Moscow, 2033: it is a generation since a cataclysmic nuclear and biological war wiped out the overwhelming majority of the planet's population. A few thousand survivors huddle in the sprawling network of stations and tunnels which make up the city's Metro, the remnants of the human race having fractured into tribal groups, defined by ethnicity, ideology or creed. These fragile communities, each controlling no more than a handful of derelict stations, maintain an uneasy détente with their human neighbours, while constantly mindful of more sinister threats which now lurk in the subterranean darkness. Only a few hardy souls, the "stalkers," dare venture aboveground, where they run the risk of encountering the mutated denizens of the ruined metropolis. Artyom has grown up at VDNKh, on the fringes of the inhabited Metro, a station which is about to be overrun by the "dark ones" who dwell on the surface. One day he meets one of the itinerant stalkers, named Hunter, who is seeking to learn more about these creatures and their intentions. Taking Artyom into his confidence, he entrusts him with a mission: to convey a vital message to the fabled Polis, at the very heart of the Metro, a message which may well prove vital to the survival of what remains of humanity.
The Moscow Metro is best known outside Russia for the ostentatious décor of some of its older stations, which are plastered with paintings, friezes, sculptures and mosaics in a range of styles from pseudo-Art Nouveau to Stalinist Gothic. These people's palaces, far below the surface, are quite deservedly on every tourist itinerary of the Russian capital. I was therefore expecting Metro 2033 to make full use of this surreal, phantasmagorical setting: something similar, perhaps, to a post-Soviet Neverwhere. Instead, with its backdrop of nuclear Armageddon and its gritty, prosaic focus on the day-to-day realities of survival in what is a glorified fallout shelter, it evokes, at least for a "Western" reader, the action movies and graphic novels of the 1980s. Glukhovsky succeeds admirably in portraying a claustrophobic world in which humans eke out a precarious existence by raising livestock and mushrooms on their own waste products. These luckless survivors of the war are so accustomed to living in the glare of red emergency lighting that they face permanent blindness if caught on the surface in daylight. Not without good reason, one of the characters comments on humanity's resemblance to Wells's Morlocks.
However, the main threat to the inhabitants of the Metro is not starvation, or even physical violence, but something intangible, indescribable and essentially psychological in nature (Glukhovsky is heavily indebted to the Strugatskiis, a debt acknowledged by the appropriation of "stalkers"). Metro 2033 is unrelentingly bleak in its dismal picture of the physical and moral collapse of post-apocalyptic humanity, with little of the black humour or satirical bite which often enlivens such tales. The despairing tone is best exemplified by comments from Artyom's adopted father:
"How long will you last on mushrooms, multivitamins and pork? Surrender, Homo sapiens! You are no longer the king of nature! You've been dethroned! No, you don't have to die instantly, nobody will insist on that. Crawl a little more in agony, choking on your own excrement. . . . But know this, Homo sapiens: you are obsolete!" (p. 37)
Several survivors of the catastrophe go further, arguing that humanity's fallen state is punishment for its hubristic pursuit of technological innovation. This belief is put most starkly by the high priest of a sect of degenerate cannibals that Artyom encounters on his journey through the Metro:
"You and all your machines will be damned! You have devalued both life and death . . . Do you consider me a madman? But the true madmen are you, your fathers and children! Wasn't it really a perilous madness to try and subjugate the whole earth to yourselves, throw a bridle on nature and cause it to cramp and convulse?" (p. 395)
Glukhovsky manages to create a detailed, believable and atmospheric, if not strikingly original, post-apocalyptic setting. The problem is that having set the stage, he can't quite conjure up a drama to fill it. Artyom is dispatched on a quest, but neither he nor the reader are given any hint as to the content of the message he must deliver, nor the expected outcome of its delivery. It is only once Artyom arrives at Polis, roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel, that the narrative begins to progress meaningfully. Until then, Artyom's meandering journey from VDNKh to Polis is interspersed by conversations around campfires in which urban myths are recounted in an effort to flesh out the history and background of the Metro: Glukhovsky seems determined to never show what he can instead tell. Narrative is replaced by episodic encounters with largely interchangeable characters, each of whom only really serves as an ideological sounding-board. Thus, Artyom encounters not only the aforementioned cannibal fanatics, but also the free-marketeering Hansa, the Stalinist Red Liners, the neo-fascist Fourth Reich, born-again Christians and renegade Trotskyists. However, none of these ideologies are treated with sufficient gravity to make this a work of ideas (religious belief, in particular, is treated with the sophistication of a precocious sixth-former), nor does there appear to be any sustained attempt at satire. Furthermore, the Trotskyists, fascists, stalkers, traders, and wanderers whom Artyom meets on his journey are all essentially variations on two archetypes: the bluff, taciturn survivalist and the enigmatic, wise, but possibly crazed old seer (remarkably, Metro 2033 features not one named, speaking, female character). Therefore, much of the novel is frustratingly slow, punctuated only by superficial encounters with one-dimensional ideological caricatures, after which Artyom continues on his journey as before. The most that can be said is that Artyom's reticence to either commit to or engage with the ideologues he encounters seems characteristic of the novel's bleak post-Soviet nihilism.
