I want to start by pointing out that Hugh Howey’s Silo Series has been very successful, and for good reason. A lot of what he’s doing is exceptionally fine writing. I also want to say that the initial portion of the epic (Wool), is one of my favorite pieces of fiction, ever. That’s precisely why I’m being so harsh in calling this Storytelling-Done-Wrong. When I read “Wool” it was the first time I’d ever truly identified with a main character. Juliette, an ordinary, working-class person will probably always be my very favorite lead character. I read “Wool” with the sort of fascination that I’ve had for under a dozen novels in the course of a lifetime full of reading. It was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever read.
So, when I got to “Shift” I had high expectations. There are probably lots of things in this installment that are well-done, and plenty of things that work from a technical standpoint. Unfortunately, I had to apply a sort of brute force to my reading efforts just to get halfway through it. The biggest problem, I think, comes from the fact that “Shift” covers a lot of time frames (which overlap “Wool”) and jumps between characters a lot. Sections of the story will begin with a year and location, but without any indication how those times and places relate to the people and events in “Wool” and, in fact, with little indication how the times-places-events relate to the other times-places-events in “Shift” itself. Now, if the story had been accompanied by some kind of color-coded flow chart (or, if I had the physical books instead of e-books so I could have made my own handy references between them) it might have worked out. But I didn’t have those things. And I don’t think good fiction should need them. If the events and relationships are going to be that convoluted, then the chapters shouldn’t just start with a date, or a place. It should start with “Year: x-number of years before Big Event You’re Familiar With” and if it’s going jump a lot from location to location, that needs to be spelled out. It’s one thing to write a story about the Napoleonic Wars and start a chapter with “Waterloo” – but it’s another to start a chapter with “Space Depot 497.” We can tie Waterloo and its significance to knowledge we’ve (hopefully) had for years. But if all I know about Space Depot 497 is whatever the author made up for the previous story, then a reminder is in order. (Space Depot 497: Wentworth’s last posting.)
I hate to sound like a lazy reader and a disloyal one-time fan but I’m not going to take notes alongside my Kindle to follow a story. If a prequel-or-sequel is not going to happen in a linear fashion, then it’s only fair to throw in signposts to give the reader a fighting chance. I loved that first installment. I really wanted to like the rest of the series. But I think authors need to take a moment to consider things like “maybe my readers won’t memorize the minutia as if there’s a test on this later” and “maybe my readers lead busy enough lives that they’ll read these installments months apart” – because, despite how much I enjoyed “Wool” I could hardly follow the relevant details in “Shift.” By the time I realized that I needed to go back to “Wool” and figure out who-lived-where-and-when so that I could compare the two, I was fed up and disinterested. Maybe they were meant to be read in a faster, one-right-after-the-other-fashion and I should blame myself for my confusion. Maybe I just wanted to read about Juliette and was disappointed when I didn’t see her. But I’m certain that the unexplained chapter openings (with years and locations unlinked to the first story) were part of my frustration. I’d see them and think “but I didn’t memorize all the dates, I didn’t memorize who lives in which-number-of-silo” and get more and more annoyed. To a small (but meaningful) degree, I think part of the problem is the e-book format. In the past, when I felt like I’d missed a significant point, I’d flip back through the book to remind myself of years and places. I don’t do that with e-books. “Flipping” takes too long and the interface is too fiddly for much coherent back-tracking. I adore my Kindle and I think electronic books are fabulous, but I think it’s time that authors consider “will my readers needs to page back to understand some of this?” and “will they even bother if they’re reading this electronically?” And if the answers are yes and no, respectively, then there needs to be some meaningful revision or signposts.