Imaginative fiction tends to run in currents, with different fashions rising and falling all the time. Post-apocalyptic fantasy has been one of the more tenacious variants, often spicing up the blasted landscape with some zombies and/or mutants to pester the few humans the remain alive. Metro 2033, the debut novel by Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, is definitely part of this tradition, but it finds a certain appeal through the introduction of some original elements and atmospheres into the mix.
The title of the book refers to its setting: the Moscow Metro system in the year 2033, after mankind has nearly wiped itself out in a nuclear war. It seems that over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cold War fears haven’t left the world yet, perhaps with good reason. The Muscovite survivors of this contemporary holocaust have taken refuge in the subway system, which doubles as a nuclear shelter. People have settled into the various stations, which are now small villages, each with its own government, atmosphere, rules, and political ideals.
Thrown into it all is Artyom, a young man who ends up travelling through a large part of the Metro system to save it from invasion by the aptly named Dark Ones, mutated creatures who live on the surface, a place now deadly to humans in a plethora of ways. On his way, he meets a broad range of people, some friendly, some hostile, but all products of the different ways in which people deal with crisis and a harsh life. Most inspiring to Artyom are the cool-headed stalkers, seasoned explorers and warriors who alone dare to travel to the surface in search of rare supplies.
Throughout the novel, an atmosphere of dread and suspense is maintained, and it doesn’t indulge in bouts of unnecessary violence and gore, though some of the hostile forces Artyom encounters on his journey are quite gruesome. However, the plot itself is not totally satisfying, jumping from place to place without any clear goal for the protagonist beyond survival and ’saving his home’. At the very end, this seems to be twisted around in many ways in a very sudden, enigmatic and dreamlike ending that I’m not yet sure what to make of.
Character descriptions aren’t always satisfying or clear either; it’s as if Artyom just isn’t really interested in what goes on around him or in other people’s heads. He never makes any friends apart from his stepfather, whom he leaves at the start of the story, nor does he have many constant companions. Even more disappointing was the glaring absence of women in any role that could be considered more than minor. Apparently Artyom wasn’t interested in them either.
The true protagonist of the book, though, is the Metro itself. This is the area where the novel shines and shows its true potential. As a setting for adventures, the gritty subway network with its little village stations, political factions (communists, capitalists, fascists, independents, mutants, cults), and oppressive atmosphere is perfect. No surprise then, that a video game has already been made, that roughly retells the story of this novel in the form of a first person shooter. Even better though would be more games and stories, focusing on the potential of (interactively) exploring the Metro and its political and social peculiarities. The recent terrorist attacks on Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations have reminded us that the Metro system is more than just a network of transit, it is also in a very real sense the veins of a city, a place with a special meaning.
Weak points aside then, Metro 2033 is a very entertaining novel, containing enough action and suspense to please during a casual read, but also a lot of inspiration in terms of setting. After finishing the book, it isn’t so much the story that sticks in your memory, but the geography and setting of the Metro, and what more stories could be told there.