Fiction Reviews

Metro 2033

(2002/2007 Russian; 2010 English) Dmitry Glukhovsky, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 458 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08624-1


The year is 2033 and the World has long since changed. Years before there was a massive nuclear war. Moscow is now devastated. However in the city's former underground (tube) network -- the metro -- life goes on with survivor Muscovites making an existence in the tunnels and purpose-built refuge caverns there-in.

The survivors are grouped around stations and each station has its own identity (be it through trading, political, religious, information archiving and so forth) and contribution to make to the whole system. There are affiliations of stations, and their underground rail connections shape these as well as the flow of people and goods. In the intervening past years since the atomic cataclysm there have even been wars between these affiliations of stations, though life now has settled into a comparative, albeit uneasy, peace.

Artyom lives in VDNKh, a station a couple of stops outside the Circle Line (analogous to London's Circle Line) on a line leading to the north east of Moscow, and on the edge of the survivor-controlled part of the metro network. Then one day the dark ones come down the line from the uncharted north (and presumably from the outside) with some weird telepathic ability. Fighting them off quickly proves difficult. Artyom is charged to travel to get help to the heart of the Metro system, and four closely connected stations (think Kings Cross/St Pancras), called the Polis, where the closest to pre-war authorities exist. Those at the Polis need to be warned of this new, unknown horror coming that threatens the whole metro. Yet getting to the Polis means travelling through some potentially hostile stations and across boundaries between antagonistic alliances: it is quite a mission.

Dmitry Glukhovsky ('Dmitriy Gluhovsky' alternate anglocised spelling should you Google) won an ESFS Eurocon 'Encouragement Award' for young writers in 2007 largely on the strength of this very novel. It came out in (paper) book form in Russia in 2007 and took the Russian market (especially around Moscow) by storm, quickly selling some 400,000 copies. It has to be said, for those that do not know the Russian SF/F (fantastika) market, that 400,000 copies while a good run is not the Russian equivalent of J. K. Rowling standards but is still very respectable (proportionally loosely equivalent in British market terms somewhere between Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds). Partly the sales are due to the novel's strength (more of which shortly) but also due to the author's marketing, of which Cory Doctorow would no doubt approve: it was first published on-line for free in 2002! Five years later (2007) we get the novel in Russian, and now (2010) we get the novel in English courtesy of Gollancz.

Now, we rarely get foreign SF translated into English, but things in Europe are slowly changing. Sergei Lukyanenko's 'Watch' series has been translated into several European languages (including English). Like Dmitry Glukhovsky, Sergei Lukyanenko has also won an ESFS Eurocon Award: actually twice first in 2004 (for the adaptation to film of this novel) as well as in 2003 for 'Best Author'. Sergei Lukyanenko has also won a number of awards in other European countries outside of his home nation (for example Estonia's Stalker Award, Germany's Kurd Lasswitz and Ukraine's Starbridge), but alas not in Britain nor in N. America let alone the Worldcon. (Anglophone SF is very insular which is odd for an out-going genre that explores new dimensions.) In short, do not hold your breath to see Dmitry Glukhovsky have much profile on SF websites outside of the specialist aficionado ones. Having said that, it could crop up quite a bit in war-gaming sites as there is a spin-off computer game out from THQ Games. If Dmitry Glukhovsky himself is not recognised by Anglophone SF it would be a pity for the novel itself is quite a package of established tropes. This in itself would be commendable but there is also an added plot twist at the end which in my view distinctly elevates the novel.

If the novel alone were just a post-apocalyptic tale of human community survival it would be worthy albeit unexceptional: similarly, if it were simply a quest tale, or again a horror novel, action adventure or even a book commenting upon the human condition. Each of these alone would make it a good, though not a remarkable, read. However, it is not just one of these but all of them and it is this assemblage that is quite an authorial feat even if the novel's reading makes it seem easy (which of course is another of its strengths).

The book's quest element is evident from the inside front cover which depicts a map of the Moscow metro with each station's current status (fascist, trading, independent, disease ridden, etc.) marked. However, the font point size used labelling the stations is so small that it teeters on the verge of illegibility. What you need to know (I only found out a hundred pages into the book) is that on the inside back cover there is a larger scale version of the Moscow metro's central portion where the book's action takes place. Though more legible, there are still a couple of problems. First, the English alphabet version of the station names' spelling does occasionally vary from that within the novel: this is almost unavoidable as it is a common problem with adapting equivalents from the Cyrillic (cf. the earlier 'Dmitry Glukhovsky' and 'Dmitriy Gluhovsky' alternate spelling earlier). Second, is that some of the stations named do not seem to appear on this inside cover map. So the reader might be better served Googling a metro map and printing it out and use this in conjunction with the book's map and its notes of the post apocalyptic station status and side (non-metro) tunnels.

