It often starts with a single idea, maybe a scene, an image, a ‘what if’? And then you let your imagination run free, you create, you play god. Is there a writer that doesn’t like the worldbuilding?
Case study: Metro 2033. What would happen if there was a nuclear war and the only survivors were the people who managed to hole up in the Moscow subway? Hmm, they’d need to form some sort of a society down there, maybe a different one on each station… Oh the possibilities!
I can almost feel Glukhovsky’s excitement as he comes up with all the fantastic metro stations: the fascist Fourth Reich, the communist Red Line, the intellectual Polis, the capitalist Hanza. And a mythical Emerald City. And stations run by organized crime. And some abandoned after an epidemic. And others run over by mutants. Oh, and a satanist community. And, and… yes, and cannibals worshipping the Great Worm!
He must have had so much fun coming up with all those things. Worldbuildling extravaganza.
But I think Glukhovsky fell into the trap of being too enamored of his own world and begun treating the story as a tool. It reads secondary. It’s there to showcase the metro rather than in its own right. The main character, Artyom, sets out on a journey (a classic quest) and takes us through all the grotesque microcosms of the post-apocalyptic metro. Each station is a new wonder and a new threat. Luckily every time he’s in trouble, he meets a mysterious stranger, who reveals a secret, saves Artyom, and then disappears into the tunnels never to appear again.
After a while the story becomes a little boring, the plot twists repetitive, and it’s only the amazing, detailed worldbuilding that saves the book. Some of the ideas are totally wild; others will strike you as kinda possible in a rather unsettling way.
Just what would we do, if we were stuck for decades in underground tunnels?