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Impressive evocations of anxiety, claustrophobia

by Jessica Holland

The Observer

What if the long-term survival of the human race depended on thousands of Americans being relocated to a vast underground city, with giant TV screens broadcasting a desolate landscape outside and no one allowed to leave?

SHIFT, by Hugh Howey. Arrow, 2013, 608 pp., $20.99 (paperback)

That was the idea behind “Wool,” the series of short stories Hugh Howey began selling online for between 99 cents and $2.99 in 2011, and which overtook “Game of Thrones” last summer on online retailer Amazon’s list of sci-fi best-sellers. Print and film deals followed, as did this prequel, made up of three interweaving stories sold cheaply by Howey through Kindle Direct Publishing and then packaged and printed as a full-length novel. (In the U.K. they were picked up by the same imprint behind “Fifty Shades of Grey.”)

Wool’s hero was Juliette, a freedom-fighting mechanic born a hundred stories underground, and the strands of Shift’s split narrative take place earlier, explaining how her world came to be. We meet a 23rd-century courier whose graffiti-spattered “silo” is simmering with civil war; a Georgia congressman in the near future; an abandoned schoolboy whose story ends where Juliette’s begins; and Troy, who wakes up in 2110 without remembering who he is.

Science-fiction writing often gets a bad rep for privileging plot above all else, but here the charge sticks. Settings and characters are bland, particularly the women: we get a standard-issue femme fatale and two supportive and long-suffering wife figures. The plot itself offers some genuine surprises, but it’s overcomplicated.

What succeeds is the dread-inspiring imagery at the trilogy’s core (part three, “Dust,” is out in October). The pixelated screen that dominates “Wool” was inspired by Howey’s own experience of watching TV news.

In “Shift” there are characters who outrun their deaths by being cryogenically frozen, thawing out every 50 years to pop pills, watch videos, do some mind-numbing work and go back to sleep. “No one was truly awake,” Troy reflects. “No one was truly alive.”

Whether or not Howey believes in the details of his story, the anxiety, claustrophobia and lethargy he conjures are heartfelt and convincing.

“You don’t get the fire back in the box once you’ve unleashed it,” Howey writes, and while the mixed metaphor might make some break out in hives, it’s a sentiment that’s hard to deny. When technology changes things, there’s no going back.