Metro isn’t particularly original - it stands in a long-line of post-apocalyptic, humanity retreats underground, narratives - nor is it predicated on a radical mind-bending concept like so many Phillip K. Dick novels and short stories. But Metro 2033 does nail two very important elements that make it a throughly engaging science fiction read. First it understands that the heart of SciFi lies in Metaphor and Allegory as it presents a confined underground future humanity trapped in the subway tunnels of Moscow. A social culture microcosm under a pressure-cooker that manifests tribal conflicts and humanities deepest fears and triumphs. In addition, what Metro 2033 demonstrates is that its author understands the particular structural challenges of Science Fiction and is able to exploit these challenges and weaknesses as a narrative strength.
What the hell does that mean?
It means Metro 2033 shows us a trick for Dramatising Exposition.
Metro 2033 is set in a complex environment of underground railway tunnels and stations. These stations have become a system of post-apocalyptic city-states , each with their own particular politics and agenda and drawn together in a complex history of forged and broken alliances, war, trade and take-over. Pressurizing this storyworld are also external forces; strange creatures from beyond the tunnels - the dark-ones and monsters and all manner of post-nuclear weird shit.
The challenge of any such speculative fiction scenario is Exposition. Before any real engagement can be made with plot-arcs or character transformation the reader needs to be ‘orientated’ with the very particular storyworld context - its Rules and Pressures (see this post for more….) this Orientation is Exposition - the explaining of circumstances. In the common discourse around story, narrative and, particularly, screenwriting, Exposition is often treated like a leaper - something to be avoided, minimised, something that gets in the way of the ‘story’. I dont concur with this line of thinking and such feedback to writers along the lines that there is “too much exposition” is misleading. Exposition is not of itself the problem, how that exposition is presented is the real issue. Exposition is not just an important part of story telling, its also very often the most enjoyable part for storyworlds that are fantastic, foreign, futuristic or far-fetched. However, to make exposition engaging beyond the intellectual or cognitive levels it must be dramatised. And this is where Metro 2033 teaches a very simple yet remarkably effective trick.
The early chapters of the book involve a LOT of exposition, and it’s exposition that is absolutely necessary. Before our hero, Artyom, can venture forth into the tunnels on his quest to save his home station and defeat the Dark Ones, we - the readers - must understand his storyworld. Rather than have the passive narrator describe the world - its past, present and politics - the author constructs an opening scene where the young Artyom sits around a campfire and listens to the tales of old-soldiers and their stories of adventure and battle and horror in the tunnels of the metro. In doing so the author puts the exposition into the first-person, embodies it in a character with a specific point-of-view and presents it in something approximating present-tense. The old soldiers recount their stories in an immediate voice of how they fought, escaped, hid, conquered or survived various encounters. And what the audiences gets its a highly dramatised, tension filled story that is not at all advancing the Plot of Artyoms journey but is delivering detailed exposition that will frame his future journey. It is immediate, characterised exposition. And it works. It’s a simple solution but it is highly effective and provides a good example of character-based dramatisation of exposition that is a sound lesson for all writers and storytellers.