Saturday, December 1, 2012

100 Books #116 - Hugh Howey's SECOND SHIFT: ORDER

After a reader has taken a few of the pummelings that Hugh Howey delivers so very, very well in his Wool/Silo series, one starts a new one with a certain caution that is not unlike the so-called Firefly Effect, I find. One knows going in that one is going to love at least one of the characters passionately, and that one is going to suffer horribly as a result. So the teeth clench, the abdominal muscles tighten and "guard" even as one flips past the title and copyright pages.

Such was my experience of starting, and reading, and finishing Second Shift: Order, the immediate sequel to First Shift: Legacy, and the middle of a prequel trilogy giving us a glimpse of how the world of Wool came to be. I was still reeling from Juliet and her fate when I took up First Shift; I was still recovering from the revelations and the anguish of First Shift when I took this one up.

And so I started reading with my dukes up, yes I did.

So the big questions now, for the purposes of a review* would be 1. Was this preparation on my part justified, i.e., did I wind up taking another pummeling as I'd expected and 2. Did said preparations help, or make it worse?

And the answers are... well, of course it's more complicated than that. Of course!

Second Shift is told from the points of view of two protagonists, whose stories unfold in alternating accounts of life in Silos One and 18. In Silo One, we rejoin Donald, an unwitting engineer of the world of the Silos whose journey from the world we readers know and down into that of the Silos we followed in First Shift -- and whose essential annoying nebbishness this reader totally failed to notice as the horrifying events of that novella unfolded, but whom she really wanted to slap quite often in this one and, retroactively, that one. For Donald is a guy that just lets things happen to him, who doesn't question what he's asked to do until it's too late, and who lets himself be manipulated into making this whole agonizing world possible. In First Shift, he designed the Silo system and seems to have just pretended to himself that it was some kind of intellectual exercise that might see use as a sort of rhetorical weapon in the hands of an authority figure into whose orbit he was drawn by a girl (of course), but never really thought we get used... even after it got built.... And now, in Second Shift, he is one of a small, elite cadre of dwellers in Silo One who are not living the true Silo life but are instead cryogenically sleeping through it, taking turns (Shifts) spending time animate and in charge of making sure all of the other Silos are functioning, technologically and sociologically. And of shutting down Silos that "break down" in one way or the other. Even though there are lots of people inside even the most dysfunctional Silo. And Donald is still pretty much a nebbish. Uh oh.

In tandem and in contrast to Donald in Silo One is young Mission Jones, a blue-clad Porter in Silo 18. He is a new member of what amounts to a guild: the people who haul stuff from one level to another. Computer parts, food, messages, dead bodies, whatever Silo dwellers need transported, the Porters, in singles or in pairs, do the hauling, up and down the endless stairs of 140 levels of underground society. It's an important job, and Mission is proud to do it, even though he knows he will eventually sacrifice his joints to the decades of toil. He also likes being a conduit for and a discoverer of knowledge and gossip, even though very little of what he learns is pleasant or has happy implications. Like the fact that some people on levels far below the Farms near the surface have decided to grow their own food. Or that some people are sneaking their own cargo up and down the levels, either on foot or by means of midnight pulley rigs. People, he finds, tend to resist being cogs in a well-designed survival machine. They don't like being parts that make up a whole. They want to be wholes themselves, independent and free. Which is dangerous in a society so closed and minutely designed and balanced that even an unauthorized glitch of a pregnancy guarantees the erring mother a sentence to cleaning once the child is born. Birthdays are deathdays, after all.

Unlike Donald, though, Mission is an active character in his own story, making decisions and doing things, taking risks and reaping rewards and punishments. The reader gets high on his agency and the mixture of hope and tragedy that make up Mission's very nature (nomen est omen, eh?). Howey gets his hooks into us with this character, oh yes he does. That bastard.

Ultimately, Second Shift is about the quest for forgetfulness. Those still alive who created this world do not want to have to think about, to remember what they did or why, and their efforts to keep everyone else docile and ignorant keep backfiring in tragic and yet horribly predictable ways. Failure and tragedy are always inevitable in this world, which Howey was at great and horribly successful pains in First Shift to show us could become our world with just a little more remote weaponry, a little more population pressure, a little more Tea Partying, and a little less fellow feeling.

But then, he reminds us, that no matter what happens to us, no matter what we do to ourselves, even if we're trapped in Silos below the ground in conditions that mimic, perhaps, those of a generational spaceship**, what we're packing away like so many grain seeds for the future are still people, and they are still capable, within their confined spaces, of great things, of acts of nobility and sacrifice, of lovingkindess and creativity, of demonstrating over and over again that they are worth saving, if those who put them there can just find a way to keep them alive without destroying what they're trying to preserve. If only.

A third volume in this series, Third Shift something, is due out next year. And you'd better believe I'm going to read it. And you'd better believe I'll have my dukes up.

*Though do I really write reviews, really? I'm more into the autobiographical experience of reading a book. But anyway.

**Which really is kind of what these Silos are, except the world they will someday colonize is the same planet they "left" when they went below its surface. Neat trick, that.

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