This review will be a bit different. I’m not as fast a reader as Kennie, I’m the kind of person that reads a book in three or four months. I have not yet completed Metro 2033, so this will not be a review of the story itself, rather a deep dive into the writing style of Dmitrij Gluchovskij, for it is a very unique style.
This review will still contain spoilers, both from the book and the games that followed the book, just as a comparison to what goes on in the game and what happened in the book. Since the book is my latest impression of the story, I will refer to the names in the book rather than the names in the game when names are given. Some names are different in the game! With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s dig into the meat of it.
Metro 2033 follows the adventures of Artiom, a young man in one of the edge stations in the Moscow Metro after the fall of mankind. The fall was brought on by a global nuclear war that left Earth scorched and uninhabitable, the sun burning and the very air contaminated. The creatures that survived the initial fallout are now mutated beyond recognition and mankind as we know it now resides in the Metro, as it was built during the Cold War to be able to house people in this very scenario. Artiom’s home, the station known as VDNCh, lies on the edge of one of the less traveled lines and other than a few traders, they rarely get visitors. Artiom is, like most men able to work, a guard at the outer post, a fire pit 150 yards from the entrance to the station, as well as a mushroom farmer. He’s interested in the written word and other people’s way of looking at life. He was born topside and still have vague memories of life before the fallout, but he was very young when it happened so the memories are dim at best. He is also one of the very few in the Metro that has seen the Dark Ones, horrible creatures that seems to come from the top, looking like charred men, but with holes instead of eyes, and a big, grinning mouth covering most of the face. Guns seems useless against them and everyone who sees them or even hear their shrieks are filled with a deep fear, unable to take any action as they are slowly walking towards them… then they disappear.
He is approached by a man that seems to know his adoptive father, the man is just called Hunter. Since Artiom only speaks Russian, he does not know what the word means, but he get the feeling it is not a name, but a description. Hunter makes him promise that if his mission to close the gate where the Dark Ones comes from fails and he does not hear from him again, Artiom should go to the station in the centre of the Metro, Polis, and notify the administration of his demise. To prove he knew Hunter, he is given a bullet on a necklace.
This is a summary of the first chapter of the book and the first scene in the game.
As I said, this will be a review of the unique writing style of Gluchovskij, and this style is hard to define. Those who have played the game knows that Artiom never says a single word, that people around him always seems to know what he wants to say and reacts before he says anything. This has often been seen as lazyness from the developers, an unwillingness to write dialogue, but in fact, this is a nod to the style the book is written in. You never get to know anything about Artiom’s appearance, what he looks like or how he talks, because he never says anything. Instead, Gluchovskij have chosen to condense dialogues into showing only what the people he meets says and describe only vaguely how Artiom looks, and even then it is only what he is covered in at the moment. The only description we ever get of our main protagonist is the occational “Artiom was covered in dirt” or “Artiom looked at his messy cover-alls…”.
It is written in past tense and in third person, but it always feels like it describes what happens right now, sometimes it even feels like Gluchovskij is telling what will come and this makes you get a bit of distance from the character, but at the same time, Artiom’s thoughts, emotions and actions are described to such detail that you feel you’re right there with him, looking through his eyes, but you’re not him. The reader is like an observer, looking through the memories of a man that is yet to be born.
The dialogues are often reactive, we hardly ever “hear” Artiom speak and when it happens, it is just to get the conversation going. You can often read things like “What is your business at this station? Oh, only passing through, ey? Well, your documents seems correct, you may pass.” as if what Artiom said was only heard by the guard, like the memories you’re observing lacks the memory of what Artiom said. At first I found this disturbing and it felt like it was lazy storytelling, but the more I thought of it, the more I realized that this is exactly how memories work. You hardly ever remember what you have said, but often remember the words of others. You hardly ever look at yourself and know what you look like yourself, but you can remember detailed description of others, even if you’ve only seen them once.
The story telling itself is almost random at times, it’s a retelling of events that happens in succession with hardly any red thread binding them together, other than the fact that it happens to Artiom. This too was something I found disturbing at first, but it is explained in the book. Something both games lacked, that the book has, is that the different people and their way of seeing things are described to Artiom through stories around fireplaces, gossip on station walkways or through his own experience. The dialogue is condensed, but it is also very descriptive and many of the conversations is a deep, philosophical debate over what life really is, as seen by people who tries to make sense of a world we couldn’t dream of, coming from the world we live in. Everything from current philosophies to philosophies that are created by the environment underground are brought up and when you listen to them, you see that it mirrors the events happening to Artiom. The further you read, the more sense it makes until finally, around the half-way mark in the book, both the reader and Artiom discovers that it is not a sequence of random events at all. When you look back at everything that happened, it was essential that it should happen for him to get where he is.
This is an analogy to everybody’s life. Life is rarely like the story books. Whether you believe in a predestined fate or the chance’s folly, your life does not have a cohesive narrative, yet you are where you are because of all that happened. No matter what philosophy you take to heart, the nature of life is a combination of your own choices and the choices of those around you and if you look at it, it can all be connected into a narrative on a grander scheme.
You’re just rarely able to see all these perspective at once, except for in the writing style of Dmitrij Gluchovskij.