Scott Tyler is an average 16-year-old loser. He’s gangly, geeky, and stays home alone playing video games on weekends. One night a friend invites him to hang out with the popular kids in a park. In a stupid attempt to prove his bravery to them, Scott decides to climb a pylon, even though the last kid who tried it got a testicle ripped off (yeah, eww). As he nears the top, Scott looks down, freaks out and loses his balance. As he falls he regrets his decision, and then suddenly finds himself lying on the ground, unharmed. A mysterious, beautiful girl at the park ‘arrests’ him, and explains that Scott just shifted – he altered reality by changing a decision that he made.
The girl – Aubrey – gives him the run-down on the world of shifting, and warns him about ARES, a government agency that tracks down, trains and regulates Shifters. Aubrey works for ARES, but she has her reservations about them, so she tells Scott to stay away. Scott, however, is thrilled at the prospect of being able to erase all his bad decisions. He also likes the idea of training with ARES and almost never seeing his family, because his parents fight pretty much constantly. He willingly gives himself up to ARES and begins their training programme. He proves himself to be a talented Shifter, but soon gets caught up in a dangerous conspiracy.
Shift is a short, fast-paced action adventure novel. Many reviewers have compared it to the movie The Butterfly Effect, which I really enjoyed. Shift is nothing like that movie. It doesn’t need to be, but a comparison is useful. From what I remember, The Butterfly Effect was fairly vague about how the main character was able to change his decisions. We knew what he did to make the change, but we weren’t told how and why it was possible. The focus was on the effects of his decisions and how he had to work through different scenarios until he found the ideal. Shift, on the other hand, goes into more detail about the science of shifting, and focuses less on the consequences of different decisions. The downfall is that it constantly trips up on its own technicalities, while lacking the aspect of the plot that I thought would be the most interesting.
Firstly, lets discuss the shifting. It’s written about in great detail (giving us some very clumsy infodumps), but remains confusing. To undo a decision, Shifters think about that decision, change it, and then find themselves in the altered present reality. They don’t go back in time, and they don’t relive the past. It’s more like they flick a switch from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ (or vice versa) and then instantly find themselves having to cope with the new reality. Aubrey explains that this has to do with quantum physics and changing reality by observing it. There is only one reality, but there are infinite potential realities, and I think Shifters make a potential reality the new reality whenever they shift. It’s all kind of vague and Scott never really understands it himself, but is reassured that “if anyone thought they understood quantum physics they really didn’t”. I don’t either, but I’m plagued by a feeling that this whole idea doesn’t quite work.
When you shift, you replace one reality with another, and then the old reality quickly fades from memory. So how do Shifters even remember shifting long enough to master the skill? Scott is inexplicably different in that he can remember the old reality, but according to the physics, there is only one reality, so how can he retain a memory of something that was technically never in existence? And as it turns out, a normal Shifter can remember it too, if you tell them what happened and they think hard about it.
I have more questions, but I’m so thoroughly confused about the specifics that I can’t really articulate myself properly so I’ll drop the issue. There are plenty of others for me to discuss, like the important details that sometimes don’t make sense, or get ignored when it’s convenient to do so.
Shifters can only change a decision once, which has some consequences for the plot but seems like an arbitrary rule. Shifting abilities normally manifest in childhood but when Shifters hit their twenties, they go through ‘entropy’ and the ability fades. Aubrey explains that this is because adults have differently shaped brains, and asks if Scott has “ever met an adult who could change their mind on anything”. The last bit is stupid and confusing – we all change our minds all the time, regardless of age. Shifting is about changing decisions like whether or not to make a phone call or buy a cup of coffee; it’s not about changing beliefs.
ARES apparently uses Shifters to alter the course of history and prevent terrible things from happening, like wars, assassinations or catastrophic accidents. In a ‘history’ class, a teacher tells his students about disasters that were averted, but how the hell does he know about them, when they didn’t actually happen? The teacher also tells his students that if they have influential parents, they should watch them closely in case they need to change their parents’ actions. However, the children at ARES are taken from their families and live at the agency, so if their parents do anything of importance, they’d be powerless to do anything about it.
We’re told that ARES can register and trace shifts to a specific location (although we’re not told how). However, Scott makes a crucial shift in the middle of story that ARES doesn’t even notice (if they did, things would go a lot less smoothly for him). At one point there’s a shift that makes absolutely no sense. Scott is typing an important document, and someone shifts and changes the words, allowing Scott to realise that there’s a cover-up going on. We’re told very clearly that your shifts can only affect your own decisions, but it’s not Scott who’s shifting, and only he can change the decision about what to type. For this single moment, shifting is suddenly just about altering reality, not about changing decisions.
There are more plot holes, but you get my point.
Then there’s the problem of the novel not fully exploring the consequences of your decisions. The blurb mentions “terrible unforeseen consequences” and Aubrey warns Scott about these as well, but really there’s only one truly bad effect that occurs early in the novel, and it’s easily remedied. Most shifts are actually beneficial (like Scott saving his own life). Also, very few shifts have wide-ranging consequences, because most of them are used to change very recent decisions. For example, a lot of shifting in the novel is for fighting – every time a fighter makes a move that doesn’t work for them, they shift and use a different tactic. Except for one shift that Scott makes early on, no one is going around changing old decisions that have dramatic and interesting consequences. I thought the novel would explore the idea of being able to undo the stupid, embarrassing things you do at school – wouldn’t every teenager want that power? And wouldn’t they use it without considering the consequences? But this isn’t really about the consequences of your decisions. It’s just a standard loser-turned-hero tale.
Scott is too perfect, embodying the old fantasy of a loser becoming a teen James Bond with superpowers. It’s a good fantasy, but Curran overdoes it. Early in the novel, Scott shifts to a reality in which he does kickboxing, so he changes from being a skinny, unfit boy into a muscular guy who can hold his own in a fight. When he starts training at ARES, it takes him about an hour to learn how to fight using his shifting skills, and soon after we’re told that he’s the best shifter the teacher has ever trained, even though the other students have been doing this for years. Which apparently isn’t all that surprising, because shifters who manifest at such a late age are particularly powerful. And yes, Scott turns out to be one of the greatest shifters ever. How convenient. He still says and does some stupid things for comic effect, but that’s intended to add some charm to his character. Is this just meant to be wish fulfilment for boys who feel like losers?
Aubrey certainly caters to that – she’s hot, feisty and smells like vanilla. There’s not much else to her character, but her looks and scent are all Scott needs to fall for her. She’s aloof and too cool for him, but you know she’ll be kissing him by the end.
The romance feels nothing like a typically awkward teen romance, and in fact both characters seem a lot older than they’re supposed to be. Aubrey is 15, but she earns a salary, lives in her own apartment, and has a relatively high-ranking position in a government agency, meaning that there are actually adults who have to take orders from her. She and Scott do things like interview potential recruits, investigate a rogue agent, and write the official report for a murder. At 15 and 16? I don’t think so.
Reading this, I felt like it belonged in a class of sub-standard fiction for teens, kind of like Goosebumps novels. The emphasis is on action, with some romance designed to appeal to both boys and girls. It’s pretty gross sometimes, and includes a monstrously fat bad guy who likes to eat brains. There’s quite a bit of humour, which didn’t always work for me, although the light tone won me over eventually. The sloppy details continued to bug me regardless. I read a lot of this sort of thing when I was a teenager – Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, R.L. Stine, and a bunch of other equally forgettable books. They’re ok if you don’t take them too seriously or think about them too hard. If you’re fine with that, then you might like Shift. But I wish hadn’t bothered.