“Shift” Hugh Howey

Shift is the sequel to Wool which I read earlier this year (post). In Wool we saw a few months in a post-apocalyptic world where what’s left of humanity is cooped up in a great underground complex (a silo) with a hidden rottenness somewhere at the centre of their society. When I wrote about that book I said it was clear that despite the reveals we hadn’t quite got to the heart of it yet, and Shift gets there.

It starts before, in a world that’s almost our own, a future only 50 or so years away. In the middle of a familiar world there’s a few technological advances that matter to the story – nanotech is a reality, cryogenics too & there are drugs that make you forget traumatic events. Through the book we mostly follow Donald Keene, who’s a newly elected Congressman pulled into a top secret project designing & building an underground bunker – he’s told it’s a safety feature to go next to some nuclear waste disposal facilities. His story is interspersed with other stories of events between this near future and the time of Wool. At the end of the book we see some of the events from the end of Wool from the other side – and they look different form this perspective. So I think we now know what’s rotten at the centre of this world, and book three is going to be what our protagonists from both Wool & Shift do about it.

Shift continues to have interestingly flawed characters. Front & centre is Donald – one of the characters later on says that “good men” like Donald should be in charge. But I don’t think that’s a particularly good description of Donald – he’s certainly not a bad man, but good would be stretching it. He’s very self-centred, on more than on occasion not looking past his own concerns to the wider picture and doing the wrong things because of this. He’s also prone to willful blindness, there are definitely hints even before he’s told what’s going on – and once he’s told he would rather forget than face it until it’s nearly too late. Rather do his job & think about the career opportunities, rather than face up to an unpleasant truth. Equally, he’s still someone I’d rather have running things than the people who were – he’s not a good man, he does things that are morally wrong & does selfish things, but he’s not ruthless and he still sees people as people instead of pieces on a board.

One of the themes running through the book is that if you set up a system and protocols for situations then people follow them – it ends up with the system in charge rather than an individual. This thing happens, do what it says here. And everyone does their little bit, acts like a cog in the machine, and even if no-one knows the whole plan it will still get done. Another thread running through both this book & the first one is that if your information stream is faulty/censored then so are all your conclusions. That’s rather obvious as a statement, but Howey shows us it working out over & over – he even does it to us. As I said above there’s a bit of overlap with the end of Wool, only this time we see a few conversations from the other side. Knowing what we know by the end of this book changes things.

Book 3 doesn’t come out till August – just need to remember about it nearer the time to get hold of it from the library! 🙂