Dust (Silo III) – Hugh Howey

Dust picks up where Shift left off. It is now clear that the status quo cannot be maintained, at least in Silo 18. Solo and Juliette are re-united as tragedy unfolds around them. The path to sustainable survival is uncertain. Meanwhile in Silo 1, Charlotte and Donny wrestle with trying to help Juliette over sporadic radio links and under constant threat.

Despite having some issues with pacing, this is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is nowhere near as ponderous as Shift since there is more actually happening to replace the overlong internal monologues. The narrative moves towards a conclusion that, if not a happy ending for all, at least gives hope for the future.

Shift (Silo II) – Hugh Howey

Like Wool, the second volume in the Silo series started as a set of linked novelettes. The narrative begins hundreds of years before the events in Wool, with Donald, a newly elected US Representative, being brought onto the Silo project. This is before the apocalyptic events leading to the occupation of the silos, and gives background on how it all came to be. Donald is an unwilling accomplice in the control of the subsidiary silos as he slowly realizes how he, and the entire complex, has been manipulated, with conspiracy nested inside conspiracy aimed at a mysterious goal. Another section deals with how Solo from Wool came to be alone in his dying silo for decades.

While Wool was, despite its dark setting, a story of hope and searching for a better future, Shift contains very few bright points. The parts about Solo and his solitary descent into quasi-madness are especially bleak. Donald struggles with his conscience, his desire for revenge, his realization that even knowing the truth is not going to make things better. While the mental battles were well written, I felt that this book could have been trimmed to make it a bit less of a slog at times.

Wool (Silo I) – Hugh Howey

Silo1WoolOriginally published as five linked novelettes, which is why this is also known as “Wool I-V”, this novel is set in a large, vertical underground habitat known as the Silo. The inhabitants are unaware of the outside world apart from the desolate and poisoned terrain they can see on cameras set at the top level of the Silo, which just breaches ground level. The worst crime in the Silo is talking about going outside. The punishment for this is being sent out for “cleaning”, which involves being put into a protective suit and cleaning grime off the lenses of the cameras. After a few minutes the suit fails and the criminal dies in the toxic atmosphere. However, even the cowed inhabitants of the Silo have questions. What happened outside? Who built the Silo? Why is the IT department so mysterious and secretive? Juliette, a woman from the “down deep” engineering levels follows her instincts and stumbles on secrets buried for generations.

Wool starts unassumingly. Silo society is working relatively harmoniously, the vertical design cleverly engineered to ensure social stratification and a lack of unity across departments. However Mr. Howey is not afraid to throw large wrenches in the works for the protagonist as she starts on her odyssey to find the truth. While the second half sometimes drags on a bit, this is a fine piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, and unlike that in some other such “set piece” oeuvres, the setting itself feels well-thought out and plausible.

4Rosbochs

Insurgent (Divergent II) – Veronica Roth

Divergent2InsurgentImmediately following the events in Divergent, Tris and Four escape the city to the Amity compound. However they must soon return in order to deal with the Erudite threat. The faction system is broken beyond repair, but what will come after?

After the promising start with Divergent, this book was a serious disappointment. The conceptual simplicity that worked in the first book turns against itself as the story becomes more complex. The many twists and turns seem put in there to create events for their own sake, without a clear direction to the story. While the parts where Tris has to confront her own fate are still gripping, they are lost in the white noise of a confused plot. It felt as if I was reading a badly written action TV series episode. Just as in Divergent, there are interesting themes of social structure and change in this book, but they too are lost in the noise.

On a side note, I was continually irritated at the slapdash way in which guns and tactics are portrayed. I’m not expecting Ms. Roth to be an expert on weaponry, but a little research would have gone a long way. Even a beta reader with a modicum of knowledge could have polished those bits and explained what words like bullet, clip and chamber actually mean. I also felt that a faction like Dauntless could perhaps be expected to have better tactics than a bunch of eight-year-olds attacking a tree fort.

2½Rosbochs

Divergent (Divergent I) – Veronica Roth

Divergent1DivergentIn a post-apocalyptic Chicago, humans are divided into five factions. Amity grows crops and pursues simple happiness and friendship. Candor resolves disputes and pursues honesty. Abnegation helps people, rules without seeking power, and pursues selflessness. Erudite pursues knowledge. Dauntless defends the city, keeps order and pursues bravery. Many have no faction, and are second class citizens. When a faction member turns sixteen he or she must choose a faction, with an aptitude test for guidance. Most stay with their own faction, but some transfer. Beatrice is a young Abnegation. After her test results show her to be Divergent, that is not showing aptitude for any faction and rather too independent-minded for her own good, she chooses Dauntless. Most of the book is about her initiation into Dauntless, on the surface a half-mad group of daredevils who believe in bravery before anything. But trouble is brewing among the factions. While the faction system has kept the peace for generations, tensions have inevitably grown, and are about to release.

Fair warning. This is young adult fiction and you have to squint quite a bit to see past the logic holes of the faction system (who keeps those trains running?) but Ms. Roth does not invite us to peer too deeply into the inner workings. In any case that would be missing the point, which is to delve into how humans cannot be so deeply constrained by a society. Who can say at sixteen what he will choose as a lifestyle and vocation for the rest of his life? The background of the factions, and especially of a new faction from the protagonist’s point of view, illustrate how difficult growing up can be if you don’t fit it.

Tris as a young protagonist is rather classic. A girl who finds her inner bravery. However the way she is written in the first person present is excellent, especially the moments of deep terror and fear. Ms. Roth has infused Beatrice with tangible and realistic personal growth.

While it rather light reading, I quite enjoyed this novel.

4Rosbochs

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.