How to Write Dystopian Fiction is a ten-part series written by Silverthought Press editor Mark R. Brand during a two-month independent study with Miles Harvey, Assistant Professor of English, DePaul University. The series attempts to analyze what works in a variety of new and old speculative fiction texts with utopias and dystopias as central themes, and to offer advice to writers about how to use these narrative strategies most effectively. This is part three.
I wanted to like The Passage, I really did, but it’s a mess, and I’m just going to say that right up front before I plunge ahead. Recommendations and their inevitable subjectivity aside, I found myself wishing I hadn’t read online that Justin Cronin was paid $3.5 million for this book and another $1.75 million for the rights to the movie before the book was even completed. I’m not, as a rule, against popular fiction authors getting paid exorbitant amounts of money for their work. Mario Puzo’s work, right off the top of my head, was intellectually deserving of both the praise and money it garnered him. But there is a world of difference between Puzo and Cronin and it starts with originality.
Clichés abound in The Passage, and some of them are real groaners that Cronin (and his editors) should have known better than to let pass. One character is writing a book and the book goes on about writing books and it’s a metabook, isn’t that clever? Yawn. Several characters experience agonizingly long dream sequences during which nothing with a clear relationship to the plot actually happens, despite dreaming and sleep being central themes of the book. Cronin describes these dreams in mind-numbing detail as he does the actions of every person and object in the book, down to the smallest “and then he dipped the rag into the water and placed it gently against his own skin”. These sorts of sentences belabor inconsequential moments, and serve to drag out the transitions between meaningful scenes.
The plot itself, regrettably, is a patchwork of genre clichés as well. A young girl named Amy finds herself pulled into a government-sponsored human-weapon program (Soldier, The Manchurian Candidate, Hanna) based on Ebola/Hanta-like virology (Contagion, The Hot Zone, 12 Monkeys). Wolgast, one of the two black-ops federal agents who pursues her comes over to her side and helps her escape from the program and his own partner (Mr. Murder). Unfortunately, this getaway involves the virus escaping its containment and bringing about the end of the world as we know it (The Stand, 28 Days Later). Amy and Wolgast flee into rural America to hide and wait out the apocalypse (Earth Abides) and Wolgast slowly dies of radiation poisoning when a last-ditch effort to nuke the “virals” irradiates them (On the Beach).
The book resumes nearly a hundred years later in a walled post-apocalyptic city (The Road Warrior, Day of the Dead) inhabited by tough Mad Max-like survivalist types who keep their children segregated and communally raised until the age of eight, at which time they are brought forth into a caste system to determine their vocations (Brave New World) in the Last City. Their stronghold persists under an umbrella of massive floodlights at night to keep the vitals away (Pitch Black, Gears of War). The virals are creatures that act like zombies but move terrifyingly fast and drink blood like vampires (I Am Legend, 28 Days Later). The Last City’s inhabitants are led by a council of “household”(Utopia!) elders, including an elderly clairvoyant black woman (The Stand, The Matrix). Amy, still a little girl, is found unarmed and alone and hiding from the monsters (Aliens), having not aged because she is—surprise—now herself a day-walking half-vampire (Blade, Let the Right One In), who despite her childlike appearance is quasi-immortal (Highlander, Interview with the Vampire) and has a number of strange telepathy-like powers (The Shining, Carrie, Firestarter, and basically every plucky young child character Stephen King ever wrote); powers that she herself somehow doesn’t understand despite having had a hundred years to get used to them.
The virals overrun the Last City through infesting the dreams of weak-minded victims (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and the survivors are forced to make a run for it that includes a journey into the lair of Babcock, the immortal evil antagonist (It) whose influence precipitated the viral outbreak that ended the world in the first place.
In theory, it looks like what every sixteen-year-old boy on earth would love to read. “Hey dude, check it out, it’s the awesome-est parts of every good 20th century piece of sci-fi, plus pretty much a full rehash of Stephen King’s early career! Sign me up!” Had I been sixteen when I read it, I would have probably even made the argument that it IS good in this respect. Sadly, as an older and more mature reader, I find that when writers jam together enough of these tropes, they start to feel less like their inspirational ancestors and more like a warmed-over, derivative mishmash a la Waterworld or Serenity.
