The usual NFB warning regards spoilers applies.
Following some manner of nuclear apocalypse, humanity in the year 2033 survives in the vast Metro system of Moscow, split into various factions and governments. Artyom, a young resident of an outlying station, takes it upon himself to journey around the system, seeking aid for his home in their battle against the “dark ones”, mysterious creatures that threaten to destroy the last of mankind.
Glukhovsky novel, which could be described as a sort of underground (ha) hit, is a half-decent sci-fi/apocalyptic/supernatural blend, mixing in classic “quest” storytelling with a pretty well established and fleshed out universe. It’s interesting, keeps you reading, though I wouldn’t call it a “page-turner” per say – the plot takes endless deviations from the main point, not all of them good. Metro 2033 is a book about the last scraps of humanity trying to retain that humanity whatever they way they can, seen through the eyes of a “chosen one” archetype, a child of this new world. It’s all very dark in its tone and atmosphere, strangling even, and that all works very well for the setting. The main plot – Artyom’s journey – is just the vehicle for what is an astounding mix of folk tales, religious discussion, political commentary and philosophical musings from a wide variety of sources. It is a wide and varied narrative, jumping from Nazi show trials to the ethics of self-defence to the key divides in Marxist theory to the persistence of religion in dire circumstances.
In fact, if Metro 2033’s plot is to be criticised for anything, it is that it almost reads like an encyclopaedia of this fascinating little canon more then anything, as our hero finds himself visiting and interacting with every other part of the Metro system at one point or another, learning about their points of view and personal beliefs.
Artyom, in his trip around the Metro, is little more than an audience surrogate, a real weakness. He isn’t very well-fleshed out and the infrequent attempts to do so are ham fisted – though that may have something to do with the rather loose translation from the original Russian, which frequently results in some rather odd sentences and grammatical choices. He’s a largely silent, unenthusiastic character to follow and could really do with some added dimensions.
Metro 2033 comes off more as a series of short stories set in this universe than anything else. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. There is horror, there is intrigue, there is discussion on the great clash of political system in the 20th century. Metro 2033 just flits to and fro from all these things, and it works sometimes, not so much in others. Facing down the Neo-Nazis and dealing with the all-powerful “Hansa” (read: capitalist) stations works, fighting the barbarians tribesmen in the lower depths and interacting with Christian missionaries not so much.
Glukhovsky’s universe is stretched when it comes to believability. You do get the very distinct feeling that Metro 2033 is simply a mouthpiece for his various views on Russian governments and their enemies over the past centuries, as capitalists, communists, Trotskyites, Fascists, Mafia and technocracies abound, all operating their own states within the Metro system as if this is all perfectly normal. At times, it just goes a bit too far, the idea that such a diverse society would thrive in the narrow confines of an underground rail system as it does being just a step too far in my opinion. It is unique, but not buyable.
It’s also very depressing, to too much of a degree. Artyom is the prophet of doom in Metro 2033, the vast majority of individual characters he meets winding up dead or worse, with disaster trailing in his wake all the way. At times, you begin to wonder if maybe he should have just stayed home. This goes right the way up to the “twist” ending, when Artyom finds himself responsible for the slaughter of a, nominally, innocent and peaceful species, after which he seems to commit suicide (sort of). It is a very, very bleak book is what I’m saying. One of the main themes that Glukhovsky discusses is the short supply of hope and whether the human race has the capability to survive in the face of all of its challenges. The end theme would almost certainly be: no, it can’t and it is just a matter of time before the inhabitants of the Metro destroy themselves. That’s not an unlikely conclusion to reach, but the rejection of hope that the book presents is just a little hard to swallow. There are no happy endings here, from main to sub-plots.
It is an interesting book, and kept me reading to the end. The universe is good, and I would read a more straight-forwardly plotted story set there. But Metro 2033, much like Starship Troopers, is a discussion on politics and government pretending to be something that is only of secondary concern. That main thread that everything is based around is somewhat weak, with a lame twist ending. The main character suffers from a lack of characterisation, and very few others stick around long enough to actually leave on impact. It is a crash course blunder of a journey through this fictional world, like the set-up for something bigger to come later. I would recommend it for the universe it presents, an interesting little niche in terms of sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural/dystopia/horror, but I don’t think it has legs as a franchise if it continues in the same vein.
It might have more success as a video game of course. The FPS based on Metro 2033 cuts out much of the political and social commentary, and as such has a more straight forward and enjoyable plot. That’s something that you will rarely hear: I think the video game plot is better than the book. But, there it is. The Metro 2033 universe needs to decide what it is before it can become something better.