Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Post-apocalyptic literature is often listed within the science fiction genre. Yet, many of these novels –not just those with zombies and vampires- contain dark or shocking subtexts which fit as well, if not better, within modern horror. A classic example is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The slow decline of civilization and constant threat from cannibal bands produces a very chilling experience on par with anything Stephen King or Dean Koontz has ever written.
Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky, follows a similar path. Set following a nuclear war in the early 21st century, the remnants of humanity now live underground in the Moscow subway system. Like the city-states of ancient Greece, individual stations govern themselves sometimes banding together to form small nations. Their ideologies vary from adherence to the Koran to fascism to nonspecific mysticism to communism. They war among each other, and with the mutant beings which have risen from ashes of the old world.
One set of beings that calls this new world home are the “dark ones.” They come down from the surface and attack the metro station of VDNKh. A young man, by the name of Artyom, sets off on a quest to rid his station of these monsters. While journeying through the metro, he will encounter the many peoples and mutants which populate the tunnels. He will bear witness to the spiritual, political, and economic philosophies that proliferate in this last bastion of humanity. In the end, Artyom will determine if such things are worth saving and at what cost.
Like many Russian novels, the overall tone of Metro 2033 is bleak. Humanity has failed. If there is any hope of a new age, it has not dawned on those who remain. Instead, they focus on the brutal existence of day to day life where the only currency of any value is rifle cartridges. While some still hold on to the value of books, they become fewer and fewer as days go by. Many more turn to new idols and gods. They reject a world that is now little more than legend.
The setting is among the most vivid and memorable to ever be created. Artyom’s struggle serves as little more than a catalyst from which to explore Glukhovsky’s fully realized metro. As an experiment in world building, Metro 2033 is a great success, even without strong central narrative. Human figures do not move with a sense of personal agency but rather appear more as pawns forced to do what they must by circumstances beyond their control.
Artyom follows the path assigned to him by another. He does not stop to question his actions or costs associated until it is too late. He may not metaphorically pull the trigger, but he is in many ways more responsible than those who do. In the end, perhaps it is fitting that he inherits this world. It is, after all, a world man has created for himself.
One is left to question: Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Are these simply human constructs by which one justifies their actions? Are such actions even necessary?
Fans of the videos games inspired by the novel may be surprised to find a story that has far more philosophical nuance. Metro 2033 is not an action-adventure romp through the post-apocalypse. The pace is deliberately slow. Fleeting moments of action are interspersed with a narrative more concerned with despairing passages describing the places and people of the tunnels. Life in the metro is only getting worse.
Glukhovsky’s vision is a triumph for post-apocalyptic literature. The dark and melancholy future of Metro 2033 is equally suited to both the science fiction and horror genres. It is a modern day classic and deserves to be read by everyone.