Friday, July 28, 2017

Fiction Review: Shift

Two years ago, I read and reviewed Wool by Hugh Howey, a post-apocalyptic novel that several of my friends had insisted I must read. They were right. Both my husband and I loved the unique novel, so even though I rarely read series, last month I read book 2, Shift, as my second Big Book Summer Challenge book. I was once again pulled into this intriguing world and compelling story. In fact, it was so compulsively readable that I’m going to read the third and final book, Dust, in August.

The full story behind this series only very slowly, gradually comes to light over the course of the three books, so I will tiptoe carefully around the plot, as I did in my review of Wool. Throughout that first novel, you never really know when it is taking place, only that it seems to be far in the future, many generations after some sort of apocalypse forced humans down into a huge underground silo. Shift does not pick up where Wool ended, but it does tell you exactly when the action is taking place. The narrative shifts back and forth between 2049 in Washington, DC, in a world that is pretty close to the one we live in today, and 2110, down inside a silo (but in a world that seems a bit different than the one depicted in Wool).

The novel begins by setting up its premise with two unusual – but absolutely true – events and discoveries that took place in 2007:
In 2007, the Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platforms that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs, and even self-propagate.

That same year, CBS re-aired a program about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event.

At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind had discovered the means to bring about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened.

Though those are the opening paragraphs of the novel, I looked them up, and they are real – both of those discoveries were indeed reported in 2007. You can read about CAN and its discovery of using nanobiotech for medical uses and about the use of propranolol to prevent PTSD (that one freaked me out since I take propranolol every night for my chronic illness to help keep my blood pressure and heart rate stable!). So, these real-life facts form the basis for this novel, though it’s not immediately apparent how they are relevant.

In the 2110 chapters, we are introduced to a character named Troy who has been in a cryogenically frozen state and has just been awakened for his “shift.” Waking like that is a difficult, even traumatic, process. Troy is immediately given bitter pills to take, with the implication that they will help him forget painful memories.

Back in 2049, Congressman Donald Keene is newly elected from Georgia, just starting his first term in Washington. He is called to the office of Senator Paul Thurman, along with other freshman congressional representatives. Most of the others are nervous to meet this oldest and most powerful Senator, but he is an old family friend of Donald’s. The meeting, however, is a strange one that ends with a very unusual assignment for Donald…and lots of questions.

All of that happens in just the first few pages of the novel – to tell any more of the plot would spoil all the wonderful twists and turns. I am also trying to avoid spoiling Wool, for those who have not yet read the first book. Throughout much of Shift, it is hard to see exactly how its action and characters and that of Wool connect, though the eagerness to see how the two plots come together provides some of suspense in this second novel. I ended up digging out our copy of Wool and re-reading some key parts at the end.

Like Wool, Shift is an intriguing – perhaps even mind-blowing – premise that only gradually becomes clear. Meanwhile, while you’re waiting for the underlying plot to be revealed (basically, how the silo in book 1 came to be), the characters and the action in both timelines pull you into the story. You become invested in these characters, wanting things to turn out OK for them, all the while knowing that is not likely. Shift contains all the same elements that made Wool so compelling: a unique post-apocalyptic story and setting, in-depth characters, human drama, interesting science, and plenty of suspense. It is an immersive, captivating novel, and those 500+ pages go by fast…and leave you wanting more. I can’t wait to get started on book 3, Dust, which my husband just finished reading.

570 pages, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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  1. This one sounds like it pulled you right in. It also sounds like it could be one that is scary, but a little too close to the truth!

    1. Still clearly in the realm of science fiction, Helen, but certainly a cautionary tale of how new scientific advances could potentially be misused. The series is just SO GOOD! Setting aside its sci fi/post-apocalyptic roots, Howey is an amazing writer and the relationships and interactions between characters are just as key to the story as the sci fi aspects.