Page count: 464 pages
Time taken: 6 hours (I spent a lot of time looking up stations)
Artyom is a young man living in VNDKh, the northernmost inhabited station in Moscow’s metro system. The past few weeks have seen terrifying new creatures, “dark ones”, invading down the lines from the irradiated and lethal outside world, and Artyom finds himself on a mission to warn the near-mythical Polis of this new and lethal threat. On the way, he meets a motley collection of people who variously help and hinder him, and uncovers secrets of a world he barely remembers. Can he save the Metro, or is the presumed last bastion of humanity doomed to die in the dark?
This is a classic post-apocalyptic piece of fiction, which if the writer were British I would say owed much to John Wyndham’s legacy. Given that he’s Russian though, I have no idea what his influences were. The action mainly takes place within the confines of the Moscow metro system – there are handy maps at the front and back of the book for readers without familiarity, although I still found it difficult to work out where the action was actually taking place because the names are all long and I have very little familiarity with Russian.
The pacing is superb, which really adds to the race-against-time theme, and Artyom’s journey, both physical and spiritual, is a really good variant of the hero’s quest. I enjoyed the slow reveal of what happened to the world above, and I loved the various different social structures which exist in various different stations – the ideologies and how they interact are really well thought through and investigated. I’m not a huge dystopia fan, but I enjoyed this one a lot, and the black Russian humour that seeps in is very welcome. There’s also a surprising amount of Pilgrim’s Progress style allegory, which breaks up the dark and claustrophobic imagery of the action sequences, and the nature of humanity is thoroughly explored.
I have two criticisms of the book: firstly, very few female characters at all, the plight of women in this world being almost entirely ignored, which for my money makes it a much less in-depth thought experiment than it otherwise aspires to be. And secondly, there is no way that radiation alone could account for all of the mutants in the time stated since the nuclear apocalypse – one generation is not enough time for such vast speciation. There are hints in the book that more esoteric weapons were used than just nukes and explosives, but no-one really talks about it, which annoyed me because I like a certain amount of accuracy in my science fiction. That being said, this is a really good read, and deserves to be on everyone’s post-apocalyptic depressing dystopias reading list.
4 out of 5: a classic example of the genre, pity about the sexism.
There is a computer game based on the novel, which I own but have not yet got round to playing, and I'll link to that review when it's done. I'm curious to see how it compares, I'm pretty excited about the ways that games can reinterpret extant worlds.