Shift by Hugh Howey

Shift was an alright prequel for Hugh Howey’s first book in the Wool series, but was possibly a bit too muddled to be a genuinely good book. I found myself spending more time being confused about the overly complicated storyline or being anxious on behalf of the somewhat bland characters Howey developed instead of actually enjoying the book. While I was hoping that the series would improve from the first book to the second, it may have actually gotten worse.

And part of that is due to an unwelcome surprise at the beginning of the book. A large part of the blame for the end of the world was placed on the shoulders of Muslims. Scary Muslim terrorists in the Middle East were busy developing weapons of war that would go on to threaten humanity. They used our amazing life-saving medical advances against us. How evil! The irony that white American senators were the ones to actually push the button was somewhat lost in the process. 

To be honest, it just felt unnecessary to me. A few of the science fiction books I’ve read the last few years include too many references to Muslims being the bad guys. The assumption that Islamic terrorists will end the world feels overdone and racist. I’d like a little bit better than that. I would have enjoyed an unnamed threat more and this left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the series.

A question I also found myself asking a lot was how they maintained the silos in general, particularly maintaining communications between silos. How would they upkeep communication satellites when they can’t leave their underground bunkers? Were there physical lines between each silo and, if so, how would those be maintained? I feel like Howey missed a lot of chances to discuss the logistics of the silos. Focusing too much on plot and not enough on logistics was to the detriment of the overall story. I wanted to feel as if these massive underground bunkers were real instead of implausible. Donald’s involvement in their overall build was a great chance to go into detail about how the silos worked and Howey completely missed the chance. 

More than that, I also didn’t understand how Silo 1 specifically operated. In other silos, people are sent out yearly to perform cleanings. It’s a punishment for rebellious ideas, but it cleans the very important sensors outside of the silo. But Silo 1 doesn’t seem to have the same type of breeding program (“lottery system”) as other silos do. Each death has significance. People can’t easily be replaced by new life. How do they send someone out to clean the sensors?

Part of me feels like cleaning the sensors must be an illusion. It must not be necessary. Cleaning them might just be a way for the mayors of other silos to get rid of unwanted ideas. It’s a punishment and an exercise in power all at once. However, another part of me just thinks that Silo 1 has suits that actually work and people whose actual job is to go out and clean the sensors. Who knows? 

It’s hard to be sure about anything during this series especially when the things we do learn are somewhat confusing. The juxtaposition between the various storylines was particularly confusing for me. Normally I like books that switch back and forth from different perspectives, and even different timelines, but it was a bit confusing during Shift. The transitions weren’t as clean as I would like them to be. The storylines seemed to blend together too much and the characters weren’t as different as I’d like them to be.

Not to say they were completely the same. Perhaps it was the overly anxious and claustrophobic tones of Shift that caused each character to blend together too much. I found myself feeling depressed for Donald, Tony, and Jimmy even as I grew to care less and less about them individually. Learning about Jimmy’s endless loneliness was particularly painful. I can’t imagine a year alone. Can you imagine decades?

Other important philosophical questions were also lost in the overly complicated storyline. While usually I love asking myself big questions, all of the questions Shift made me ask started to feel redundant. For example, the book beats into the ground this whole concept of what is worth giving up in order to save humanity. Is it worth losing onto our morals to keep humanity alive? Is it worth killing off half of the world? Is it worth having to survive on a molotov cocktail of pills? Is it worth spending decades in a bunker? Is it worth losing our collective memory? Is it worth faking our entire history? Normally, I’d be all about questions like these, but after reading this book I just want to yawn. How often can we beat a dead horse? As often as we’d like, but it doesn’t sound great. 

I almost think that the series would be improved if everything had been faked. The world had never ended. The only toxic thing that kept everyone locked inside was the nuclear waste that had been poured overtop of the silos. Countries outside of the silos still existed and operated. They left the silos alone – a safeguard for if the world were ever in danger again. The silos would be something similar to a seed vault, a place to store seeds for the end of the world, except for the fact that they’re storing human lives just in case. 

The biggest plot twist could be that all these other plot twists were utterly unnecessary. I’d like that. Shift has too much going on for me to grasp. It’s the type of book that I think you have to read multiple times in order to truly understand. Maybe at the end of the series, I’ll take a break for a while and then go back and read it all again. I don’t know if it would be worth it, but I do feel like I’m missing something important. I will read the third book, Dust, because why not, but I don’t know if I’m optimistic enough to hope for better. I didn’t enjoy Shift as much as I would like to and this is really disappointing to me. It had good bones, but, once again, I need more flesh. 

Back of the Book Description (Amazon.com)

In 2007, the Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platforms that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs, and even self-propagate. In the same year, the CBS network re-aired a program about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event. At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind discovered the means for bringing about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened. This is the second volume in the New York Times best-selling Wool series.

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