After finishing Wool earlier this year, I couldn’t read Shift quickly enough. A follow up to Wool, and the middle novel of a trilogy, it is actually a prequel. Shift contains, within three stories now republished in one, the origin story of the silos. We learn about the construction of these claustrophobic repositories of humanity, their reason for existence, the people who populate them or seek to destroy them, and we follow the story of one of the most memorable characters of Wool. As the years pass by in shifts we catch up with this earlier novel and, by the time we do, the twists and shocks are piling up on one another, like the levels that stack one upon other through the buried silos. What all this means is that you mustn’t read Shift until you’ve read Wool. Minor spoilers for Wool are inevitable here.
In the first shift – Legacy – we are introduced to Donald Keene who lives in the US in the very near future. A young congressman, he is assigned a great task by the much older, and formidable, Senator Thurman. He is set to design and build a number of massive silos, dug into the earth. As the urgency of what he is doing grows, Donald becomes increasingly concerned that when the time comes, his wife must be by his side.
In parallel to this story set in a world we would recognise is another but this one is in a different place entirely. Troy is awoken for his first shift in the silos. Fed pills to forget, his job is to be head of IT for all of the silos. Once his shift is done, he will be put back to sleep until it is time for the next. The days of his shift are hard, not least because he must deal with increasing awareness and well as growing problems of unrest in the other silos. These other silos are not organised in shifts, intercepted with sleep, but with men and women living their lives, the generations passing, all ignorant. Confinement, a lack of answers, strict rules, can produce revolt and, should it get too bad, it’s the head of IT, or Troy, who has his finger on the big red button.
The other two shifts – Order and Pact – move between the different silos and characters within them. We follow Troy’s further shifts, learning more and more about his history as he himself starts to remember. We also watch closely the driving determination of Mission Jones, an individual in one of the other silos who wants to make a difference. In Pact we learn the truth about Wool‘s Solo in a story of extreme isolation and deprivation.
Throughout the three stories, now merged into one, characters attempt to understand the incomprehensible. Some have knowledge of the past and have the power that this gives them while so many others are ignorant, trying to live lives with relationships, responsibilities and hope. All the time, though, these people are being watched and observed like mice in a maze. Nevertheless, what Troy goes through in his position of relative power is just as harrowing as anything that Jones and Solo must stomach in their own struggles.
I loved Shift, perhaps even more than Wool. I was completely fascinated by the opening third. The normality of life in the United States in the 21st century, with Donald worrying about his wife who in turn is worried about his working relationship with an ex-girlfriend, contrasts brutally with the reasons for the silos’ construction and then the scenes set within the silos themselves, many years later, when the horror has been realised. In the final third, Howey has presented an intimately leisurely picture of Solo’s years – his fear and terror, his loneliness and loss and the sheer unpleasantness of what he has to endure – and it is all extremely poignant and, for me at least, quite frightening. I especially enjoyed the combination of this metallic, tubular and noisy world with the human stories. I was engrossed by the ways in which the apocalyptic vision of part 1 became the dystopian world of parts 2 and 3.
Reading Wool first is essential. The context is necessary in order to appreciate our increasing understanding of the silos and the people who created them. The clues were there in Wool but now we meet the people on the other side of the radio conversations. We learn that Juliette’s actions in Wool have history behind them and it is clear that they won’t end here.
The strengths of Wool continue in Shift. The claustrophobia of the silos has even increased, now that we know what’s outside. The structure of Wool and Shift are fragmented, purposefully so. I did have some trouble remembering what happened in which silo but this didn’t affect my read.
Shift is extremely difficult to put down. The wait until the final part of the trilogy – Dust – in October, will seem long.
Wool – Wool is also out in Paperback today (25 April)