Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shift: A Review of Hugh Howey's Apocalyptic Novel

Shift is great apocalyptic science-fiction. It is a prequel to the also excellent Wool. I reviewed Wool earlier this year. To fully appreciate Shift, you need to first read Wool. Anyone who reads Shift without first reading Wool risks missing out on the fun of discovering answers in Shift to questions posed in Wool. Perhaps this is why Shift received only a lukewarm response when reviewed as a standalone book on the Book Club.

Wool was originally written as a collection of novellas telling three distinct stories, all set in an underground silo. The silo is huge, with over 130 levels and thousands of people living in it. Inside the silo are farms, schools, power generators and manufacturing plants.

The silo’s are very low-tech. Access to computers is limited to a core group of information specialists who are all located on one level of the silo. The general population has no access to phones or other communication devices. There are no television or radio broadcasts, there is not even a printed newsletter. So communication is by word of mouth and notes written on scarce paper.

The silo does not even have a lift, just a large central stairwell. It can take three days to travel from top to bottom. This low-tech approach makes it much easier to control the population. There will be no twitter revolutions in a silo.    

The general population of the silo think they are the only people alive on the planet. Cameras show them the wasteland outside. Every now and then, a “criminal” is exiled to the wastelands, where their protective suits are quickly eaten away by the toxic air. They die within sight of the cameras for all in the silo to see. So the inhabitants of the silo know it is not safe to leave, that their lives depend on the silo continuing to function.

Shift is also a collection of three stories. The first story is set before the stories in Wool begin. The third is set in the same time-frame as one of the stories in Wool and the second is set in between the stories in Wool.

The first story tells of the construction of the silo. We find out who built it and why. The story follows newly elected US Senator Donald Keene. He is asked to design levels for a top secret underground shelter by a senior senator and family friend. He has no idea what the shelter is to be used for, but he is eager to please the elder statesman so he agrees.

At the same time we are told the story of Troy, who after fifty years in cryostasis, begins his first shift in the silo. He is its overall manager. His job is to ensure that the silo continues to function according to processes set out in a thick manual. Troy gradually starts to believe he is not the person he thinks he is. 

The second story, or shift, is set many years after the first. A silo manager is woken to help stop a revolt. This story is told from the silo manager’s point of view and from that of a porter caught up in the revolt. Porters carrying supplies, equipment, notes and rumours between the many levels of the silo. 
The third shift or story takes place decades later. A silo manager discovers what the future holds for him and the thousands living in his silo, and he does not want to be a party to the end result. Concurrently, the story of Jimmy and how he came to be one of the few survivors of a revolt unfolds. Jimmy was an intriguing character who appeared in the last story in Wool.

Shift reads better than Wool. I found myself admiring passages in Shift. Unlike in the middle story in Wool, the tension never sags in Shift.  The version of Wool I read was self-published, whereas Shift was published by Random House. So the improved writing could be due to the publishing house’s editing, or Hugh Howey might just have improved as a writer. He didn’t have to improve for readers to enjoy the tension and twists he creates from flawed characters living in a claustrophobic and rigid society.

One of the signs of a good writer is being able to get a reader to empathise with a bad guy. After reading Wool, I wanted to hate the bastards that created the silo. Senator Donald Keane was one of those bastards. At the beginning of Shift, he only cared about making himself look good in the eyes of the older senator, and he took drugs to suppress his concerns about what the shelter might be used for. Troy was also a bad guy, he used a manual to supress the people. But the author, Hugh Howey, gives both characters a narrative that is easy to sympathise with.  

I thoroughly recommend Shift, but please read Wool first.

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