Most telling, however, is how poorly edited the novel is. Forget for a moment the dozens of plot holes, the continuity errors (my favorite, which stood out like a sore thumb, was a 27-year-old as a full orthopedic surgeon), and the utter predictability of it all; The Passage is agonizingly, brutally, indulgently long. You might think that a book so wholly committed to Cronin’s plodding, flat, Anglo-Saxon single-syllable vocabulary would at least manage to be sufficiently descriptive. You’d be wrong. Dozens of characters exist only as a name, while Cronin describes the young women in embarrassingly fine detail. What’s worse; in the middle of the novel the women cease to be of the intelligent, Katniss Everdeen variety, and become a subspecies characterized by the bizarre combination of preoccupation with pregnancy and safety, while at the same time wielding crossbows and knives and swinging (literally, I’m afraid) into the middle of the action like Jane of the Jungle to rescue their post-apocalyptic Comic Book Nerd Tarzans.
Cronin’s editors seemed content to let him ramble on when they should have been hacking and slashing this down to the 450 page size that it deserved. It’s painfully clear why they did it: they wanted the novel to feel outsized and huge, and it does, to some extent. But somewhere along the line Cronin and his editors lost sight of what makes other mammoth epic novels (I’m thinking of The Stand here since the first third of The Passage was so clearly an homage to it, but also of a few others like James Clavell’s Shogun) as great as they are; the profluence of their plots is hidden in vast stretches of originality,peppered with a few signposts like romantic relationships or reversals of fortune to keep the reader comfortable. Cronin’s book features a number of these, but they become drowned in the endless transitional segments between plot shifts. Relationships that don’t feel genuine for a moment (with the single exception of Amy’s relationship with her mother, over before the book even really begins) take up huge, undeserved chunks of the book, while more interesting relationships, such as the father-daughter bond between Alicia and the Colonel are passed over.
The walled city trope is such an exciting one that I was surprised to discover how lifeless and low-stakes it felt here. There was a wonderful section of the book, no more than twenty or thirty pages out of 900, that talked about a couple of the main characters taking a terrifying flight East across a collapsing North America via train that was under constant lethal attack from virals. Awesome! I thought. Now we’re cooking! But then, three hundred pages of dull, uninspired prose later, I decided that seeing how well Cronin could write if he wanted to only made me enjoy the book less.
Interestingly, I detected some hints of More’s Utopia here. The leaders of the Last City are called “households”, as the Utopian enclave heads are referred to, and Cronin (like Huxley before him) attempts to provide a rationale for why a cloistered and sheltered community would and should accept a de facto caste system of labor. It feels as thin as ever in The Passage, sadly, but that is perhaps less Cronin’s fault than it is simply a difficult trope to sell in general.
I read quite a bit about this book and its author, and some reviews of it (a surprising amount of which was absolutely glowing), and one thing that came up again and again was true: Cronin did manage to more or less completely destroy the world that he spent the first third of the novel fleshing out. Not even Stephen King, in the throes of the Captain Trips outbreak of The Stand—a book which The Passage is so clearly a spiritual homage to—quite managed to do this. In that sense, this book resembles somewhat more closely Neville Shute’s On the Beach or Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, the fingerprints of which are likewise all over the plot of The Passage. But Cronin went a bit beyond these even, to paint a secondary world, the world of the Last City (sometimes just simply called “the camp” or “the colony”), where it’s almost as if the city’s residents are on a different planet altogether, with different rules and logic that’s tied only tenuously to a world we recognize from the 20th and 21st centuries. The connecting threads from the first third of the book to the second are palpable, and Cronin did manage to convincingly end the world, even if only to subsequently bore us to death with uninspiringly-executed warmed-over tropes from what felt like every sci-fi/horror/fantasy book and movie ever made.
What have we learned:
There are two ways to look at The Passage. If you want to make a truckload of money, by all means just rehash the coolest sci-fi you've read and make sure you cover all the bases; nubile young girls, vampires, Mad Max, nuclear explosions, telepathy, dreams, all of it. Stir until shaken and call your agent. If you want to write a worthy book, however, one that will be more than a minor blip on the cultural radar and forgotten as soon as Michael Bay or Joss Wheadon directs the terrible adaptation, the list is different: never write about writing books, never write about dreams, never write about the mundane bodily functions and day-to-day unremarkable entertainment of your characters, never re-write scenes from famous movies and insert them whole into your novel, never characterize only the young, nubile female characters and ignore adequately characterizing everyone else (sheesh Cronin, come on dude), never write filler scenes just to extend the page-distance in the novel from one major plot point to another, never mistake an abiding love for genre tropes for genuine originality, and for God’s sake never invent your own card game, fail to explain the rules to the reader, and then write a five page long scene of characters who have no characteristics beyond their own names playing this game.