Tim Kring is an ambitious creator. His NBC series Heroes had ordinary people discovering they had extraordinary abilities—flying, healing, increased strength when someone in the immediate vicinity was afraid—and that on top of a mysterious group called The Company, a maniacal superpowered supervillain, impending world-ending catastrophe, and carnies. The show’s first season stayed in sharp focus, telling character-based stories amid swirling chaos. But then Heroes got away from Kring. As his ambition grew, so did the show’s narrative complexity and character roster. Characters acted solely to service the convoluted plot, occasionally stepping out to remind viewers what had already happened, and what the stakes were. (It didn’t help that Kring doesn’t read, watch TV, or go out much because he’s so busy, as he explained in a recent A.V. Club interview.) On the runaway Heroes ambition-mobile, it was easy to forget such things.
Shift, the new alternative-history novel by Kring and novelist Dale Peck (Sprout), plays like Heroes sped up, and covers familiar territory. It’s 1963, and a secretive, possibly governmental organization called The Company (heh) is performing experiments with LSD. Humans only use 5 percent of their brain power, and The Company posits that the hallucinatory drug opens the “Gate Of Orpheus” and allows that percentage to increase substantially. Melchior, the hardscrabble spook who runs the operation, is elated to discover Chandler Forrestal—a candidate who, when on acid, gains heightened senses and agility, and can rummage through nearby minds and influence what they see, or even control them like marionettes. To accomplish vague nefarious deeds, Melchior keeps Forrestal in custody, playing both the American and Russian sides as he dodges the rogue efforts of a government agent who goes by the moniker BC.
Shift is strongest when it asks readers to be in discovery mode. The first third of the book is rich with compelling, nitty-gritty details that quickly bring its characters to life: Melchior curling his toes inside his desperately worn-out sandals; Naz, hired to seduce Forrestal and begin the experimentation, looking herself up and down in the mirror mid-deed. But when it comes time to address the questions Shift’s early chapters raise, the book swaps genuine mystery for confusing faux-science lectures and actions that painfully thrust the plot forward. At one point, BC discovers a ring—a clue—and wonders if Melchior intended for him to find it; a few chapters later, Melchior essentially says, “So when I left that ring there on purpose for BC to find…” Kring doesn’t give his audience much credit, nor does he have much faith in the characters he so diligently introduced. New ones come and go, serving various non-essential functions, but nevertheless earning names and cursory descriptions. Kring ultimately meets his ambition of connecting LSD to JFK—and for whatever reason, he sets the stage for a planned trilogy—but like Heroes, Shift is a bumpy ride.