The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

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Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

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Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while keeping this blog, it’s that it’s much harder to be snarky about books I actually liked. Which is why it took me so damn long to write about Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

But I dug deep, and mustered enough ennui for a small rant, so here goes.

This book is essentially billed as a straight-up sci-fi/horror story – but there’s a lot of nuance to Metro 2033 and that’s exactly what makes it so good. Not only that, but Glukhovsky manages to pull off horror writing that’s actually legitimately creepy.

Quick plot rundown: Metro 2033 takes place, conveniently, in the year 2033, in the metro train tunnels underneath what used to be Moscow. The entire surface of the planet, (presumably; the scope of the story is fairly small and the characters for the most part have no way of knowing what the actual conditions are on the surface of the planet) was rendered uninhabitable a couple decades prior to this by the events of a third world war.

The main character of the novel is a man in his early 20’s named Artyom, who was but a wee baby when they nuked the world, and has spent most of his life in an underground train station, growing mushrooms for sustenance. The Moscow metro is vast – extensive enough that a communist revolution already broke out at some point prior to the events of Metro, with the requisite social upheaval. A number of stations have been taken as territory by the reds, complete with ongoing border skirmishes and prejudice-driven executions.

Aside from humans continuing their grand legacy of being just, so awful, there’s a new threat from the so-called “Dark Ones,” a new race of super-beings that nobody’s really seen but are assumed by everyone to be pure evil and out for blood. Are they horribly disfigured mutants from the surface? The next step in human evolution? Aliens? There’s probably a fan theory about aliens. Nobody knows.

There’s also the threat of a plague and the possibility that Satan himself lives in the tunnels, which are almost certainly haunted by… something, not to mention uncanny numbers of rats. The story makes it very clear how little fun is to be had in the metro.

So a rant: way before I actually picked up this book I watched someone play a demo of the videogame version on the Xbox 360. I was mildly annoyed with the game after only a couple hours’ worth of actual gameplay because it had the player just shooting weird mutant creatures crawling through the tunnels.

Now, I realize the limitations that the developers were working with. Metro 2033 (the game) is a first-person shooter and one of the most fundamental aspects of an FPS is having something to shoot at, and there are a lot of reasons for inserting a non-human foe to fill that slot. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine that sci-fi horror writers of late frequently seem to fall back on “monsters” that, while certainly unpleasant, still appear to be carbon-based life forms with all the accoutrements like skin and some type of blood, and… eyes maybe.

What I’m saying is these things aren’t really that scary anymore because while they might be super strong and have extra-thick skin or plates of exoskeleton or whatever, you can still fundamentally kill them with guns. In some cases you may need to upgrade to a rocket launcher but I believe my point stands.

Also, if this is how you formulate your monster I have to assume that the monster doesn’t actually have any concept of malice or vengeance because it’s basically just a dumb animal, otherwise it might display the trappings of human-level intelligence, namely some form of combat strategy, external weapons, or perhaps an ability to be reasoned with.

Therefore, I posit that this type of creature isn’t really a scary monster, it’s just a large, angry dog. And I know Cujo was a hit but that was the 80s and I think animalistic monsters like werewolves or swamp things have at this point been distilled into tropes of either harlequin romance or cheeseball black and white horror films.

What I’m getting at is that I picked up Metro 2033 fully prepared to be disappointed that the main antagonist was a big ugly dog, or several big ugly dogs.

I was, however, actually thoroughly impressed with the antagonist forces present in the novel. Glukhovsky seems to understand that part of what makes horror horrifying is to have the character, and the reader by proxy, left uncertain about the true nature of the antagonist. Though Metro sits very comfortably in the “plausible” post-apocalyptic dystopia section of sci-fi, the horror elements are presented as mostly paranormal. This could totally fucking destroy all the scientific plausibility of the setting, but it’s executed with such an expert hand that it works beautifully.

There’s no final boss battle with these supernatural forces – they appear throughout the novel and while a number of possible explanations are explored at various point, none is presented as being specifically correct. What is “certain,” as much as anything can be certain, is that the forces are inherently malicious, and the kind of thing that you could never hope to kill with a gun. Maybe it’s a metaphor for human hate. Maybe the metro is actually purgatory, and the forces are just voices rising up from hell. Maybe a bunch of people living in dark tunnels with hardly any food, medicine or running water will eventually become paranoid enough to start giving physical shape to their anxieties. What is clear, is that the bad things happening in the tunnels are comprehensively unsettling.

At its heart, Metro 2033 is a pretty formulaic hero’s quest, wherein our boy Artyom must travel from his home on the outer reaches of the inhabitable metro, into the very center of human civilization and conflict, to kill the Dark Ones once and for all. You could easily re-skin this as fantasy and it would basically be Soviet Lord of the Rings.

But that’s okay. The structure of the plot falls into the background compared to the tight writing and character development. Artyom is such a pure cinnamon bun that you can’t help but root for him, and the occasional really convenient escape from certain doom is somehow improved by your pure love for a Kalashnikov-toting, gas-mask wearing main character who is, at his heart, an adorable and soft little kid.

I think part of what I loved about this book is that it somehow manages to seem somehow optimistic, in a world where you get a free ski mask with your purchase of an AK-47. The clearest available moral of the story is that humanity is irredeemably stupid and awful and that we deserve everything we have coming, and yet it never becomes an existential slog.

That said, I will say to make sure you’ve got your favorite whiskey in the house, because you’re going to need a drink when you finish this book.