Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky

It’s a pretty rare occurrence when a videogame inspires and moves me enough to read a book, but it happened recently.  The videogame — actually, videogames — are Metro 2033 (2010), and its sequel, Metro: Last Light (2013).  Both were inspired by the quite remarkable novel Metro 2033 (2005), by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky.


The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, in which the only known survivors — tens of thousands of them — of a devastating war in 2013 now live in the massive underground metro.  Which, incidentally, was in fact built with the nuclear holocaust in mind.  Though human beings have literally wiped themselves from the face of the Earth, they continue to make the same mistakes, forming violent factions that strive for power and control.  The surface is now uninhabitable to humans, but new and deadly forms of life have taken its place.  And one of these new forms of life poses a greater threat than all of the others…

The novel follows quest of a young man named Artyom, a nearly lifelong resident of the outlying metro station VDNKh.  In recent weeks, the station has been repeatedly attacked by beings known only as Dark Ones, humanoids that can release psychic attacks that devastate the sanity of the defenders.  Artyom’s adoptive father Sukhoi has given up all hope of survival, but Artyom has not.  He finds an unexpected ally when a stranger named Hunter arrives, a seasoned warrior who believes that the Dark Ones can and must be defeated.  Hunter plans to perform reconnaissance on the Dark Ones’ home above ground, and tasks Artyom to travel to the distant collection of stations known as “Polis,” where Hunter has allies who can help fight the supernatural threat.

Since he was a small child before the war, Artyom has not traveled anywhere outside of VDNKh.  The tunnels between stations are dark and dangerous, filled with terrors both natural and unnatural, and traveling alone is dangerous enough for an experienced warrior, much more so for the naive Artyom.  Furthermore, he must pass through a number of different faction territories, and he does not possess a passport or travel papers.  A trip that, before the war, would have taken 1/2 hour now takes days, possibly weeks.  Can Artyom get to Polis and save his friends and family at VDNKh?

Metro 2033 is a dense, thoughtful and colorful novel, a wonderful blend of science fiction, horror, and arguably even fantasy.  There are strong mystical ideas and events peppered throughout the book, most notably in the musings of a mysterious metro traveler only known as Khan, “the last incarnation of Genghis Khan.”  Khan speaks poetically about how humanity’s actions have doomed more than the material world:

Everyone has come to their end, my friend.  I don’t know quite how this has happened but this time humanity has overdone it.  There’s now no more heaven and no more hell. There isn’t purgatory, either.  After the soul flies out from the body — I hope you at least believe in the immortal soul? Well, it has no refuge anymore… We destroyed both heaven and hell.  We now happen to live in this strange world, in a world where after death the soul must remain right where it is. You understand me? You will die but your tormented soul won’t get reincarnated anymore and, seeing as there is no more heaven, your soul won’t get any peace and quiet.  It is doomed to remain where you lived your entire life, in the metro.

Glukhovsky manages to make these spiritual ideas fit very well in the science fiction setting, and they add to the overall tragic nature of the story.  And Metro 2033 is, in the end, a tragedy.  It reminded me to a large extent of Catch 22, one of my favorite novels, in which the true horror of the entire tale is only made clear in the final few chapters, making those chapters all the more devastating because of the sudden revelation.

One haunting supernatural anecdote in Metro 2033 surprisingly reminded me of another earlier novel, and brought the central theme of the novel into surprising clarity.  When Artyom finally plans to venture above ground to the Great Library with a group of stalkers on an urgent mission, he starts hearing strange stories and warnings about the Kremlin.

‘I wonder, can you see the Kremlin when you go up to the Library?’ he asked the emptiness, because Daniel had begun to fall asleep.

‘Of course you can see it. Only, you can’t look at it.  It draws you in,’ he muttered.

‘What do you mean “it draws you in”?’

Daniel lifted himself onto his elbows, and his face, knitted in displeasure, was illuminated by the yellow spot of light.

‘The stalkers say that you can’t look at the Kremlin when you go out, especially not at the stars on the towers.  As soon as you look, you can’t tear your eyes away.  And if your gaze lingers for a while, the Kremlin starts to draw you inside.  There’s a reason all the gates stand wide open. That’s why stalkers never go up into the Great Library by themselves.  If one happens to glance at the Kremlin, the other will snap him out of it immediately.’

