Shift by Hugh Howey
It took me far too long to get onto this book. I really liked Wool, the first book in an apocalyptic trilogy by Hugh Howey, a prolific writer of self-published literature who hit it big with Wool. Shift is a prequel, focusing on a different set of characters to its predecessor, revealing the deceptively complex and ambiguous circumstances which led to the end of the world.
Shift follows several different narratives, in a variety of locations and time periods. The main storyline follows Donald, a US Congressman who is caught up in the creation of the Silos which held the final vestiges of humanity by the time of Wool, not long before the apocalypse falls. Then we have Troy, the bitterly lonely man who leads Silo One, which co-ordinates the other Silos. We have Mission, a young porter in Silo 18 from whom we see the story of the first uprising. Finally, and most movingly, we have the story of Solo, the man who was trapped in the ruins of Silo 17, utterly alone for decades, until the arrival of Juliette during the events of Wool.
Where Wool was a book all about claustrophobia, with its protagonists in a consistent state of ignorance, staggering from revelation to revelation without really understanding the big picture, Shift is about pulling back the curtain and showing the reader exactly what it is that has been going on. It’s an interesting approach, and Howey has succeeded in creating that rare setting which is still interesting even when its mysteries are revealed. It also serves the practical point of ensuring that the final instalment, Dust, won’t be burdened with exposition and mystery solving, and can instead forward the story in a meaningful and character focused way. Actually, in some ways, I preferred the story of Shift to Wool’s. Everything is on a grander scale, and I preferred this to the more nitty-gritty approach of Wool, which contained slightly too many descriptions of engineering. Shift focuses on the big picture, but still does really well on zooming in for some great character moments and quieter moments of individual reflection. Shift is possibly a tad long, and the Donald and Troy sections in particular contain a few parts which feel slightly too much like padding, but nonetheless Shift is a tighter book than Wool, and tells a damn good story.
Howey’s evokes the atmosphere in the Silo’s brilliantly, although he’s still not great when it comes to action scenes. When the intended outcome is confusion and chaos, it works, but when we need slightly more clarity they can be terribly hard to follow. There may be slightly too much melancholy musing, but it never reaches the levels of self-indulgence that some writers allow themselves.
Donald is a solid central protagonist, but the supporting cast never quite lifts off. Wool had the same problem, and it’s clear that characterisation is not Howey’s strongest suite. There’s a dearth of good female characters, which is odd considering how great Juliette was in Wool. The best character is definitely Solo, who was intriguing in his appearance in Wool but becomes a desperately moving and tragic figure in Shift.
Prequels are so rarely worthwhile, but happily Shift is one of the exceptions. It’s a great prequel and a wonderful story in its own right. As with Wool, its a little rough around the edges, but the ambition and intelligence is there, and I’d recommend it to any fan of dystopian sci-fi.