Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: The Passage (original)


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I was so disappointed by The Passage by Justin Cronin that I'm going to massively spoil it here just to make sure there's no chance you'll think I missed something and decide you want to read it anyway. Don't do it. The Passage by Justin Cronin is a disappointment.

This must have been an Entertainment Weekly recommendation. I'm going to have to make better use of GoodReads and hope it doesn't fail me because Entertainment Weekly has just been mistake after mistake.

So I use our family's version of Netflix-for-books: I go on to the library's website and reserve them. When my wife goes to the library, she picks up all of the holds and any she doesn't recognize she assumes are mine and drops them on the bed.

So I knew I was in trouble when I got home and saw this 766 page behemoth making a big dent in the mattress. Especially when I opened it and realized it wasn't that long because it was large print or anything.  So I decided to give it 100 pages.  And at that point, I was invested. It didn't seem like a meanderer, and I felt invested, so I kept going.

But here's the deal... this book is long, this book is interesting any many points. The book is funny. The book is suspenseful. The book is well-detailed and the author has established a really compelling and plausible world. But the book could have stood to have an editor. Not a "comma here, mixed tense problem here" editor but a "cut this entire section" editor. Instead, I think the author wrote and wrote and wrote until one day he got bored. And then he was done writing.

Ok, here's your Cliff Notes for this book: It's about vampires. The characters go out of their way to call them smokes, dracs, virals. They make a point of not calling them vampires, even mentioning how some people wanted to but it was rare that they would.

The book has eleven parts and a post-script, each with a quote from Shakespeare or Katherine Anne Porter or Percy Bysshe Shelley - you know, it's all literarily superior and whatnot. I was so intent on the story that I usually breezed over them like commercials. (There was a period of time where I was devouring this book every free moment I could get, staying up late, carrying it around the house - I was quite hooked for a while.) Within the parts, chapters - 71 in all. Within the chapters, random breaks designated by the dots in a row you sometimes find in books.

The first section card includes "5-1 B.V." - later I figured out this must mean "years 5 through 1 - before virals" - though that's not maintained consistently (as a lot of the book takes time in realtime 100 years later) and never specifically explained it eventually becomes clear but it's one of those ones where it would have been nice to know sooner.

The story starts by introducing the character Amy to you on the day she was born. Her mother was a 19-year-old who made some bad choices and 15 pages later, Amy's 5, her mom's been a prostitute for a few years and the chapter ends as Amy is left at a convent because the mom's just killed someone. It's would probably win an award as a stand-alone short story. A nun from Sierra Leone with her one tortured backstory takes Amy under her wing.

The next chapter is a series of emails from a scientist on an expedition in Bolivia. It's a one-sided story, as if the emails were simply collected later. The scientist writes of the expedition deep into the wilds of Bolivia, a trip paid for by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He talks about the people on the trip, including soldiers who keep to themselves but don't see who they are, of the difficulties of getting a good satellite link-up to send emails and then challenge of the terrain itself. One email contains nothing, the next tells of an attack by swarms of bats. Some emails contain attachments - photos, but we don't get to see the photos, just the text. He describes statues and drawings of humanoid-like creatures with sharp teeth and long claws, muscular bodies. Maybe some of the photos contain shots of them. The bat attacks get worse to where nearly everyone is dead or very sick and injured and they call for an evacuation.

The next chapter is the story of a prison inmate. He has a very low IQ and life has dealt him some unfortunate blows. Ultimately (these bits and pieces are teased out) he is wrongly accused of murder and doesn't tell the truth - has trouble remembering the truth - and is on death row for it. One day while begging at the side of the road a distraught woman stops to give him some money and realizes she doesn't have any on her so she invites him into the car. She hires him to go gardening and lawn work and then arranges for all her rich, socialite friends to also employ him. She becomes his project. She is really nice to him but over time he sees her less and less. One day while out working, he finds a tiny little frog and calls over one of the children to show it to her but someone thinks he's up to no good (he's black, the family is white). Anyhow, the mom ends up coming out, her husband has left her, she jumps in the pool, he goes in after her, she hugs him but he can tell she's going to kill herself. He gets out of the pool and waits for the police and never gives up her secret that she killed herself.

