Shift by Hugh Howey (2011; read in 2016)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the second book in the Silo series, after Wool. In the first book, we were introduced to the people of the Silo, which we would learn at the very end is Silo 18 of 50. This book runs prior and then parallel to Wool, filling in the detail as to how mankind ended up in silos. It is the story of Donald, a freshman senator and his mentor, Thurman, an experience senator, a war hero and probably the most powerful man in America, president included. It is about 30 years in our future and nanomachines are being used by the rich and powerful to prolong their lives and health. They’re also being used by the military. And not just the American military—which is the real problem, right? ‘Cause if only Americans had them, the world would be safe. But I digress.
So anyway, Donald is wrangled into working on a super-secret project as an architect—which is the job he gave up to be a senator. His wife Helen is not super-happy about that, but she’s even less happy about Donald possibly working closely with senator Thurman’s daughter Anna, who’s all kinds of still stuck on Donald from their days in college together. She’s also all kinds of manipulative—not quite Glenn Close-in-Fatal Attraction manipulative—but still definite trouble. Of course Donald is a useless lump of XY chromosomes who constantly battles his libido, as expected.
Instead of just waiting for the Iranians to attack America with nanomachines, Thurman arranges for America to attack the entire world as well as itself in order to … get the upper hand? Force a situation that would not have happened if America hadn’t done it first? Not sure what the logic is there, but I’m almost certain that (A) neither was Thurman and (B) American political thought could easily encompass this solution as the only moral and right thing to do.
So, all that’s left of humanity is underground, the world is gone and America—the bits remaining in the 50 underground silos—is totally safe from Iranian nanomachines. Because there is no America left—I guess we showed them. Hoo-ah. Silo 1 is the only one that is aware of any of the other silos and is in charge of shepherding the other silos through the 500 years until the Earth’s surface is once again habitable. Silo 1 has women and children, but only in deep-freeze. The silo is run by men who work in 6-month shifts, cryo-sleeping for years to decades in between. Again, nanomachines to the rescue for keeping the bodies healthy. The other silos have a “normal” mix of men, women and children, population restricted of course to accommodate the reduced living space. See the citations below for more detail.
We learn how, over the centuries, various silos are lost—either going “dark” mysteriously (silo 40 and others, which are suspected of having gone rogue, despite the best efforts of silo 1 to keep them brainwashed through drugs in the water) or being shut down by silo 1 when the population is deemed incorrigibly unsavable. These are collapsed onto themselves by exploding the outer concrete shell of the silo inward, crushing all inhabitants. An unfortunate but necessary measure as deemed by Silo 1—all things serve the plan, the Pact!
In a separate thread, we learn how Solo—whom Juliette the engineer of Silo 18 met when she traveled to Silo 17 in Wool—grew up and survived 35 years in a silo alone. The book does a pretty good job of filling in detail and getting us right back to where we left the story in Wool. It feels fresh and it’s interesting and now we know a lot more about the situation than we did with the relatively tightly focused story in book 1.
At the end of the book, we are back in Silo 18 with Juliette and Lukas. Juliette’s plan to dig her way back to Solo and the kids in Silo 17 lies before her. Donald’s discovery that there is blue sky and green grass outside of the “silo zone” also tantalizes us with possibility. Is humanity really gone? Is the world really dead? Are the people suffering through life in the silos for absolutely nothing? Will Silo 1 lose its grip on the others? Was this grip always illusory? Will the madmen who perpetrated this grand waste of human endeavor win or lose? What does that even mean? What about Silo 40 and the other dark ones? Tune in next time for the finale in Dust.
Here we have Nick talking to his wife Helen about the possibility of the world coming to an end.
“‘What would you do if you thought it all might end?’ he asked his wife. ‘What would you do?’ ‘If what? You mean us? Oh, you mean life. Honey, did someone pass away? Tell me what’s going on.’ ‘No, not someone. Everyone. Everything.’”
I would do nothing. Maybe that’s the book that I need to write: about the triumph of those who know there is nothing to save. To counterbalance this endless parade of unquestioning survival at all costs, without a thought as to what is being saved.
“Donald was verging on the sad realization that humanity had been thrown to the brink of extinction by insane men in positions of power following one another, each thinking the others knew where they were going.”
Jesus, it’s about time someone had this thought. As I wrote above, I’ve read through most of the Silo series and all of Seveneves and this is the first time someone actually comes out with a thought in the direction of asking whether a race of beings so clearly horrible as mankind is even worth saving. To what end?
