Seeing the Wool for the Sheep

I finally got around to reading Wool, via the omnibus edition, and since singing its praises just adds another voice to a justified clamour, I thought I'd suggest, dear reader, that you take my approval and enjoyment for granted, and I'd write about the things that worried me in this book.

Warning, some of the statements in this post might qualify as spoilers. I won't give anything important away, though.

Wool is Old School SF for the aficionado, or possibly the connoisseur, possibly some other foreign word. It evokes the sociologically centered work of golden age names like Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Aldiss, Harrison, Bova, Silverburg, EF Russell, Bradbury; work that was largely buried by the cyberpunk avalanche and its concomitant wave of high-tech high action cinema that seemed to culminate in The Matrix; at once the apotheosis and antithesis of its own genre, echoing in huge halls the cramped and solipsistic worlds of the sociofuturologists of the 1960s.

I should probably frame that last para. It's intended to exorcise the pretentious twat that lurks inside every critic, no less me.

What worried me about Wool was not its stark vision of the future, nor its almost nihilistic commentary on the nature of man. None of the sociological stuff that ought to breed disquiet in the reader really bothered me. Wool is well aware of its own heritage, and its heritage is books and stories that I grew up with; it tips a nod to William Golding as well as Isaac Asimov (though thankfully Howey's computers benefit from transistors and silicon chips, so they don't take up quite so much room). For me, this was home turf. And that didn't detract from the suspense, the jeopardy, the excitement. I finished it at 3 am last night.

The following worries probably say more about me than they do about Hugh Howey's excellent book. I certainly hope so. I wouldn't want to put you off reading it.

1. The health and safety benefits of modular design and high replacement rates.

What worried me most at first was the staircase. I was initially concerned that its design was non-modular. There doesn't seem to have been a provision for swapping out worn or damaged stairs - not even the handrail. Not only is this an accident waiting to happen, but repairs will be extremely time-consuming and could have a severe impact on the economy. It would be a simple matter to make individual stairs from sheet steel using a specialized pressing and folding machine. They would wear out quickly but replacement would be a matter of a few minutes. As it is each stair is thick enough that it is possible for it to wear smooth, and therefore lose its nice safe planar profile. Which implies another problem: if the stairs go unreplaced for so long, the joints will be at extremely high risk of microfractures caused by repeated impacts - vibration fatigue which leads to catastrophic failure. This translates to a cascade of stairs suddenly breaking loose and bringing several floors worth of the structure down.

2. The quality of life of sheep.

Sheep need the outdoors. We know there are pigs in the silo - more on them below - but the presence of sheep is strongly implied, by the presence of wool. Indeed it is always to be hoped that a book with wool in the title will have at least one sheep between the covers.

Sheep are not known for standing around in barns, and most sheep species spend all year outside, different breeds tolerating different degrees of hardship. Maybe it comes from having lived in Wales, having Welsh blood, that I worry about the wellbeing of sheep that have to live underground. And I have grave doubts about the quality of the wool that would be produced without the constant stimulation of inclement weather.

3. Genetic diversity in Domestic Stock

Along with the humans, there are (among others), dogs and tomatoes. The domestic dog has a ridiculous amount of genetic diversity. Even a fairly small population (in the low hundreds) might well survive a few hundred years without developing severe congenital disorders. The domestic tomato has suffered from a reduction in diversity but efforts have been made in recent years to reintroduce greater diversity through targeted rebreeding with wild stock, which has an extremely high diversity. As long as the hydroponic farms maintain a healthy strain of wild stock, yields of domestic varieties should remain stable for a good long time, but I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to guess at how long. Domestic pigs are in trouble. Perhaps not as much as bananas and vanilla, but trouble nonetheless. As with many meat species, genetic sustainability (sufficient diversity in the population to resist new threats (e.g. new viruses)) has been sacrificed for higher yields. The silo builders would have been smart enough to begin with as diverse a stock as possible, ideally representing as many domestic breeds as possible, along with representatives of both wild and feral breeds. This would likely make the pigs small, and bad tempered, but with a strong flavour and higher fat content. Pigs do tolerate confined living, especially if they are in contact with people. They are also a much more efficient recycler of dead people than burial.

4. Hydrocarbon economy in confined spaces

Building a silo on top of an oil well seems a pretty smart idea. Refining and burning it as fuel though, seems less smart. Hydroponics are carbon neutral, so you would already have to be producing oxygen for the people and scrubbing the air clean of CO2. This requires some pretty inventive solutions, all of which are net consumers of energy. So a significant amount of the energy generated by burning hydrocarbons would be used up generating oxygen to make it possible to burn hydrocarbons. This is quite apart from all the other products of burning. In order to avoid poisoning everyone with exhaust gases you would have to burn the fuel inside a closed system, and to prevent clogging you would have to use only the lightest fractions obtained in refining, leaving you with an enormous amount of waste oil to dispose of.

Oh, and one last remark:

How hard would automated lens cleaning have really been to implement?

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