‘What’s inside the Kremlin?’ whispered Artyom, swallowing hard.

‘Nobody knows, because nobody who’s ever gone in has ever come out again…’

Even this little bit of dialogue shows how masterful Glukhovsky is at writing horror.  And Artyom eventually, as you might expect, learns more about the Kremlin than he ever wanted to know…

This idea, of a building that can draw people in, like flies into a spider’s web, immediately reminded me of a similar one from a much, much older novel, and one that is the earliest book I ever reviewed on this blog, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912).  Hodgson’s novel tells the story of a time inconceivably distant, in which all the stars in the galaxy, including our own, have burned out, and the remnants of humanity live in the darkness on Earth in a massive pyramid called the The Great Redoubt, powered by a mysterious energy called the Earth Current. The Current also protects the Redoubt from monstrous and nigh indestructible creatures that thrive in the night — leaving the Redoubt means almost certain death.

Does this already sound similar to the concept of Metro 2033?  Well, consider one of the threats that lies right outside the Redoubt:

To my right, which was to the North, there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill. And in that House were many lights, and no sound. And so had it been through an uncountable Eternity of Years. Always those steady lights, and no whisper of sound—not even such as our distance-microphones could have discovered. And the danger of this House was accounted the greatest danger of all those Lands.

And round by the House of Silence, wound the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk. And concerning this Road, which passed out of the Unknown Lands, nigh by the Place of the Ab-humans, where was always the green, luminous mist, nothing was known; save that it was held that, of all the works about the Mighty Pyramid, it was, alone, the one that was bred, long ages past, of healthy human toil and labour. And on this point alone, had a thousand books, and more, been writ; and all contrary, and so to no end, as is ever the way in such matters.

When a massive expedition of young men leave The Great Redoubt on an urgent mission, they end up immediately in bloody conflict with the monsters that lurk nearby, eager for human prey.  Some 250 survivors press on, heading perilously close to the House of Silence:

Yet, it must be kept to the mind that we knew even then there was an Influence abroad in the Land, strange and quiet; so that the Instruments did not more than make record of it. And as I have surely set down ere now, we had belief that it did come from that House of Silence, afar in the Night Land, upon that low hill to the North of the Great Road. And many among the Monstruwacans feared that it was directed upon the Youths; but of this there could be no surety; and we could but wait and watch.

Now, in the space of this day and night, it was known that the Youths had not slept, neither had they eaten, save once, as they who had the watch through the Great Spy-Glass did affirm. But they to hasten alway at a woeful speed towards the North, along that Great Dismal Road, so that presently they must cease, or slay themselves with their endeavour.

And all this did give surety to our fears that they were under a spell from that horrid House afar in the Land; and we had an assurance that this thing was. For, presently, there came a Monstruwacan to the Master Monstruwacan to report that there had come sudden a mighty Influence into the Land; and in the same moment, as it might be, I spied through the Great Spy-Glass, and did see those Youths break swiftly from the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk, and begin to run very swift that they might come quickly to the House of Silence.

And they came presently to the low Hill whereon was that horrid House; and they went up swiftly—and they were two hundred and fifty, and wholesome of heart, and innocent; save for a natural waywardness of spirit.

And they came to the great open doorway that “hath been open since the Beginning,” and through which the cold steadfast light and the inscrutable silence of Evil “hath made for ever a silence that may be felt in all the Land.” And the great, uncased windows gave out the silence and the light—aye, the utter silence of an unholy desolation.

And Aschoff ran in through the great doorway of silence, and they that followed. And they nevermore came out or were seen by any human.

A mysterious building which can place a spell on those who come near and draw them in, never to return?  Strikingly similar to the Kremlin in Metro 2033. Broadly speaking, it occurred to me that the central theme of The Night Land and Metro 2033 is the same: humanity on its way to extinction, hiding and clinging to life, supplanted by other forms of life.  Did Glukhovsky read Hodgson’s The Night Land, and consciously or unconsciously draw inspiration from it?  I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.  Each story uses the theme in a very different way, to give a very different message.  Hodgson’s book is an exploration of the realization, founded in cosmology, relativity, and evolution, that humanity must one day go extinct.  Glukhovsky’s work shows how humanity can hasten its own extinction.

