Title: Metro 2033
Author: Dmitry Glukhovsky (translated by Natasha Randall)
Published: 2005 (Russia); March 28, 2010 (U.S.)
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Metro 2033
Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ Features some swearing, but mostly a read for young adults due to themes. The book is not nearly as violent as the video game series, but the situations are equally tense and twisted. Also contains some dense passages that may be difficult to navigate for younger readers.
Artyom is a member of the last vestige of the human race. Following World War III, residents of Moscow have taken refuge from the radioactive and chemically defiled landscape in the labyrinthine caverns of the Moscow subway system. While horrific beasts patrol the lands, humanity lives on in utter darkness below ground, scraping together a meager life from mushrooms, rat meat, and a handful of farm animals taken underground. Artyom was just a small boy when the world ended. Now 20, his life and countless others have been spent almost entirely underground in the various stations of the Metro.
After a mysterious man named Hunter blackmails Artyom and hands him a mission allegedly vital for the survival of the human race, Artyom embarks upon an odyssey that thrusts him through several unforeseen and extremely dangerous adventures.
This book was the inspiration for the well-received Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4) andMetro: Last Light (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4) video games.
I confess I am guilty of over-confidence in books that have been translated into different forms of media. As my thinking goes, there must be something great in the story if someone thought it worthy of the time and effort to put it in a new form. Generally, I’ve found this to be a good formula for finding fun reading material. Most often, the stories turn out to be engaging and fast-paced, if not particularly deep.
As an unapologetic PlayStation loyalist, I’ve not had the opportunity to play Metro 2033, which apparently follows the plot of this novel very closely (with considerably more shooting), but after playing Metro: Last Light on PS3, I felt strongly that I was looking at only a small part of a complex larger picture, and I wanted to know more about this world, in which the entire human race lives underground.
In this respect, I was not wrong. Glukhovsky has essentially created an entire miniaturized society to fill the Moscow metro system, filled with haves and have-nots, Neo-Nazis, socialists, religious zealots, soldiers, civilians, farmers, prostitutes, monsters, ghosts, and many things in between. The book is a remarkable piece of world-building, and for many readers, this may be enough to satisfy.
Unfortunately for myself, I am typically not this kind of reader, and though I patiently worked my way through the book, I largely felt that the narrative was missing something to pull it all together and drive the story forward.
I’m not sure how to go about further discussion without getting into spoilers, so for anyone who would like to tune out now, here is my rating: 2.5/5 stars. In world building, I give it a 5. In the context of a compelling narrative, I’ll give it a 2. Obviously, I’m weighting one of those much more strongly than the other.
** SPOILERS AHEAD **
Artyom’s journey begins in a poor station unfortunately situated near to a hive of so-called “dark ones,” a race of human-like monsters who are feared for their ability to drive humans mad and to their death. After a man Artyom doesn’t really know convinces Artyom to confess a deep secret, he uses the secret to blackmail Artyom into undertaking a dangerous mission. Artyom must journey through the metro system to Polis in order to deliver a message that may save the human race.
Each subsequent chapter begins essentially a new “episode,” as Artyom finds his way through one unlikely predicament after another. One episode includes a broken pipe through which voices are heard that hypnotize the listener. In another Artyom is captured by the “Fourth Reich” and sentenced to death. In another Artyom is sold into a year of servitude cleaning shit pots in the wealthy area of the metro. In another Artyom is forced to go above-ground and meet the horrors there in order to rescue an artifact for religious zealots. In another, Artyom encounters a group of cannibals who worship “the great worm” who truly carved out the metro tunnels.
The tale begins to follow a predictable pattern of predicament-solution-escape, and at times Artyom makes it out alive through no ingenuity of his own. At times, the circumstances of Artyom’s survival feel just a little too convenient, or the manner of his rescue arrives from such a sharp left turn that it feels cheap. Not much connects the episodes apart from the fact that Artyom exists in them. New characters fade in and out, but few have any importance except to provide Artyom, through discussion, new theories on the purpose of his adventure, and of life in general.
The pacing of the story is a problem throughout, but on this point I hesitate to criticize too heavily, noting that the original work was written in Russian. In any translation, you have to wonder if some of the heart, humor, and wordplay that may have helped to make the story readable has been lost in the retelling. The book seems to have been a remarkable success in its native language, so it is possible some aspect of it was unfortunately left behind, despite a faithful translation.
Artyom ultimately succeeds in delivering his secret message to the proper recipient. It turns out there is an intact missile facility dating back to before the apocalypse, and if they can find a man who knows how to fire the missiles, they may be able to destroy the hive of the “dark ones” and cease their incursions. If such a solution seems overly simplistic at first blush, it probably is. There are a variety of threats both above-ground and below in this world, and while the “dark ones” may be the scariest to the inhabitants of the Metro, they do not especially feel that way to the reader. The “dark ones” seem to have the ability to create insanity and fear of impending doom in their human counterparts, but they still feel like only an abstract threat, in that they make few incursions to the Metro. There are far more terrifying creatures that Artyom encounters throughout his adventures, including demonic librarians, wolf-like creatures in the city, an amorphous blob deep underground that convinces people to sacrifice themselves to it, and humans themselves.
At various times during his journey, Artyom gethers the vague sense that he is on the precipice of greater understanding, of the world, of his fate, etc., but Glukhovsky chooses not to develop this idea in any appreciable way. At the end of the story (literally the last few pages of the book) Artyom finally has an epiphany that the “dark ones” were only trying to communicate with the humans, and the greater understanding that he’d felt on the edge of during his journey was that he was their “chosen” one to deliver the message to the rest of the Metro and enable a new age of understanding between humans and “dark ones.” It feels rushed, and though the theme had potential, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying.
Bottom line, if you want to know more about the Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light video games you loved, or if you’re curious to see this underground world in action, it is a perfectly acceptable adventure, but you may feel that there was a missed opportunity for a greater story.