Shift: Can’t wait to see what happens next!

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFirst Shift by Hugh Howey Shift by Hugh Howey

Editor’s note: Shift is an omnibus edition. Ruth is reviewing First Shift and Second Shift.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFirst Shift is part six in the Wool series by Hugh Howey, and is actually a prequel. If you have read the Wool books — don’t worry, no spoilers if you haven’t (also, why have you not read Wool yet? I’ve foisted it off on at least a dozen people and they all loved it) — you know that humanity has retreated to a meticulously planned underground silo to escape the radiation and toxin ravaged outside world. Since this is set on Earth, one must ask oneself, how did this happen? I mean, underground silos with the technology to support life for hundreds of years don’t just happen, they have to be planned. So, how do you plan something like this? Well, you’re about to find out.

Set in the near future, First Shift tells two intertwined stories. The first is the story of a United States Congressman, Donald, who is asked to work on a government project to store nuclear waste. Because of his architectural training, he is the perfect person for this job because he has the skills and the necessary top secret clearance. The second story is told from the point of view of Troy. Troy is an IT supervisor and is woken up from cryofreeze to work his first shift in the silo. We discover that the workers in the silo are all men. Their wives and children have been stored in cryosleep to keep from providing distractions. The male workers take it in turns to work in shifts of time where they are awake and then go back to cryosleep. These periods of wakefulness last weeks or months at a time, and were designed to guarantee that there would be sufficient trained staff to oversee the period of transition from a society used to living above ground to one underground. Troy starts having odd memories though, and as he starts trying to discover the source of the flashbacks, he realizes things are not as they seem.

One of the problems with prequels is that you already know a general picture of how things end up. Especially when told with a story that already has people living successfully in the silo, you know they end up in the silo. So, there isn’t as much dramatic tension throughout the story as in the original books, but the ending makes up for it. It will leave you in slack-jawed incredulity laced through with an absolute conviction of the utter correctness of the action to the characters. You just don’t expect to see someone actually play out their political philosophy to the logical conclusion. Howey excels at wrapping important political questions in lots of action and interesting — and at times Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now levels of creepy — characters.

Howey does a good job of letting this book serve not only as a prequel to the book, but letting it answer questions that arise out of the original omnibus. At times this is not handled as well as I could have hoped, as it sometimes comes off a little exposition heavy. As an aside — after reading the original series, I actually sat down and did the math to calculate the depth of the silo based off of various data points you get in the five books. I then posted this information on the author’s fan forum and asked what was wrong with the math because the answer I got seemed a bit ludicrous. Not only did other fans weigh in with their suppositions, Howey posted with the correct answer. Howey is one of the indie publishing success stories, and maybe because of that he seems to have a very strong connection to his fans, so at times I felt like he was trying to answer some of the questions that his more diehard fans had in a more public setting. But, there are also spoilery reasons for why he is doing some of this exposition that makes it necessary for where I think he is going in the next book. Oh yes, there is going to be a next book. And if what I think it is about is actually going to be what it is about, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

In Second Shift: Order, the seventh installment in the WOOL stories by Hugh Howey, we learn more of the details of how this society descended into its post-apocalyptic world. The story recounts the tale of an impending uprising in Silo 18. The action is recounted through two different characters. The first is Mission, a young porter in Silo 18, and the second is Donald, and IT supervisor in Silo 1, the main administrative silo. Between the two of them, you see both the personal and impersonal views of what a revolution means, how it starts, is maintained, and possibly succeeds or fails.

Howey is doing something that I think is fairly unusual in dystopian literature; he is taking time to fully explain how the apocalypse came about and how a society can be transitioned from an individualistic to a community-oriented one. There is a fairly sophisticated argument being worked out in the story regarding contemporary issues such as preventative war, human rights, individual liberties, and the tradeoff between security and freedom. There is also an even more important subtext about the role of secrecy in governing, both in regards to keeping secrets from the citizens en masse, and keeping secrets from other leaders, and possibly even from yourself.

Dystopia literature as a genre isn’t full of fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but there is something about focusing on the descent into autocracy, rather than the fight against it, that adds an extra level of somberness to the proceedings. Making the motivations of the antagonists clear and understandable adds a level of complexity to the story — these aren’t just mustache-twirling caricatures, but recognizable humans with plausible motivations.

I recommend this latest installment in the WOOL series. The sixth and seventh books in this series serve as prequels to the original WOOL omnibus. This prequel arc, which is called SHIFT, will be finished with the eighth story, due in 2013. Howey has said that if you want to wait until the eighth book comes out, you will be able to buy all three stories in an omnibus edition that is cheaper than buying them each individually. But I have never been good at waiting for excellent fiction. It’s worth the extra pennies to not have to wait.


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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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