Incidentally, though I didn’t do this myself, you can actually download the map of the Moscow Metro and follow Artyom’s exploits as you read.  It is not necessary to watch the map closely to enjoy the novel, but I’ve found it fun in hindsight to trace his torturous path.

Small version of the Moscow Metro map.  You can see a full and easy-to-read version on Wikipedia.

Small version of the Moscow Metro map. You can see a full and easy-to-read version on Wikipedia.

The videogame Metro 2033 is remarkably true to the book, the most significant changes being necessary to make it more “game-like.”  Attacks of mutant monsters happen very early and much more frequently in the game; in the book, the creatures are only darkly foreshadowed until about halfway through, when Artyom finally travels to the Moscow surface.  In the game, Artyom in fact travels to the surface several times, and it is presented as a more common, albeit still incredibly dangerous, venture.


Really bad things live on the surface.

The game does a great job of filling the player with utter panic on the surface.  You must regularly switch out, and hunt for, new filters for your gas mask, and occasionally replace your gas mask when it gets damaged.  Your vision is fogged by your breath, and you must constantly look up, down, all around for threats.  It is a lovely ironic change from most games, however, in that the bright surface is far, far more dangerous than the dark underground.  This is another difference from the novel, though: in the book, humans are so accustomed to the dark that they would be blinded by the light of day.

The surface world is eerily beautiful.

The surface world is eerily beautiful.

Some of the mystical elements of the book are dropped or modified significantly in the game; the Kremlin, for instance, is not presented as the death trap mentioned above.  (Though in the sequel game, St. Basil’s appears and it is suggested that the threat was purged by soldiers.) Other strange aspects of the book are kept almost exactly the same, however.  Khan plays a prominent role in the game, and the mysterious and sinister “Librarians” of the book could be said to have been designed for the translation.

I tested, to be sure: looking at the Kremlin doesn't doom you in the game.

The landmarks of Moscow are clearly visible in game.

Part of the beauty and thoughtfulness of the game can be attributed to Glukhovsky’s input and desire to see it done right, and his own love of games.  As he said in a 2010 interview,

First of all, I’m a gamer since the age of 12, more or less. I played the very first Civilization, the very first Prince of Persia, Arkanoid and all these retro things, and I played every single Civilization that came out. Before the first version of the book was published, when it was still online on the website, the guys from 4A, the developer, contacted me and said, “We want to turn that into a computer game.”

Before that I was addressed more than a couple of times by different developers, but I wasn’t very thrilled by their expertise. When I saw these guys and I saw what they did, I said, “I’m going with you.”

For me it’s as much of an honour having this book turned into a videogame as having it screened, turned into a movie. The audience is comparable, and if it does well then the audience could even be bigger. I don’t think that having your book turned into a computer game somehow degrades it at all.

Even the crowded stations of the metro have their own haunting beauty.  From Metro: Last Light.

Even the crowded stations of the metro have their own haunting beauty. From Metro: Last Light.

The Metro 2033 game has two possible endings, a “good” ending and a “bad” ending, based on one’s actions.  It is surprisingly hard to get the good ending, but that is perhaps okay because the “bad” ending is the one that matches the book.  The success of the first game led to an excellent sequel, Metro: Last Light, which follows Artyom on a quest to understand and cope with the consequences of his actions in the earlier story while at the same time trying to prevent a major war between metro factions.  The plot of this one was not written by Glukhovsky, who wrote his own unrelated sequel, Metro 2034 (2009).  However, in a delightful bit of synergy, Glukhovsky has now written the novelization of Metro: Last Light as Metro 2035 (2015).

Cover of Metro 2035, via Wikipedia.

Cover of Metro 2035, via Wikipedia.

Metro: Last Light also has “good” and “bad” endings.  Which ending does Metro 2035 use?  I don’t know, because the book hasn’t been released in English yet.  The beauty and power of Metro 2033 has haunted me, however, so I’m really eager to see what choice Dmitry Glukhovsky makes himself.

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