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Pajiba Book Club Discussion: Shift by Hugh Howey

By lgesin | Books | August 7, 2013 |

By lgesin | Books | August 7, 2013 |

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.)