Shift

November 15, 2013 at 9:15 pm (Reads) (, , )

ShiftShift by Hugh Howey

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Like its predecessor, Shift is made up of a handful of smaller stories, collected here in one omnibus edition.  It’s hard to judge them as individual stories, since they’re lumped together here, but it’s also easy to see how they divide the events that are in the book.  They feature a (mostly) consistent cast of characters to keep the overall story together, but they feature different spans of time and different events in the life of the silos.  Shift attempts to tell the story of what led up to Wool by also being partly told parallel to Wool.

Wool was originally an e-book that was then self-published based on its success, and then picked up by a major publisher for wider distribution.  Shift and Dust haven’t been scheduled for a release by a major publisher yet, but in the meantime, the self-published editions are available for purchase.  This is a good thing, since I don’t want to have to wait to finish reading the series, but it’s also a not-so-good thing, since these books usually get published without any serious editing.  There is at least one misuse of “it’s,” along with missing quotation marks or paragraphs that weren’t indented, that are evidence of this.  And once you start seeing those kinds of cracks, other cracks start to show up, too.

For one thing, Shift needs an editor.  Desperately.  When I was reading Wool I got a sense of Howey being a flowery sort of writer, prone to speaking in metaphors and attempting to make some higher meaning out of a normal turn of phrase.  When he got going with the action, it was less noticeable, but that feeling creeped in whenever he started talking about his characters outside of the events.  With Shift, there’s not as much action, meaning that there’s a lot more of his language getting in the way of the story.  Howey also seems intent on telling us as much as he possibly can about this world (down to describing the bowel movements of one character) and dragging out the story with characters who aren’t as deftly drawn and aren’t doing anything interesting.  Juliette from Wool was a great heroine, and quite believable, but neither Donald, Mission, or Jimmy felt like real people to me.  In fact, all of them had questionable motives or reactions to things that led me to think that these were some pretty dumb people to leave behind as the survivors of a major apocalypse.  These aren’t the folks I would want repopulating the world once I’m gone.

Donald is supposed to be a senator, but he has no ideas of his own, no desire to lead.  From his first day on the job (even before then), he takes orders from someone else, and that’s who he is for the rest of the book.  He’s supposed to be our protagonist, but he’s not sympathetic at all.  Mission is a better sympathetic character, but his part in the story is just to serve as a conduit to keep the events in Shift in line with what happened in Wool.  He doesn’t have much of a personality of his own, and he’s not really the character to lead the rest of the story.  Jimmy is supposed to be sixteen, but as soon as things start going to hell in his silo, he seems to turn into an infant.  In one particular scene, as he’s dealing with the changes, he’s looking at a book, and gets seriously freaked out over a picture of a bug because he thinks it’s real.  Is the world of Howey’s imagination such that they don’t even have books in this future?  I know that’s not the case, because even as Jimmy is freaking out over the bug, he remembers other books from when he was in school.  So what the heck?

Inconsistencies aside, the risk one takes when writing a prequel is filling in all the blanks that the reader has already filled.  In Wool, it’s enough to know that the world as we know it ended.  Whether it was through war, pride, or natural disaster was moot; we as the reader filled in what we wanted the cause to be, and it worked for us because we tied it to something that was important to us.  With Shift, Howey rewrites that history, making it clear where we only supposed before, and the cause may not work for everyone because it no longer relates to us personally.  This is why good horror only suggests monsters, instead of making them plain as day; what scares one person won’t scare another, so why not leave it up to the reader to fill in the details?  Ultimately, the reasons Howey gives for why the world has deteriorated don’t hold up well, and the story suffers because of it.  To his credit, he still focuses the heart of the story on life in the silos, but I think it would have been a better story if he had left the actual cause vague.

In addition, parts of Shift happen at the same time as parts of Wool, meaning that the reader already knows what’s going to happen in parts of the story, and in some cases, having read Wool is pretty necessary.  Knowing what’s to come removes the tension of the drama and turns the story into one of filling in the how of what we already know, so Shift winds up being an expositionary novel, which is made even stranger when you consider that this book tells us of events that occurred before Wool, during Wool, and prepares us for what’s to come in Dust.  It all suggests that the story will really pick up again with all the major players from the previous two books coming together to take us where the story goes.

Ultimately, Shift is a mess, made more so by Wool being such a good read.  All the things that made Wool interesting — the world-building, the characters, and the us-versus-them mentality of the residents of the silos — are lacking here, making Shift a worse book by comparison.  I’m planning on reading Dust to see if the story improves, but seeing as it’s another self-published effort, I’m not holding out high hopes for it.  I get the feeling that what made Wool such a good read was the use of a good editor.

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