I was a couple years late to the Wool party, and the upside is that I didn’t have to wait to read the next installments in Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga. I finished the Wool books in bed and immediately bought the Shift omnibus on my kindle.
The Shift omnibus includes books 6, 7 and 8 of the Silo Saga: First Shift, Second Shift and Third Shift respectively. The Shift books functions as a series of nested prequels to the Wool books. Like the last three books in the Wool series, each of the Shift is structured around parallel or related narratives. Where the Wool books organized themselves according to location—Silo 17 or Silo 18—the narrative threads of the Shift books are separate by both time and space.
The titles of the books refer to the shifts of a man working in Silo 1, which controls and monitors the other forty nine silos. The people of Silo 1 were cryogenically frozen. Most are scheduled to be thawed back to life periodically for shifts six months long apiece. The Shift books track the histories of Silos 17 and 18 through the watchful eyes of one of Silo 1’s shift workers.
The Shift books have many of the strengths of the Wool—specifically the Howey’s sparse writing and knack for pacing. That said, without the dazzling newness of the worldbuilding Howey’s weak spots are weaker here than they were in Wool. The characterization tends to be thin throughout. The interpersonal complications outlined in Silo 1 have none of the heft or sharpness of life in the other silos, and the character whose shifts we follow is not fully realized enough to carry the books. The other figures in Silo 1 are sketched really just in relation to him, which leaves them one-note and flat. Given where Wool left us, Shift makes the mistake of squandering all that momentum instead of harnessing it.
What I knew going into Hugh Howey’s Wool series was this: it was well-regarded science fiction, and it was hailed as one of the see-look-self-published-authors-can-totally-be-successful data points. Having read books 1 through 5 of Wool, which together comprise the first half of Howey’s Silo Saga, I can say the following: Wool is science fiction as its excellent atmospheric best and of-course-this-series-took-off-it’s-fucking-awesome.
Honestly, it’s hard to say more than that without spoiling some of the plot. The Wool series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the surface of the Earth is toxic; life can no longer survive above ground. We are introduced to a human population living in a vast, complicated silo. Life in the silo is regimented and tightly controlled—it has to be in order for the silo to function. Birth control and application procedures for both marriage and pregnancy prevent over population. The people we meet have been living in the claustrophobic confines of the silos for generations; they literally know nothing of the outside world except that it is deathly toxic. But why were the silos built? How did their first occupants get in their? These mysteries unravel over the course of the Wool series.
Wool deals with themes such as the collective value (or not) of honesty, of the way individual needs sometimes conflict with collective needs, and the mental toll of improbable survival. It’s set in a peculiar and minutely build future world, and Howey uses multiple viewpoint characters across the books to elaborate on different parts of the world through different lenses. His style, which is spare and precise and a little slow, fits the atmosphere of the book’s setting perfectly. The books, read together, follow a single narrative which gains speed and focus around book 3; the first two installments are related but stand alone well, but the subsequent three novellas are intricately tied together and really should be read as pieces of a whole. Again, the worldbuilding is fantastic, and the plot is riveting and dredges up a host of interesting philosophical questions. The only real complaints I have about the text are that the characters are somewhat flat throughout, existing mostly to push the plot forward instead of the other way around. If you’re not a slobbering fan of deep characterization like I am, though, this may not bother you at all.