my undergraduate course on Collective Action and Social Movements. It wasn’t until I started brainstorming assignments for the class that I realized the appeal of dystopia fiction – these are compelling stories about power, repression, and (sometimes violent) social change.
This brings me to my summer recommendation, Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga. The first book, Wool, introduces you to life in the Silo. The Silo is where people live after humans finally do the unthinkable and largely destroy themselves. Rather than jutting into the sky, this Silo is buried 144 feet into the earth. The “top floor” of the silo is ground level and the view is terrifying. The only thing residents can see projected through the sensors is a dead world that no one is allowed to talk about. Those who talk about the world outside of the Silo are sent out to “clean.” They are outfitted in a suit designed to protect them from the corrosive air, given a piece of industrial-grade steel wool to clean off the sensor lenses, and sent outside. Everyone who is sent outside cleans the sensors, heads for the brown hills in the distance, and, then, dies in plain view.
The story initially focuses on the Silo’s power structure, which seemingly consists of Holston (the Silo’s Sheriff), Marnes (the Silo’s Deputy), and Jahns (the Silo’s Mayor). Holston, whose wife willingly went out to clean years before, is haunted by her death. He cannot understand why she went outside and, worse, he can still see the shape of her body outside on the hill. Without explanation, Holston says he wants to go outside. Marnes, his colleague and friend, begs him to stop talking about the world outside, but Holston is resolute. He soon joins his long-dead wife on the hillside.
The journey from the Silo to the hillside is an interesting one. When Holston leaves the Silo is a suit designed to protect him from the toxic air long enough to clean the sensors, he is overcome by the beauty of the outside world. Before he rushes to the green hillside speckled with flowers, however, he uses the wool to clean the sensors. It is only as he moves away from the Silo that the picturesque scene projected in the screen of his helmet cracks and the dead world returns into view. By the time he realizes that the world really is gone, he is already choking on poisoned air.
But is the world really gone? This is the central question of Silo series. In Wool, Juliette, the new sheriff of the Silo, intends to find out the answer to this question.
Wool introduces the reader to the statist society of the Silo. The intricacies of Silo become clear with Janes and Marnes descent down the spiral staircase (there are no elevators) into the Silo. During their long walk down to convince Juliette to become the new sheriff, we learn that the professionals live in the upper third of the Silo, computer technicians at the heart of the Silo, and farmers and mechanics in the lower third of the Silo. Each class of worker has its own color-coded uniform, rules about who they can marry, and strong opinions about residents in other parts of the Silo. What unites Silo citizens are the cleanings. Those living in the bowels of the Silo make the long trek up to the surface-level, drink, and glimpse the view projected into the Silo from the newly-cleaned sensors. Cleanings are more than a break from the monotony. They provide an opportunity for citizens to let off collective steam, and mean that one lucky couple will soon have an opportunity to conceive a child.
Wool (and the sequels Shift and Dust) is an enjoyable read for folks interested in politics, technology, and collective action. Hugh Howey crafts a tale about a dark world inhabited by characters that seem to be mostly decent, but are more or less questioning Silo life. His villains are not caricatures. While they work to ensure status quo in the Silo, we understand and even empathize with them. And, none of his protagonists are above reproach. In Juliette Hugh Howey creates a strong leader, who is willing to risk her life to learn the secrets of the Silo. But, we learn that her behavior is rooted in a troubled past that may threaten the fragile stability of the Silo’s society. Juliette’s single-minded drive to uncover the truth propels the Silo into a civil war, which may lead to the destruction of humanity itself.
If you need a professional rationale to read fiction this summer, allow me to offer one. We can take fiction into the classroom and provide students opportunities to apply concepts/theories to fictional worlds. I first tried this a few years ago. I offered an extra credit assignment in which students could analyze the importance of narratives in social movements using the book, The Helpby Kathryn Stockett. Not only was I surprised by the quality of the papers, but I got to read an excellent book twice.