We’re reading SHIFT by Hugh Howey

14 Jun

Terry Edge stands with his hands on his hips, cocks his head to one side, and raises his eyebrows.

Hugh Howey
Century, HB £12.99

Hugh Howey said that he wrote Wool, the first part of this series, in between what he thought were his real writing duties. So it not only by-passed the attention of those rather market-driven aims of traditional publishers but perhaps also Hugh’s own front-brain ambitions. Word-of-mouth approval saw Wool sell in bale-loads; film rights were bought by Ridley Scott; Century then published all five parts in a “proper” book version. Hugh put most of this down to “dumb luck”. All of which means the follow-up was always going to be tricky: now, he’d be writing under the weight of considerable expectation and anticipation.

Shift takes us right back to the beginning, to 2049, when powerful US Senators have decided to build vast underground silos to protect people against nano-weapon threats from Iran and North Korea. Or at least, that’s what the leaders of Silo 1 are told. In all the silos, for hundreds of years, people will live and die knowing nothing about the outside world except that it’s death to go there. But in Shift‘s parallel time thread set in 2110, in one rebellious silo, things start to go horribly wrong.

Shift is a much better-written book than Wool, which was produced in instalments rather than from an overall plan. Shift flows well and the action is based nicely in cause and effect. Setting it before the first book takes place was a brave move but it works. You soon forget about the far future of Wool but not enough to spoil your fun, seeing if and how the two stories will finally meet up.

There are some technical niggles. The explanation we get in Shift for why silos only have staircases instead of lifts is not convincing and even makes you a little suspicious that one of Howey’s reasons for going back to the start was to try to fill in some logic holes.

A more serious weakness is, as with Wool, the poor characterisation. The main character in Shift is a Senator involved in a secret project that is going to change millions of lives; he comes across as not very bright, easily led and obsessed with not betraying his wife for no clear narrative reason. Other characters do far too much eyebrow-lifting, standing as they do with their hands on their hips, cocking their heads to one side. There is also a great deal of bleating and blubbing, especially from the males. This is crude emotional shorthand, an aspirational gesture, and it won’t wash.

If Howey can let his characters breathe more freely and let them lead the plot from time to time, instead of just sheepishly following it, I think he’ll soon be producing not just highly readable and well-knitted novels like Shift but true classics of the genre. In the meantime, we can look forward to the movie. A good actor can, after all, lend a character depths that might not be apparent in the script.

Read Terry Edge’s story Big Dave’s In Love in Arc 1.2: Post human conditions, out now for screens, tablets, phones and in a collectible print edition.

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