Pajiba Book Club: Shift by Hugh Howey
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Pajiba Book Club Discussion: Shift by Hugh Howey

By lgesin | Book Reviews | August 7, 2013 | Comments ()


When I sat down to write this post and kick off this online discussion of Hugh Howey’s Shift, I kept returning to Stephen King’s comments in The Atlantic recently about the power of first lines:

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Shift opens with “Troy returned to the living and found himself inside a tomb.” I know when first I read that line I didn’t give it much thought. I’d waited an entire week to receive my copy of Shift; I read right through that sentence and continued with the second, consuming the entire book in a single weekend. Then I came across King’s comments by way of John Birmingham’s Cheeseburger Gothic blog, and I wondered if the books I enjoyed the most this year contained first lines that did indeed extend an enticing invitation to the reader.

I returned to Shift and reread that first line and rediscovered a powerful invitation.

Troy, a character not found in Wool, is somehow alive yet trapped in a tomb, a resting place for the dead. Not only is that a powerful dichotomy, what reader isn’t terrified of being trapped alive in a coffin? Movie makers have made millions playing on this fear, and the author of Shift makes good use of this primal reaction as a way to pull us back into the world of the Silos. Granted, most people who picked up this book read Wool, loved it, and want to know more about Juliette’s walk over the hill and Solo’s life in Silo 17. However, experience shows us that stories billed as prequels to tales we love can prove to be wretched, embarrassing ploys created with the sole purpose of making more money from a popular franchise.

Not so with this prequel.

If you’ve read the book, you know that Troy is a man trapped by circumstance; he’s not even really Troy, but Donald, a junior congressman with a political debt to a powerful man. The fulfillment of that debt will lead him to be separated forever from his wife and a lifetime spent watching the worlds of the Silos slowly self destruct. He also serves as “everyman”, a character whose motives we all understand and whose actions we eagerly follow in order to uncover what caused humankind to retreat into these underground bunkers.

The answer isn’t new or original: Old white men destroyed the world in reaction to nuclear threats from unstable foreign countries and in the process created technology that harms us way more than it helps us.

If Shift were merely that tale told once again, I doubt it would be so popular. I believe it’s the structure and community of the Silos that prompt so many people to read these books. The device of the old white men is secondary; it’s the people and the way they organize themselves within the silo with the mechanics at the bottom, the IT department running the show, and law enforcement either turning on citizens or turning on themselves that really make this story work. The forbidden nature of the “outside” and the fear it prompts could be a mirror of our own fear of the world outside our borders. I say this as a resident of the United States, a nation so focused on terror that, as recent revelations tell us, it violates the principles of privacy upon which it was founded. If our country were a silo I’d say we have a good chance of turning upon one another and ultimately ending this great experiment of over 200 years.

Perhaps I am too pessimistic in my analysis, or are we already headed down the road to self destruction? If not nuclear war and nanobots, will it be global warming and the melting of the ice caps? I’m interested to hear what other readers of the Silo series think about my hypothesis and whether it will be born out or refuted in the final installment, Dust, so please share your thoughts in the comments.

While you don’t have to be a Cannonballer to comment on this review, you can read all about the Cannonball Read here. Find more of lgesin’s writing on her blog,

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links
in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Nicko

    My biggest problem was, how was Donald not more angry that his best friend switched places, knowing what would happen, to marry his wife and have the kids that he never could. He was basically a pawn, being moved to be with Anna while his wife went with his best friend, who KNEW everything. I would have gone all medieval on their asses.

    And come on, after finding out they had kids and grand kids, he was all, good for them? no way, I would have blown that silo UP!

  • Stephen Nein

    I don't think Mick Webb knew the plot. Did Anna co-opt him, manipulate him? Certainly. But I think you grossly overestimate Donald's coherence following the attack. Donald had been subsisting on the forgetful drug for years, and then centuries after the shifts began. To get mad at people dead a century, whom lived their lives as happily as they could, is just immature. Donald got his revenge on Anna in the end. It would have been more satisfying to slash her neck maybe, but Donald made a rational and pragmatic choice that still brought a measure of justice.

