Hugh Howey: Shift

Jan 06, 2015

Shift is a post-apocalyptic novel by Hugh Howey set over the next several centuries near Atlanta. The book itself contains chapters six to eight from total of nine in the Silo series. More about the creation of the book can be found on the wiki page.

I was really excited by the original short story (aka the prologue of the first book) which I’ve read back in the 5/2013 issue of XB-1 magazine. I’ve read the first novel Wool in September of 2014 on vacation and simply loved it. The world of siloed almost fully self-sufficient society, habits and rituals based on the necessity of living in the closed quarters and underground was mesmerizing as was the story and the fall of silo 18 that was unfolding. Naturally, I jumped on the next book quite soon.

Spoilers ahead

The second book is a prequel covering three centuries with tiny overlap at the end (timelines are provided). Howey provides the backstory of how the silos came to be. What was the nature of the apocalypse? Nanobots and not good Red Dwarf kind. OK I can live with that, it makes at least some sense. There’re fifty silos with only one somewhat cognisant of the backstory. People in this silo, strictly men, are living in six month shifts separated by years of nanobot-induced stasis monitoring the other silos and if necessary shutting them down (poor silo 10) and bombing afterwards (how the heck did silo 17 survive?).

Most of the book is following single person / multiple characters. The first timeline from before the silos centres on a new congressman Donald who participates on a project which he doesn’t know a lot about but is strong armed into it by a family friend and a colonel who had a hand in his campaign. As a part of the project, he has to work with the colonel’s daughter and ex-girlfriend who brings out insecurity in him and jealousy in his wife. On top of that as he gleans more and more information about the silos he deals with depression. His story is mixed with a story of an administrator of silo 1 on his first shift, Troy, who has troubles adjusting to his role and somehow remembers bits and pieces of the former life while all the others seem to be automatons counting down days left of their shifts.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Donald is Troy. He becomes more aware of the situation and is discovered by the colonel who is in charge of the project. He’s brought back from statis in a crisis when he’s expected to be useful based on a note by the chief designer of the silos, a psychologist, who commited suicide. Donald deals with losing his life, his wife (who lives in one of the other silos and marries his best friend there), the dull nature of shifts, people whose memories are practically erased while they monitor and control over forty underground societies which haven’t had any contact (except the heads of IT who are privy to at least some knowledge) with each other in centuries. He tries to solve the question of his usefulness in preventing the collapse of yet another silo and by machinations becomes the Shepherd. As the power corrupts him and he understands more and more about the origin of the project, its grandiosity and the ultimate goal, he, true to his idealistic nature, tries to fix it while losing himself.

Every other chapter in the second part of the book is written from the perspective of a lone survivor of the fall of silo 17, Solo. He appeared at the end of the first book as a man-child who lived in solitude of a collapsed silo, had seen it’s downturn, has access to more knowledge than most inhabitants of the silos and has nearly gone mad. Even though his state mental is understandable (if you believe he could survive) he’s a very annoying character and it’s gruelling work to get through his chapters. Shift gives you a load of such chapters.

Spoiler free zone below

Combination of dull survival of Solo and monotony of Donald’s shifts creates a time distortion and a strange rhytm of the book which doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. I fully understand the need to explain the backstory, I appreciate it, the style matches the narrative, but it’s definitely not the same type of book as the previous one was. The writing is excellent, the world described in the book is interesting (even though thinking too much about it makes some of the explanations a little bit questionable, but hey, it’s sci-fi), it makes sense to explain the backstory, but don’t go into it thinking it’s the next chapters of Wool. I’m looking forward to that in the very last book.

The quote below nicely echoes the main point of Phillip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect.

His discovery was that evil men arose from evil systems, and that any man had the potential to be perverted. Which was why some systems needed to come to an end.

Hugh Howey: Silo