There are all kinds of post-apocalyptic fiction, even if we focus only on worlds after nuclear war. While many stories describe biological and social changes after the nuclear holocaust, the entire sub-genre is bracketed by survival simulations that focus on individuals (Alas, Babylon, One Second After and others) on one end, and epic worldbuilding exercises (Shannara series, A Canticle of Leibowitz) on the other. Between these boundaries lies a vast array of stories of all kinds and forms. Metro 2033 by Dimitry Glukhovsky appears to be trying to cover all its bases within the genre, and it’s failing spectacularly. And still it manages to be a very entertaining book that I’m glad to have read.
The story is a retelling of the Odyssey: the main protagonist, Artyom, must traverse the Moscow metro from one station to another, to deliver a message. The metro contains the last vestiges of human civilization in the Moscow area. All stations, which range from deserted dumps for undesirables, through city-states, to parts of larger organizations, have their own character, political leanings and assorted dangers and opportunities, which Atryom has to deal with. In a true Odyssey fashion, he is blown from one station to the next by a series of improbable events, until he realizes that he must have been chosen by a higher power to execute a mission he is not aware of. About two thirds into the novel, once Artyom delivers his message, the plot takes a turn where he must fight his way through the Moscow surface, reenter the metro and make his way back to his home station to defeat a mutant enemy that threatens his entire world.
During his travels, Artyom meets an assortment of colorful characters, each with a very well fleshed out back story. From neo-Nazis to Communists (Trotskyists, to be exact), from rat trainers to the reincarnation of Gengis Khan, and from crazed cannibals to Jehovah Witnesses, the metro has everything. And other than trading goods and services for ammunition, everyone seems to be spending the time sitting by the fire and telling stories.
It’s these stories that make the book work. Glukhovsky puts a lot of thought and effort to flesh them out and make them really entertaining. For example, at one point the protagonist reads a book claiming that Lenin had raised demons to help him take over the world, and that the communist star is in fact a pentagram. In another part of the book, a side character spins a second-hand story about a real magician at another station. The crazed cannibals have their own world creation myth that takes up a substantial part of an entire chapter. The list goes on and on, and the inventiveness of the author is amazing.
On the other hand, the book takes a hit on worldbuilding and character development. While the author had been trying to reach all possible elements of the sub-genre, he stretched himself too thinly. Artyom is not a likeable character. He is not someone you’d dislike, either. He is simply transparent. He’s less a protagonist than a proxy for the reader, to see Glukhovsky’s world through his eyes. As such, I didn’t really care if he died at the end of the book; I knew the story would end either way. As a result, I never grew emotionally attached to him; never feared for his life even when he was about to be hanged. I only grew slightly upset at one occasion: when the storyline took a turn, and Artyom transformed from a scared kid who somehow escapes certain death situations to a capable man, ready and willing to shoot his way out. That transformation came way too quickly for my taste.
The second problem I’ve had with the book was worldbuilding and the related suspension of disbelief. Based on the book’s timeline, the events take place some 15 years after the nuclear war (Artyom seems to be in his late teens, and he was born on the surface). Within those 15 years, civilization seems to have regressed into tribal warfare in the metro. In addition, the surface now sports an entirely new ecosystem, with completely new and viable animals, and a supposedly new intelligent species. While this works well as a setting for the myriad of short stories and mythologies that fill the book, I found the world on its own to be far detached from my expectations of a slower, more gradual change.
Neither the protagonist nor the world of Metro 2033 are important, however. They are just a vehicle that caries numerous personal stories of the metro’s occupants, their beliefs, conflicts and challenges. Ultimately, it is a very humanistic book where the characters that matter seldom cross to another chapter. Thanks to this, Metro 2033 remained on my mind for a long time I had finished reading it. To me, this book is a modern classic.