Shift Omnibus by Hugh Howey
|Book Name:||Shift Omnibus|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Science Fiction / Dystopia|
|Release Date:||January 28, 2013|
This review contains spoilers for Wool.
If you haven’t read Hugh Howey’s Wool, stop here and go do so immediately. You should do this first because Wool is one of the best science fiction books to come out in recent memory, and second because it’s very much a big-reveal kind of book—one I can’t help but spoil by reviewing its follow-up. Go. Go read.
And now that the only people in the room have all read Wool, we can get started.
Shift Omnibus describes the events leading up to Wool. Like its predecessor, it’s a collection of novellas that Howey released serially. Unlike its predecessor, it only contains three of them. They’re longer, they’re more complex in terms of narrative structure, and they’re each more self-contained, so much so that it makes sense to review them separately first and then talk about how they work as a whole.
First Shift tells us two stories. The first covers the life of a man named Donald, a freshman U.S. congressman in 2054 who becomes the unwilling and unwitting architect of the silos. The second is of a man named Troy who’s struggling to finish his first shift in Silo 1, the one silo to rule them all. The two stories come together (a bit predictably) partway through, but for the most part they’re distinct. Donald’s sections read like a contemporary techno-thriller, while Troy’s read more like Wool—claustrophobic science fiction focused on what it’s like to live in perpetual waiting. I enjoyed the mashup of genres, though they’re very different stories and the mix may not please everyone. The themes covered include many of those touched on in Wool—individuality and collectivism, rebellion, crowd psychology—as well as depression and the engineering challenges involved in creating the silos. At its best, the book also explores the lives and struggles of the engineers themselves.
Its weaknesses were a little more apparent to me than those of Wool (which I absolutely loved). It starts slow, and the politics it describes haven’t changed that much between 2014 and 2054, which feels a bit disappointing considering how much they changed between 1974 and 2014. Maybe most importantly, the book leaves some pretty glaring gender issues painfully omitted. Silo 1 has no women awake in it because of some very old-fashioned ideas on the part of the silo’s creators. But there’s no discussion whatsoever of homosexuality and no discussion of the decision to leave the men awake and the women sleeping, rather than vice versa. In a book that talks openly and frequently about how the population of Silo 1 was socially engineered, that was disappointing to me.
Still, there are plenty of exciting twists and turns. First Shift kept my brain churning and asking questions, and the characters were interesting, if not quite up to the level of those in Wool.
Second Shift lost me a bit. It continues Donald’s story on one track while telling the story of a porter named Mission in another. The two stories take place decades apart, which wasn’t clear to me until I was nearly to the end of the novella. If I’d read this closer to the time I’d read Wool, that might not have been a problem, but coming back to this universe after a year, I could’ve used a refresher on which silos had done what and when.
Second Shift dwells more heavily on questions of philosophy than the first and the third do. On the one hand, the philosophy is interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Mission work his way through the events that throw his silo into upheaval. Part of what made Wool so good, however, was the mystery around what was going on outside the silo, and without that you end up with a drier, if still tasty, flavor of science fiction. There’s another great twist halfway through Second Shift and after that the pace really picks up, the philosophy feels more strongly grounded in the characters’ emotions, and the book recaptures some of the magic Howey’s capable of. The end also throws another brilliant twist at you that will make you very glad you have Third Shift right at your fingertips. But you have to get there first.
In Third Shift, we finally catch up to the events of Wool. Half the story continues what has become Donald’s quest for knowledge, while the other follows Solo, one of Wool’s most interesting minor characters. Third Shift was by far the best of the three novellas to me. Solo’s story was moving and deeply rendered, and it recaptured the suffocating survival-horror atmosphere of Wool while punctuating it with moments of tenderness and deep thought. And Shadow. Oh, Shadow. Maybe I’m just sentimental, but Shadow yanked at my heartstrings something fierce. The conspiracies and mysteries also take off, and the prose, which felt uneven through the first two novellas, starts to sparkle again. On top of that, the end is pulse-pounding and perfect.
Overall, the book didn’t quite reach Wool’s level of quality, but part of that is because a book like Wool only comes along rarely, even for a talented writer like Howey. In Wool, keeping the focus away from the monsters outside the silo let the story focus on the monsters within the silo, who were the truly chilling ones. Seeing the bogeymen brought into the light in Shift was a little disappointing.
On the other hand, the book covers an extraordinary sweep of time, and when I got to the end and looked back over the change wrought in Donald from beginning to end, I found it a truly remarkable accomplishment. Mission and Solo were also moving and enjoyable vehicles into new silo stories, and there was plenty of philosophical depth to keep me pondering as I read.
The Shift Omnibus has got a great ending, and there’s plenty to sink your teeth into over a weekend. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s a good ride. Maybe most importantly, it’ll catch your heart and trouble your mind and leave you feeling a bit anxious about the world. And really, what more do we ask for in our science fiction?
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In 2014, I’ll be wading into the river of indie sci-fi and fantasy, panning for gold. If you’ve read a great indie book, one that’s every bit as good as mainstream titles, and you think I should cover it, let us know in the comments.