Government agents come and ask him to be a part of a military project in exchange for his death sentence being commuted and he agrees.  Then the agents are told to go get the girl from the first story - she was dropped off on a Saturday at the convent, they have a window of time between then and Monday morning when CPS would pick her up that they can snatch her.

The agents snatch the girl while she's at the zoo with the nun and then a cross-country journey trying to bypass the DHS checkpoints all over the country (it is 2014 and... yeah... some things have changed). By now they're running from people looking for them for kidnapping the girl and from their employers because they're having second thoughts about what will happen to this child. They are arrested, saved by the book's only really flimsy character, a caricature of guns-blazing kill-everyone blow-up-cars-from-a-helicopter military guy - you know the types - the ones who seem able to do stuff like that but to read it, he comes across as flippant, paunchy, not likely to have done real military service himself - just some sadistic guy who likes killing people and who everyone else blindly follows without seemingly to care. Unrealistic.

Anyhow, they've been injecting these death row inmates with stuff extracted from the bats (and the people who got bit or scratched) on the expedition at this lab in the Colorado mountains. They had used homeless people before that but they all died. These death row inmates were healthier, so they didn't die, but they did still turn into those creatures who stayed in the shadows and ate rabbits by essentially shredding them and sucking up all the blood. They thought in this little six-year-old girl they had a new opportunity - they'd been refining the chemical mix and that she (and apparently all children)  have an organ in their body that ceases to function when they become adults. I can't find it in the book now but it's supposedly used in early development but becomes dormant by the time one becomes an adult. This is stated matter-of-factly, so I don't know if it's true outside the book or not, but it feels plausible. So yeah, she has the stuff in her body as well.

So all the people in the lab are plagued by nightmares and get poor sleep. Turns out these creatures are projecting the dreams onto the people. The nun who had taken Amy under her wing took off after Amy, being guided to Colorado and the lab. Is it God? Maybe. The book seems to walk along a tightrope smiling gleefully. So the nun shows up at the lab the same night the creatures - the virals - speak into their minds and tell them to open all the cages and free them.

The girl is saved but the virals kill most of the people in the complex, ripping them to shreds. The girl and one of the agents takes off and hides in the wilderness of Oregon. They learn of the fall of humanity in North America through a smaller and smaller and less frequently published USA Today when he travels down to a nearby town for supplies.

Next is a notice posted in the City of Philadelphia (2 A.V.) of a Notice of Evacuation for children between the ages of 4 and 13.

And then an except from a journal presented at "The Third Global Confernece on the North American Quarantine Period" at the University of New South Wales. The entry is undated, but the conference is held in 1003 A.V. The entry describes the young child's evacuation from Philadelphia by train to a walled compound in California near Palm Springs which remains well-lit at night by massive lights powered by the fields of turbines.

So by this point we're 250 pages in and we're up to about 92 A.V. and most of the rest of the book is in real-time from here.

We learn a lot about the inhabitants of this "colony" - another really well-defined world with its rules and way of life, little memory of a far more advanced world. Reading this and catching up on Revolution I've gotten a few things mixed the last few days trying to keep stuff straight. The compound includes a school building. All children live within the walls of the school until their 8th. birthday - their parents come to visit often, most at least nightly to tuck them in, but they live sheltered from the reality of the day-to-day existence in the colony. On their 8th. birthday they are taken out of the school to live with their parents and start training on whatever will be their job within the colony.  There's a fading belief that the Army will someday come back for them, but for now, they're self-sufficient.  But the batteries are starting to fail and people are starting to have the nightmares and the attacks by the virals seem to be becoming more coordinated and strategic.

The power station that's connected to the wind turbines is outside the wall of the compound and when the last maintenance group doesn't return, the main characters of the book are sent. They discover that the others had been lured out of the electrified fencing and one had been turned but the other hadn't. Before returning home they scout the nearby area for supplies, set fire to a nest of virals and flee through a shopping mall where one of the characters encounters a young girl who doesn't talk but leads him to safety. They return back to the compound and a few days later the young girl walks up to the gates and they let her in. Not before shooting her with a crossbow, thinking she was a viral. We learn this is Amy, having aged about 10 years in the past 100 years.