This unwillingness to indicate where the narrative is headed is, nonetheless, accompanied by numerous heavy-handed hints that Artyom possesses a unique destiny. Indeed, he himself comes to believe that this destiny protects him from harm as long as he continues on his allotted path, while those around him suffer misfortune:
. . . should he deviate from his goal or step off his path, fate would immediately abandon him and its invisible shield, which currently safeguarded Artyom from being killed, would directly crumble into pieces, and the thread of Ariadne that he was so carefully following would break, and he would be left face-to-face with a turbulent reality that had been infuriated with his impudent intrusions into the chaotic substance of reality . . . (p. 256)
Rarely are narrative conventions laid bare quite so brazenly and "plot armour" rendered quite so visible. Fortunately, the conclusion of Metro 2033, which is effectively condensed into the final twenty pages or so, does go some way to explaining and justifying the novel's idiosyncrasies. The finale, while rendered via a conveniently revelatory data-dump and something of an SF cliché in itself, is reasonably well handled and makes some sense both of Artyom's destiny and the ideological straw-men who make up most of the rest of the cast. However, it remains debatable whether the long, frustratingly disjointed, journey is worth the pay-off.
While most of the faults of Metro 2033 are Glukhovsky's own responsibility, he has not been best served by his British publisher. The translation, while functional, shows a bit of a tin-ear for English idiom and slang, as well as a tendency to mangle the past tense (we repeatedly get "lighted" for "lit," "shined" for "shone" etc.), making some passages read fairly clumsily. Confusingly, the translation of Russian station names into English is also inconsistent from page to page. This problem is compounded by the fact that, while the inside cover displays a beautifully designed map of the Metro c.2033 (complete with "here be fascists," "here be Trotskyists," etc.), several of the station names have been either transposed or left off entirely, apparently during the translation process. For a novel which requires you to be able to follow the protagonist's journey step-by-step, and understand the reasoning behind the routes he chooses, this is a major handicap. I eventually gave up and resorted to using a contemporary Metro map to track Artyom's progress.
It is easy to see the appeal of this novel in Russia, and to identify its intended audience: if you were reading it on the Moscow Metro itself, on the daily commute, its dramatic impact would undoubtedly increase ten-fold. Therefore it shouldn't be too surprising that it has already sold 400,000 copies and that the sequel was Russia's best-selling fiction title in 2009. However, its appeal beyond the domestic market may be limited; many of its concerns seem dated and, for a foreign readership, it doesn't really capitalize on its unique setting. However, its biggest flaw is its author's inability to create a functioning narrative to fill his created world. Metro 2033 would make a sound sourcebook for an atmospheric RPG, or provide the perfect setting for a first-person shoot-'em up (indeed, this translation is being released to coincide with the release of its Xbox 360 adaptation). It might even serve as the rough-draft for a straight-to-DVD action movie for which, apparently, negotiations are underway. Bizarrely, the one thing Metro 2033 doesn't often feel like is a novel.
Mike Froggatt has spent more hours on the Moscow Metro than is really healthy.