Another interesting bit is when they talk about the role of the Crow and the kind of society that works out here, on an entire planet, and inside more confined spaces.
“‘Yes,’ Rodny said. ‘Why do you think we hate our fathers? It’s because she makes us hate them. Gives us ideas to break free from them. But this won’t make it better.’”
Here’s where it could get interesting. The people best suited to that world are unquestioning drones. no agitation. no uprising. Smooth sailing. But to what purpose? to pile up millennia? to win? Does that scale to our world as well? Why not? It’s just as futile to try to change anything. We are trapped by our animal natures and the animals outnumber us vastly and are so easily swayed by those who bother to grasp for power. What’s the point of agitating against those idiots? They will be believed by the masses and carried to power despite your protestations. Why fight over this shitheap? Why stick around? It’s hard to come up with a good justification.
The idea that what we consider to be an ideal society on planet Earth, with a predilection for freedom, free choice, etc. is probably not best for survival in much more restricted conditions…it’s not necessarily a new one. Many others have made this argument and sought to apply it to general society, arguing that the sheep are to survive and like what they get while their betters organize things for survival. Even in Seveneves, we caught a taste of this in the discussion of the seven Eves as to which genetic characteristics would best serve mankind in space. Certainly not the heroic ones that were useful when there were frontiers to conquer. But if we breed out that which makes us individuals in order to increase survival, what have we actually helped survive? Is it still the same species? Is it still worth saving if it never achieves anything but survival? Or is the pace of advancement more stately and better for all, all around? These are not easy questions.
“He picked up his glass of water, studied it awhile. Or did he know a Cam? Where did he know that name from? There were bits of his past shrouded and hidden from him. There were things like the mark on his neck and the scar on his stomach that he couldn’t remember coming to be. Everyone had their share of these things, parts of their bygone days they couldn’t recall, but Mission more than most. Like his birthday. It drove him crazy that he couldn’t remember when his birthday was. What was so hard about that?”
This is a very nice coda to this section. The conceit being that it would take drugs in the water to make people forget. In point of fact, a well-managed media works just as well.
“Donald was reminded how each silo had a mayor for shaking hands and keeping up appearances, just as the world of before had presidents who came and went. Meanwhile, it was the men in the shadows who wielded the true power, those whose terms had no limits. That this silo operated by the same deceit should not be surprising; it was the only way such men knew how to run anything.”
“You and I have spent much of our adult lives scheming to save the world. Several adult lives, in fact. That deed now done, I ponder a different question, one that I fear I cannot answer and that we were never brave nor bold enough to pose. And so I ask you now, dear friend: was this world worth saving to begin with? Were we worth saving? This endeavor was launched with that great assumption taken for granted. Now I ask myself for the first time.”
OMG finally Don asks the question outright.
In this next conversation, between Donald, posing as Thurman and in charge of Silo 1, talking to Lukas, the shadow newly in charge of Silo 18, Donald helps the young man confirm his suspicions as to why the remnants of humanity are living in tin cans.
‘I think it was something we saw coming.’
Donald was impressed. He had a feeling this young man knew the answer and simply wanted confirmation.
‘That’s one possibility,’ he agreed. ‘Consider this …’ He thought how best to phrase it.
‘What if I told you that there were only fifty silos in all the world, and that we are in this infinitely small corner of it?’
On the monitor, Donald could practically watch the young man think, his readings oscillating up and down like the brain’s version of a heartbeat.
‘I would say that we were the only ones …’ A wild spike on the monitor. ‘I’d say we were the only ones who knew.’
‘Very good. And why might that be?’ Donald wished he had the jostling lines on the screen recorded. It was serene, watching another human being clutch after his vanishing sanity, his disappearing doubts.
‘It’s because … It’s not because we knew.’ There was a soft gasp on the other end of the line. ‘It’s because we did it.’
‘Yes,’ Donald said. ‘And now you know.’
Not only are they living in tin cans, but they’re being ruled over by the same men who made living in tin cans the only viable option for survival. Men whose philosophical vision is so limited that they can’t envision anything more complex than providing the ability for humans—read: Americans—to continue to draw breath. Who can’t imagine that a solution could be worse than the problem.
“His legs were good. Stronger, even, than when he was younger. The hard things got easier the more you did them. It didn’t make it any more fun to do the hard things, though. Solo wished they would just be easy the first time.”
That about sums it up, I think.
“[…] unless Drexel had been careless again with which rail he tied it to.”
This should be “[…] unless Drexel had been careless again to which rail he’d tied it.”
“[…]limb to limb,[…]”
This should be “[…]limb from limb,[…]”.