Sometimes I wish I had the power to checkpoint my life, much like one can in many video games. I’d like to index certain times and be able to rewind to them and then make a different decision. For example, this morning I noticed that I was running low on brown sugar, and I hadn’t bought any more last time I bought groceries. It made me wish I could go back to the point where I was ordering groceries and have ordered brown sugar, just so I don’t have to buy any during the week. It’s time travel, but on a very mundane scale.
But those sorts of ideas—transforming the mundane into the extraordinary—often make for the best fiction. What I’m describing is very similar to Shifting, the central conceit of Shift. Shifters, however, don’t consciously relive the moments between the decision they change and the present. Reality itself just changes, and their memories of the old reality fade.
Despite my enthusiasm for the idea, I have to admit, this book didn’t excite me for the first little while. It’s probably Kim Curran’s writing style, or at the very least the voice of Scott Tyler, the protagonist. In the beginning he has very little to define him. He is, to put it mildly, the perfect candidate for a CW-sponsored television adaptation of the book: bland, white, slightly dumb white dude with a superpower being supported by a variety of more intelligent-yet-sidelined diverse minor characters.
Fortunately, the plot makes up for the protagonist’s shortcomings. See, Shift is also a murder mystery. A Shifter is killing former Shifters (for the power disappears as one ages into adulthood in a process known as entropy), and then Shifting reality to make the murders look like suicides. Scott, who has only recently discovered his powers and seems to be able to hold on to past realities more clearly than most, stumbles on to this mystery and the requisite conspiracy that any good secret government organization must have.
Curran delivers essentially another take on the “empower the adolescent through superpowers” theme. Scott feels like he has no voice, even in his own life. His younger sister’s achievements overshadows his own; his parents’ bickering blinds them to their son’s approach to adulthood and independence. Suddenly, he gets this power that literally lets him shape reality.
And then a government organization tells him he can’t use it unless he comes to work for them!
What sets Shift apart from many similar novels is how quickly Curran develops Scott’s story within the organization of ARES. He doesn’t spend much time in training. He doesn’t spend much time on the job before disasters strike and he finds himself in the thick of a fight for his life. Curran clearly has a story that she wants to tell and gets on with it, and the result is a lean, mean novel that doesn’t fail to entertain.
I’m not entirely convinced that adolescents would function in the bureaucratic cubicle farm that Curran portrays as Scott’s world when he’s stuck in the office. It seems a little far-fetched to me that even Shifter children could muster the maturity to work in such an environment (though, that’s overestimating the average maturity of a cubicle farmer). In general, it was difficult to remember that the majority of the characters in these novels are adolescents—Aubrey is only fourteen or fifteen. They’re hanging out in a night club, gambling and whatnot, and basically acting ten years older than they are.
In addition to these issues of characterization, the concept of Shifting itself could have been better-defined. Curran lays out the basic premise, cloaked in pseudo–quantum mechanics technobabble, well enough. The consequences, however, seem less certain. The actual mechanics are typically chalked up to “instinct”.
That being said, I have to praise the many and sundry inventive ways Curran works Shifting into Scott’s adventures. It’s more than just, “I regret action x, so let me fix it!” He figures out how to use Shifting to fight, to run, etc. The threat of entropy proves to be a major plot point and helps add to the sinister aura of ARES.
So Shift is far from perfect, but it hits enough of the targets to be worth a look if the main idea interests you. Neither the characters nor the plot are particularly special. As first novels go, though, it’s entertaining enough to show promise.