I can only start this write-up with a crie de cour that can in no way matches that which this book represents; it's the very likely most anguished thing I've ever read. ARGH! Even so, I tore through it hungrily, just as I did with Howey's earlier Wool work, stunned at its artistry, its elegance, its near-perfection, and yes its anguish. And while it breaks the reader's heart, it hits all the beats that Jorge Luis Borges named as the principles for writing great literature:the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time and the double.
First Shift - Legacy is a prequel to the Wool stories, but really shouldn't be read before them, for a good bit of the enjoyment to be had from First Shift is the explanation for how the confined and close silo-dwelling world of the Wool stories came to be; interesting in itself, sure (for reasons I'll get into below), but so much richer for knowing what's coming and having devoted thought and imagination to wondering about the much-later outcomes and consequences one has seen in those stories.
Once again, Howey has taken up some excellent guiding metaphors and ideas: the politician who performs the ribbon cutting who symbolically takes credit (and responsibility) for a project he had little to do with creating or completing is compelling enough, the exploration of the Ozian fraud behind the curtain as a portrait of the true nature of leadership even more so, but even better is the notion that some outcomes may be completely predictable but not even remotely preventable; all one can do is grit the teeth, accept the truth, and prepare. This is true for the story -- we already know some kind of apocalypse has occurred to create the world of Wool, for instance, and so we know as we take up First Shift that its characters are as doomed as their cities and their civilization. We're ready for a tale of disaster, and we get it, but there's so much more to it than that.
First Shift is a novel with a lot of subtext, and a lot of secrets, but it isn't particularly interested in keeping them. The clues are not hidden, and, as I said, the outcome is already known and inevitable. But even the smaller, subtler mysteries are not posed as puzzles; the outcome of the reader sussing out the truth about the two main characters is predictable but not even remotely preventable; Howey just gritted his teeth, accepted the truth, and prepared, by making their stories so compelling, so emotionally resonant, so completely captivating that the reader doesn't care that the novel's secrets aren't really secrets at all.
I find this utterly masterful.
Instead of secrets, the novel concerns itself with its status as a message in the bottle, a horribly felt apology from the past to the future, a plea for forgiveness for all of the mistakes of history, made to people who will live with their consequences but will never understand them. This is an eerie and heartbreaking thing to be reading in mid-2012 when apocalyptic fears stink up the very air we're breathing and the future looks Idiocratically grim to so many of us.
So this should be a horrible read that I would not recommend to anyone; I should ban it as harmful to the mental health of my readers. But instead, I urge you to take up the Wool stories first, and then have a look at this and see what Howey has managed to do despite the horror and bleakness, because his characters' humanity, compassion, strength, weakness and, yes, humility are very much the kinds of things we need constantly to be reminded of.
It's the bleakest message of hope, and the most hopeful message of doom you could ever, ever find in the bewildering market of fiction that is out there crying for your attention. Because above all, this book is alive.