I seem to be in the habit of reading sequels at the moment. Sequels which don’t match up to their (brilliant) predecessors. Sadly, Shift by Hugh Howey continues the trend. As with Buzz, it’s not so much that Shift is a bad book, it’s more that Wool was such a high quality novel, that with my expectations ramped to the max Shift could only disappoint.
Some of my issues with the book are more to do with the history of the trilogy’s genesis, and are perhaps therefore a little unfair. As you probably know if you’ve read this far, Wool is an Internet publishing success story. It was published in small instalments. The physical novel was a group of these bound together. You could sort of tell, but it didn’t matter. Shift is much the same. It contains three essentially separate (but linked) stories. Binding them together into a single novel implies a coherence that I would suggest isn’t there. The overall narrative is disjointed and it jars as you move from one section to the next. This issue is easily overlooked and mostly forgiveable.
More difficult to see past are, for want of a better term, the world-building issues. Much of the majesty of Wool is that the hermetically sealed silo is a wholly credible dystopian system. I stated in my review of Wool that I found it less convincing when we learn there are more silos and more so when Jules gets outside. These problems are compounded in Shift.
The opening story is effectively a genesis story, and it’s an interesting one, but knowing there are fifty silos running alongside one another dilutes the impact of the idea (It’s and Alien Vs Aliens phenomenon). Moreover, having the construction of the silos laid out destroys their mystery. It’s no longer a huge can randomly buried in the ground with a fascinating society living within. In Wool the silo just ‘IS’. Now we learn it’s built to a plan. A plan one can’t help pick holes in and question whether it could really happen. I can’t help thinking, probably not. Suddenly the whole premise looks shaky and the brilliance of what has gone before is undermined.
The whodunit aspects of Wool were exemplary. The claustrophobic setting, taut prose and mysterious society lent weight to what was genuinely innovative storytelling. In Shift the narrative is more mundane. A dystopian vision and its unhappy denizens railing against the machine. The three stories, though different in nature still amount to roughly the same thing: Who watches the watchmen? It’s not an unimportant question, but it’s a question often asked and one which has been answered better elsewhere.
All this is a rather bleak appraisal of a book that really isn’t bad at all. It’s impossible to know what I would have made of Shift if I hadn’t previously read Wool (it’s worth pointing out here that although this is a prequel it cannot be read before Wool without diminishing both books). The story of the Silos’ inception is interesting, as is their inter-relationships. More interesting is the idea that some of the architects of the catastrophe may have been so unwittingly. ‘How could you not know?’ a character asks himself, but it is perhaps human nature to ignore the wider implications of their actions. Obeying orders makes us comfortable. This idea reflects back onto many of history’s worst moments.
There is intrigue and skulduggery aplenty. On reading Shift, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that humanity’s default setting is ‘destroy’. Characterisation is strong, greatly adding to the novel’s readability. Whilst I have my reservations about this book, Howey’s creation is still a valuable addition to the dystopian canon. I don’t think this book enhances Wool’s reputation, but it certainly holds the reader’s attention. This is not a perfect follow up, but for those who want to spend more time in Howey’s bleak vision of the future, it still has much to recommend.