Thursday, 1 March 2012

Metro 2033: Science Fantasy or Fiction?

Hello, um, Blogger.

It seems it has been since 2010 that I last wrote anything here? Well - I am, as it were, back in the saddle. My thesis proper is finished long since, and accepted with good grades and so on, and now I am in fact doing research in this very same field of literature! Isn't that exciting? This means I've a reason to write something in these here blog again, so I hope to be doing that a bit more frequently now. We'll see if the ratio of entertainment-academia becomes slightly more skewed towards the former or not - chances are they might?

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to approach/discuss the Dmitry Glukhovsky novel Metro 2033. Unfortunately this particular piece of Russian writing won't be a part of my eventual doctoral thesis since it's a translation, so my thoughts on it will largely be rambling rather than proper reviewing. Also, it's rife with spoilers, so if you want to avoid that, don't read I guess? It's a good book and I can recommend it, although the translation is spotty to say the least.

So: the premise is that somewhere around 2013 or so, a global nuclear war (the reasons for which are never discussed) devastates the Earth. Luckily for the Muscovites, the Moscow metro system is also the world's largest nuclear fallout shelter, and it is to it and its myriad tunnels and stations that the survivors flee. A decade or two later, people are still living underground, in societies formed along station or line boundaries or according to ideologies. The survivors' diet consists mainly of mushrooms and pigs that eat mushrooms.

The secondary premise is that the metro dwellers must remain such. The surface has become uninhabitably lethal. Aside from the radiation and the blinding sunlight, the surface is now home to mutated creatures, many of which it seems do not even have an equivalent animal it mutated from (such as the Librarians, unless they're mutated humans I suppose). What more, and this is even touched upon at some point, the rate of mutation makes little sense - it's difficult to imagine the kinds of monsters found on the surface could appear in scarcely a decade, not to mention the monstrosity in the Kremlin. Or, indeed, the Dark Ones themselves, the instigators of the whole plot of the novel.

The Dark Ones are not a part of the premise, exactly, seeing as they ultimately only appear a few times. They start our protagonist's journey through a task given to him by a member of a mysterious group, Hunter, dedicated to the preservation of the Metro. Artyom must travel to the centre of the Metro, Polis, in order to warn Hunter's superior about the threat of the Dark Ones, and so that they may find some way for his station to combat the encroaching monsters. Artyom, as befitting of a blank slate protagonist, obviously knows little of the Metro outside of his station, and is thus the perfect set of ears and eyes for the reader to experience it all through.

And that's what this book is essentially about: discovering the underground world of the Metro, with all its varied types of survivors, ideas, ideologies and mysteries. And they abound, oh yes: Glukhovsky, were I to use him in my thesis, fits very neatly into the definition I have made of post-postmodern writing. The novel's more than aware of the fact that fiction is fictitious, but it does not flaunt it like postmodern texts did (except in one particularly memorable dialogue towards the end, but that was a bit of authorial indulgence I had no trouble swallowing): rather it neatly incorporates the inexplicable and the supernatural into the general mood of the story. From the very first pages, we realize that Metro 2033 is a two-layered thing, where what is 'real' and what is just stories is constantly in question.

We gain access to most of the Metro via stories told to Artyom, starting from the very first pages, stories about other stations and lines, some grounded in reality while others are more fantastic. We (the readers) in turn experience the Metro through Artyom as he travels it, alternately finding that reality is not as fantastic as we were told, and alternately finding it is even more fantastic. This technique is not in itself something unique, but the layers of 'reality' versus 'superstition' effectively become so blurred it is entirely up to the readers sense of willing suspension of disbelief (please see my previous entry on Coleridge et al.!) whether or not they end up 'buying' the world of Metro 2033. Of course, 'buying' the world itself is what largely determines how effective the novel will be.

This brings us to the point of all this: where does Metro 2033 fit in on the arbitrary scale of science fiction rationality versus the kind of fantasy typically found in magical realism? I admit that I myself had actually played the game before I read the book, and I was therefore surprisingly enough prepared for the supernatural elements when they arrived (surprisingly because game narratives rarely follow their sources very closely), but I'm not sure how I would have reacted without prior knowledge of them. Probably with inquisitiveness: how do hypnotic voices emanating from pipes or stretches of tunnel with deadly effects on the human mind fit into the overall picture of ragged survival and very human conflict? Luckily, this same inquisitiveness is what Artyom feels, so our journeys happily coincide - what more, his companions are more than willing to provide their own interpretations of events, which either muddles or clarifies the issue, depending on how you wish to view it.