  • Laura G

    I got the impression the friend at least knew something of what was required of those going to Silo 1 but forgot that Donald was essentially drugged for the entire book. His actions make more sense with that factored in (at least to me).

  • Laura G

    Donald is definitely a passive character but he does show some signs of rebellion, just not the type we might expect or show ourselves. I think the BF switched more because he realized life in Silo 1 totally sucked rather than to gain access to Donald's wife. Also, if Donald did blew up the silo, what would happen to the people in the other silos? Donald may be passive but he may also be thinking beyond himself.

  • Stephen Nein

    I think my greatest disappointment is Anna Thurman. Girl goes along with father's mad plan to end the world, just to be with ex-fiance again? Howey's written a great story and world, but Anna Thurman is like a dry wisdom tooth socket in the middle of a great set of teeth.

  • mswas

    Donald and Anna had been engaged? I had thought that they were just dating, and her actions didn't ring true for me either.

  • Laura G

    I don't think they were engaged, but Anna was definitely just a plot device. At first, I thought she was like a Bond girl, but then again she could be like Glenn Close in fatal attraction which would make her actions more believable. I could buy her following her father's crazy scheme but she's still a 2D character.

  • jennp421

    I think most of the characters Donald interacts with seem a bit 2D with only a few exceptions, but since it is told from Donald's perspective, it's not something I necessarily have a problem with. Donald doesn't have the whole picture, and he is very much wrapped up in his own world at different points of the book so he probably wouldn't be noticing that much about everyone else around him. It still would have been nice if Donald had seen her as anything other than a threat to his marriage.

  • mswas

    Interesting to hear Thurman ask Donald early on if he believed in aliens - testing the waters to see what story would be believable.

    In a way, I was disappointed that it was the "old white men who destroyed the world" storyline again, but Howey has a way of keeping my interest even when we know what is going to take place through the non-linear timeline.

  • Stephen Nein

    Did they destroy the world? We still don't have confirmation of that.

  • Scootsa1000

    So many crazy little hints that could take us either way. Blue sky and green grass. Thurman walking outside without any sort of protective gear. Some bodies turning to dust while others slowly rot...

    While I didn't love Shift as much as Wool, I'm looking forward to reading on until the end. Its kind of like watching Lost -- by the last few seasons, the show wasn't as good as it had been, but I had to know what the hell I had been watching for all of those years.

  • Laura G

    I thought that Thurman walking outside without a suit was a hint that the nanobots were programmed to specific individuals and react certain ways, i.e. if they came in contact with Thurman, they do nothing.

  • jennp421

    Is Donald reliable though? He is the only one that thinks he saw green and blue ... Is it there? Was it a computer glitch? I definitely want to know how Thurman was able to walk outside.

  • jennp421

    I think the line that resonated most with me is Victor's comment about how they never asked if humanity was worth saving ... at this point we don't know what the world outside looks like beyond the waste land that the silos are in, but did we actually destroy practically every other species just so we could survive? How are we worth it?

  • Guest

    I agree - that's a very powerful observation. Also, why only Americans? As far as I can tell, only the 50 silos in the Southeastern US exist... are no other cultures worth saving?

  • Stephen Nein

    The book leads me to believe that only Senator Thurman and his handful of other psychotics were crazy enough to dream their space ark up. There's also a question as to how far the silo's nanobot 'weather' extends - Donald/Troy is convinced the drone flew far enough out of the area to prove that the rest of the world has healed, or never endured the blight. If the rest of the world never endured the blight . . that leads to some rather big questions, like how could the rest of the world write off Atlanta for 250 years.

  • Laura G

    Sorry, Discus isn't cooperating so somehow that comment came across as a guest post!

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