Doing this, and reading the novel, you quickly see that the line of stations that are in the novel communist, and called by the survivors the 'red line', is in the real metro map coloured red (like the Central Line in London's underground): it is a three-level joke (communist, red line, and real life map red coloured line). There are other jokes and references including SFnal ones. For example, the scouts who leave the metro shelter to forage on the surface are called 'stalkers', no doubt after the 'stalkers' in Boris and Arkadi Strugatski's novel Roadside Picnic (and the film adapted from it, Stalker (1979) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky). No doubt there are many other in-jokes and references that Russians, especially Muscovite, SF aficionados and fans, might pick up on but are lost to us in the West. Nonetheless, there is more than enough content for English readers, so fret not.

The book itself -- as suggested by its map has places that, almost by virtue of fantasy book tradition, each have to be visited in the course of the story -- does at time (especially around the middle) feel a little repetitive in format: we have done that place and now we will do this place. Yet, as the novel progresses, a picture of a whole world emerges, and things really get cracking in the book's final third, especially with a sojourn to the surface. Furthermore, just when you think that the story has run its course there is one final challenge which for me is really what elevated this book, even though without this I would still otherwise not hesitate to recommend it.

Quibbles. Well a few. At times the hard SF becomes science fantasy and so in places reads like cartoonish Anglophone SF novels of the 1960s: as a biologist I particularly hated the re-emergence of animals similar to those long extinct (do not worry this is only a minor spoiler). There are also a couple of coincidences, though the big one (if you think about it) is only a coincidence in the protagonist's mind, besides it does add to the plot's narrative drive. But other than these aspects very little disappointed. Having said that I should warn you that this is a first translation and that translations are expensive. Clearly (and especially in these times of economic recession) Gollancz could not afford an editor to go through and correct the translation for sense of English. Alas, it did need this as there was in most chapters something that made my reading stumble and necessitating a bit of thought as to what was really meant. However with translated novels this very much goes with the territory and so I am not going to hugely grumble about it: just point out to you not to be surprised that on occasion you need to be a little charitable with your reading.

(You see publishers face a (science/statistics) type I type II error thing: do they use a native Russian translator who recognises all the nuances in the original novel, or an English translator unfamiliar with Russian nuances but intimate with English ones that readers will digest? Either way you go, unless you employ two editors which costs, this is a no-win situation. Anyway, it is not that major a problem with Metro 2033 (try most Romanian SF novels for a dog's dinner translation) and besides, who said life was easy?)

As for the science, well this is SF. However much can be skated over due to the protagonist not having had a formal education since he largely grew up since the atomic war: the protagonist's unfamiliarity with the pre-war and surface worlds makes for an excellent plot device. Even so, how the survivors were fed was a little unclear. (I'm sorry but being into human ecology, not to mention someone who enjoys regular meals, I do worry about these things.) Yes, there was the line of three stations (and their associated caverns) that were farms, but with so much pork in the diet how was the animal feed produced? Animal feed procured from the surface was not an option since it would be contaminated. Feed grown underground suffers from the trophic level ten-fold rule of thumb: it takes ten times the area of plants to support an area of herbivores that in a similar ratio in turn support carnivores feeding off the said herbivores. Do not get me wrong, the set up in Metro 2033 is do-able but you would need a powerful energy source and banks and banks of hydroponics. Now we know that there is power for emergency lighting in stations throughout nearly all the metro, so maybe, perhaps… ?

The other intriguing question relates to the economic system whereby bullets also serve as money. Here, with regards to the quasi-science of economic theory, there is the 'money supply' issue. There is also the dual-purpose problem in that those using bullets to protect the stations are not completely synonymous with those producing the economic wealth (such as the farmers). In short I am not sure a survivalist economy using bullets as currency would work; though granted it does from an author's artistic perspective make a comment on the Metro 2033 world's value of life.

Of course intriguing questions are not a problem. If a writer produces a story that engenders such reader interest that questions bubble up, then the writer has actually been quite accomplished.

So to sum up, Metro 2033 is a minor modern classic of the new Russian SF scene. (Time will tell if it will become an enduring work.) In one sense it lacks depth, but in another it is a somewhat cleverly packaged novel. Simple soul that I am, I admit that I enjoyed it. If you like your SF with action, horror, adventure and sense of wonder, then you will be bound to like Metro 2033… Tickets ready and mind the doors please.

Jonathan Cowie

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