If you follow the world of e-publishing even a little bit you likely know the story of Hugh Howey. He’s one of these rare self-publishing ultra-success stories, an aspiring writer who decided to start releasing his stuff through Amazon’s Kindle Direct store. It caught on in a big way, and his most well-known book, the Wool omnibus, was selling 20,000-30,000 digital copies a month during its peak popularity in the summer of 2012. He was offered a seven-figure deal to put the book in print, but he apparently settled for something in the low six figures to maintain e-publishing rights. Now, if his social media is to believed, he mainly just sails around the world and posts photos to make the rest of us jealous. So, as much as I hate to admit it, Wool – the story that started it all – lives up to the hype.
It is, first and foremost, a brilliant and astonishing feat of world-building, a vibrant post-apocalyptic imagining where an unnamed catastrophe’s survivors live in a massive underground silo. Their society is rigidly stratified, with the bureaucrats and politicians on the upper levels and things getting decidedly more blue-collar as they descend the massive spiral staircase that is their society’s only mode of transport. You descend through the clinics and labs, through hydroponic chambers where their food is grown, through the IT department, through the Supply rooms, and down and down over a hundred floors until you reach Machinery, the guts of the silo where things are really kept running. It’s a mystery and a conspiracy thriller, it’s got action and more than a few elements of science fiction. Generally speaking, it’s a winner. My only substantial criticism is that it’s too long. Because it’s a collection of serialized novellas, they become a little unwieldy when consumed as a single work. There were places when I wanted more momentum, when instead the story would circle back to something only tangentially related to the main narrative (which was so good I wanted Howey to stick with it).
And that brings me to the fundamental problem with Shift, the second omnibus that serves as a prequel to Wool. Like the first collection, its introductory novella (titled “First Shift: Legacy”) starts off in strong fashion, telling us the story of how the silos came to be built and why people eventually needed to live in them. It focuses on Donald, a U.S. Senator with architect training; Thurman, an older Senator who’s Donald’s mentor and who initiates the silo project; and Anna, Thurman’s daughter with whom Donald had a college relationship. It’s tense stuff, especially as we come to realize that Thurman’s motives for creating the silos is sketchy at best. This narrative is intercut with a second and equally important narrative (which I mention only to make the point that it’s decidedly not a subplot; it’s complementary to the other narrative thread) that takes place in one of the silos years in the future. It’s here we meet Troy and learn about the shifts: six month periods when survivors are thawed out of a “deep freeze” lasting decades to do one of the jobs that keeps the silo running. Troy slowly comes to realize that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Unlike the other residents of the silo, he seems to have memories of the world outside and, in the course of his investigation . . .
SPOILERS ABOUND FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.
IF YOU EVER INTEND TO READ THIS BOOK
YOU MIGHT JUST WANT TO SKIP TO THE FINAL PARAGRAPH
OR GO LOOK AT FUNNY CAT PICTURES INSTEAD.
. . . we come to realize, along with Troy, that he is, in fact, Donald, and the whole silo operates on the necessity of its residents not knowing anything about the world before. “First Shift” ends with Troy/Donald trying to break free of the silo, only to be captured, given memory suppressing drugs, and cast back into the deep freeze by Thurman, who still runs things, Oz-like, from behind a metaphoric curtain. It’s powerful, nail-biting stuff, so for the first 157 pages, I was fully on board.
But then some of the old Wool omnibus malaise sets in. In the second installment, titled “Second Shift: Order,” Howey follows the pattern of the first, cutting back and forth between locations. We get more of Donald and his investigation into the true nature of the silo (which is complicated by the later fact that when he’s awoken from the deep freeze everyone thinks he’s Thurman because, you know, it’s been decades and everyone’s on memory suppressing drugs anyway), including why and how he got separated from his wife, whom he discovers made a life for herself in a different silo. It’s okay. But then we’re introduced to a second, not-so-complementary-this-time narrative about a character named Mission who in his own way is also trying to figure out how things came to be the way they are.
In the third installment (“Third Shift: Pact”) we get the Donald/Thurman thing, and intercut with that is the story of Jimmy, who later adopts the name of Solo when silo rebellion breaks out and he sequesters himself in a sort of panic room for years with only a cat named Shadow for company. It picks up some steam toward the end when we realize that this is leading up to the events that make up the main plot of Wool, but it’s really too little too late. I was heavily invested in the first installment, less in the second, and sort of bored with the whole thing by the third. It’s all resolutely good, really totally fine, but over 600 pages it starts to drag in the same way the Wool omnibus started to drag. I wanted momentum, but for the last hundred pages or so it was like, “Oh, I guess we have to go see what Donald is up to again.”
So, really, part of the issue might be the format. Because Howey wrote these to be read in bite-sized pieces, maybe it’s a mistake to plow through all three parts as a single experience. Maybe. But I’m not entirely sold on that idea, either. If it’s a satisfying story, everything should click together like a well-built Lego set, whether it’s a hundred pages or a thousand. If I had read “Third Shift: Pact” on its own, weeks after reading the other two installments, I don’t think I would’ve cared any more about any of the characters. The bigger issue might be that Howey just needs to streamline and know when enough is enough. In my review of Wool I said I really liked it but wished it had been 100 pages shorter. For Shift, my praise is less effusive and we can increase that number of expendable pages to at least 200.
Yo la Tengo – Popular Songs (2009)