This duality is perhaps best presented through an event in the novel itself. Towards the last third of the book, when Artyom finally reaches Polis, Artyom has just experienced the memorable piece of dialogue I mentioned earlier. This happens on the station just before Polis, where he meets two hookah-smoking gentlemen who engage him in conversation. Allow me to reproduce a short extract from it:

"But do you believe in fate?" asked Sergei Andreyevich, inclining his head to the side and examining Artyom studiously, while Yevgeniy Dmitrievich turned away from the hookah with interest.
"No," said Artyom decisively. "There is no fate, just random events that happen to us, and then we make things up on our own later."
"Too bad, too bad..." sighed Sergei Andreyevich disappointedly, austerely looking at Artyom over his eyeglasses. "Now, I'm going to present a little theory of mine to you, and you see for yourself if it matches your life or not. It seems to me that life, of course, is an empty joke, and that there's no purpose to it at all, and that there's no fate, which is to say anything explicit and definite, along the lines of you're born and you already know that you're going to be a cosmonaut or a ballerina or that you'll die in your infancy...No, not like that. While you're living your allotted do I explain this...It may happen that something happens to you that forces you to perform specific actions and make specific decisions, keeping in mind you have free will, and can do this or that. But if you make the right decision, then the things that happen to you subsequently are no longer just random, to use your word, events. They are caused by the choices you made. [...] And your life will gradually stop being just a collection of random events; it will turn into....a plot, I suppose, where everything is connected by some logical, though not necessarily straight, links. And that will be your fate.
(Metro 2033: 254-255)

Strengthened by the realization that the incredible events leading up to this point in his journey (that is to say, the plot of the novel) indeed constitute the plot of his life (hello, postmodernism), Artyom hurries on. However, in Polis, the description of the two gentlemen he spoke with earlier causes a different reaction. There are two factions in the station, one scholarly and one military. Both contend that the station through which Artyom passed and where he met Sergei Andreyevich and Yevgeniy Dmitrievich is in fact empty and uninhabitable. The military claim that people often experience hallucinations while there due to a gas leak, whereas the scholars come to believe people who see and speak with someone while there are special and chosen. This very neatly puts the ball in the reader's court: do we believe the military (it was just a gas leak, causing Artyom to hallucinate the whole conversation) or the scholars (it was exactly what it seemed to be; a bit of otherwordly providence, showing Artyom how special and unique he is to the plot of the Metro). Artyom himself is troubled, but Glukhovsky does not provide a definite answer either way, although he allows for both.

The one piece of suspension of disbelief we do have to accept, even if we go in for the harder science fiction route, is that mind control or telepathy or psionics what-have-you is now officially possible, potentially through the effects of a powerful experimental bioweapon released on Moscow during the war (which, in turn, might also be the reason behind the improbable monsters on the surface). This ability is particularly apparent towards the end, when they meet the worshippers of the Great Worm, who turn out to have a few capable telepaths among their numbers. Another example is the Kremlin and its inhabitants: demons or merely monstrous mutations? Once it is established that the human mind can now be affected in this way, by whatever means it is accomplished, one can easily explain most of the bizarre occurrences in the Metro by ways of this. Perhaps there are simply other creatures like the monster in the basement of the Kremlin who are capable of controlling minds, and these live here and there, preying on lone wanderers in dark tunnels.

Or, then we allow for the preternatural, in which case Metro 2033 is an interesting amalgam of the post-apocalyptic science fictional genre and horror writing, possibly set in the kind of world these guys are creating, where the bizarre and memetic exists just underneath and hidden away from the surface normality - except, of course, that in the Metro, it has all come bursting out of the woodworks following the nuclear apocalypse.

Being a post-postmodern reader myself, I accept both interpretations as equally valid. The rational, science fictional interpretation is canon, the one I would use if I were to be transported bodily into the world of the text and had to 'explain' what was going on. The other interpretation is the super- or metatextual one, the one that self-consciously uses the text to talk about issues outside the text or then about the text itself in relation to other texts. A metaphor, a comment, another layer. And read so, Metro 2033 is, to say the least, very enjoyable.

The translation is still incredibly spotty though, or at least it feels like it is. Yikes.

Glukhovsky, Dmitry. 2007. Metro 2033. London: Gollancz.

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