Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Hugh Howey: Shift

I wound up reading Shift in ebook because I couldn't wait to see what happened next, or rather what happened first. Not my brightest move, since now I'm going to wind up feeling the delay before the third book even more acutely than I might if I'd spaced things out a bit.

In essence, Shift is a monster flashback to fill in the blanks in the world of Wool. I'm not sure about the idea. A lot of the power of Wool comes from the way that we only know what the characters know; as readers we're as baffled by the world as they are. In Shift much of that mystery is shuffled aside. In one sense, it clears the decks handily for the final book and what I am hoping will be a truly epic face-off between the survivors of Wool and the forces of utter lunacy which put them in the hole they're in. If Howey had had to sort out the background AND resolve the conflict all in one go, it could have been a royal mess, and now it's less likely to be. So there's that.

The book breaks cleanly into three blocks of time; in the first, the conspiracy to build the silos is interleaved with the first challenges for the command team in Silo 1; the second block sees Silo 1 wrestle with the uprising which formed part of the backstory for Wool, and the third interleaves the last days of Silo 17 with Silo 1's efforts to understand the events of Wool. 

Whether any of this is going to work depends on whether Howey's got another character with the sheer muscle of Juliette, one strong focal personality who can carry the narrative through its puzzles and give you someone to root for. That narrative hippopotamus falls on the shoulders of Donny, and - by design - it pretty much crushes him. That's more or less the point of the character, but precisely because he's written as a weak, overwhelmed fall guy, you're not exactly punching the sky at his successive triumphs over adversity.

It's a gripping and thought-provoking book, all the same. I read it in a couple of days. If the high concept of Wool was "What if you stuck a bunch of people in a bunker for generations?", the high concept of Shift is what if someone gave Stanley Milgram unlimited budgets and the real world power of life and death? The narrative of Shift takes a long look at the psychological tricks and stratagems which a bunch of absolute loons would have to resort to if they wanted to bury thousands of people in holes in the ground and leave them there indefinitely. As I said in my earlier post, insane levels of control would be needed to keep the starts quo intact in a completely sealed bunker for generation after generation. In Shift we get to see exactly how insane those measures would have to be; and how labyrinthine the controls on the controllers themselves would have to be. In a way, the most impressive aspect of Shift is how cleverly every aspect of the iron control of Wool's world is teased out and explained, every apparent irrationality part of a careful calculation about how crazy you need to be to cope with the fact that people are crazy. And just when you think it's all as nuts as it can be, the final act pulls off a clever swivel which gives a clearer idea of how breathtakingly crazy and amoral the whole plan really was. Given that the book opens on the notion that people engineered the destruction of human civilisation so that they could do it first and get the drop on everyone else, it takes some doing to come up with something that's worse….

Even though the whole of Shift is about filling in the huge blanks behind the big story, one of the more impressive things about it is the way that it closes with two big questions still open. The first is the purely personal cliffhanger of whether Silo 1 is going to get its way with all the other silos; the second is whether even Silo 1 knows as much as it thinks it does. Just as Wool was about one person finding out that everything she believed was a lie, Shift is about one person figuring out his role in a much bigger lie, and slowly realising that not only is he part of a system for lying to the other Silos, but that the controllers themselves have been deliberately misled and programmed. And that their programming may be every bit as misleading as the programming they've pushing out to the other silos.

I really wish I hadn't rushed into reading it. It's going to be frustrating waiting to see what Dust sorts out.

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