She miraculously heals and they discover that there's a tiny microchip implanted in her broadcasting a repeating radio signal that basically says that if she's found, she should be brought back to Colorado. And thus begins the expedition - to take her back to Colorado, to try to find help, to learn if the world has died or if there's some hope for them once the batteries fail. (And why the lights sometimes go out mysteriously at night allowing virals in - though we as readers know that people are sleep walking under the influence of the virals.)

So a long and dangerous journey, the first stop being a nearby military base which is buried underground and has solar power and water and MREs. Because it didn't have any people, the virals had no interest in it, so it's intact. The electrical engineer turns out to have a knack for something he's never encountered before - the modern combustion engine found in your military grade Humvee. He cobbles together a working one and they use it to advance further until they get to Las Vegas where they are separated and attacked and then rescued by a group of well-armed people who have a place called "Haven" located on the grounds of a nearby prison. Their fortifications are minimal, they have a number of working vehicles and they don't seem to get attacked. Oh, and there's few children, lots of pregnant women and you rarely see the people who live there. Soon enough our band of travelers discover that they are simply kept-people, this was the hometown of the most powerful of the original 12, the source of people's nightmares and he would return regularly to feast on cows and humans while people watched. In return for the food (very few humans and wild animals still remains, these creatures have been so efficient in wiping out everything) he protects the community.

One of their friends is offered up as a sacrifice and they go to save him and Amy goes face-to-face with the viral and tells him to leave them alone and he seems to back off - she's able to talk to them and they listen. (Turns out she's able to talk to the pre-viral human mind still trapped inside seeking its identity.)

They escape Haven and travel further towards Colorado in a train that the people of Haven had been working on for years and the electrical engineer fixed for them in a matter of hours.

They leave two people at a house because they're expecting a child and can't continue on. Some boring story about a dog. Some supernatural saves from the virals. Again... God? Not God? Ghost? Angel? Deus ex machina? Plot hole?

They come across a well stocked military outpost.  They separate, most staying with the military and the main guy and Amy heading to Colorado. The military stumbles upon a hidden mine shaft they'd been looking for, they kill a lot of virals and lose a lot of soldiers. They decide to go after the man and Amy to help them. They get to Colorado. The nun is living there in a small shack - the scientist had improved further on the strain that Amy had received - the nun couldn't talk to the other virals but she was now immortal. So now they are all smart about what happened originally from all the scientist's notes (he didn't make himself immortal) and they have a few injections they can use.

They have a plan to lure the big baddie to a bunker (NORAD?) and blow him up but then the nun tricks them and does it herself, dying in the process. Amy calls to all the virals he had turned and they come to her. She is able to speak to them telepathically and affirm each one's identity. Content in their identity, they lie down and are then vaporized by the sunlight.   A turning point, right? Now we know how to stop the virals - kill the head.  One down, 11 to go. Right?

The group again splits, one group heading with what's left of the military to a major base in Roswell, a city with over 30,000 human survivors. The smaller group goes back to the original colony (which is now empty).  Amy is seen embracing a viral and we learn that the agent who had first kidnapped her, then bonded with her and escaped with her and then cared for her - he hadn't died from radiation poisoning (from all the nuclear bombs dropped on major cities by the U.S. to try to kill off the virals) but had been turned himself. The viral is hugging her back and then is vaporized.

And then book ends.

But then there's a postscript. A bit of journal from another character from their first night back in Roswell. She's there with the couple who had the small baby in the house and she herself is pregnant and is going to tell the father-to-be that evening. And then she says she hears gunfire and is going to go see what's up.

And then a footnote to the journal entry that reads
Recovered at Roswell Site ("Roswell Massacre")

Wait... what? So Amy releases the viral/former agent and he dies after we thought he was dead for 100 years, most of the people have died just to round-trip back to the colony, 11 of the 12 viral "queen bees" are still "alive" and the promise of sanctuary and of new life in a baby and a pregnancy - they all got killed? What an incredibly unsatisfying story.

Oh, and I'm not really sure what "the passage" was unless it was the fruitless round-trip echoed so many times in the "they always go home" theme. (which was violated in several ways by the ending.)

Boo, Justin Cronin, boo! Don't read The Passage, people.
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