The Passage, by award-winner Justin Cronin, appears to be an attempt by a well-regarded literary writer to visit popular culturewithout really understanding that it isn't the content that makes it popular but the connection.
The U.S. government, trying to extend human life by reactivating the thalamus, has modified a family of viruses. During testing, they take 12 men off death row and create blood-sucking, phosphorescent, telepathic, essentially immortal, killing machines who can only be killed in turn by a single shot through the weak spot in their protein-based exoskeleton "…over the breastbone, a strike zone about three inches square."
Yes, the government has created vampires. Not the new, romantic bloodsuckers; these are vicious, inhuman, sob's; accidental weapons the military can't wait to get its hands on.
The program goes completely off the rails when six-year-old Amy Harper Bellafonte, orphaned and abandoned, is brought to the mountain to incubate the latest version of the virus. Amy becomes something … else.
The vampires get loose. The virus is very contagious. Cue the apocalypse.
Cronin isn't interested in how the U.S. falls; it's enough that it does. Barely touching on the chaos and death, he jumps ahead a hundred years to a colony of survivors. And, eventually, Amy. Not a blood-sucking, phosphorescent killing machine, but apparently immortal. And telepathic.
There's no emotional pay-off for the reader, and this happens again and again
There's a lot happening in this book - government plots, science gone wrong, apocalypse, post-apocalypse, vampires, unexplained psionic powers - and yet, I can't tell what the book is actually about. Don't trust the government? Bad things happen no one can control? If Cronin's trying to say "we are the monsters" he's covered that in the first 250 pages, so why continue for another 516? It's certainly not about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity because the human spirit doesn't triumph. When it comes right down to it, it doesn't even survive.
Is it a look at the human condition? A panoramic snapshot if you will, of how Humanity - personally, culturally, socially - reacts when the world goes to hell? Perhaps. Photographs distance us from the actual scene shot and readers of The Passage are there only as observers, never drawn in.
Cronin is a terrific writer. He puts words together in a way that's both evocative and lyrical. It was a joy to read sentences, paragraphs, scenes so beautifully constructed - but I still don't know what he's built.
The vampires are both absolutely merciless and compared by more than one character on more than one occasion to shooting or falling stars without any awareness that one of these things is not like the other. Make a wish. Then die.
The characters all have unique voices and detailed backgrounds. Cronin defines their place in the world by showing us what they love, what they've lost, what they fear … then he pulls back and distances us from their deaths. There's no emotional pay-off for the reader, and this happens again and again.
Meet a character. Know a character. Lose a character. The reader is told over and over not to bother becoming involved.
Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who brought Amy to the laboratory, saves her later both by rescuing her from the destruction of the lab, and by loving her - an act that helps her retain her humanity. Their part of the story could have been poignant and heartbreaking, but even though the words are right - "What would become of her, after he was gone? This girl who barely slept or ate, whose body knew nothing of illness or pain. … I'm sorry, he thought, I did my best but it wasn't enough." - the effect is lyrical rather than emotional.
In the post-apocalyptic world - the bulk of the book - there's a distinct parallel between the distance from the horror outside the walls the adults of the First Colony of the California Republic allow their children, and the distance from the horror he's created that Cronin still maintains for the reader. Multiple viewpoints diffuse any sense of urgency, and lovingly crafted description slows the pace until it becomes practically languid. Strangely, in a hundred years, language seems to have drifted by only one word: Trousers are called gaps. There's situational slang but, otherwise, the gaps stand alone in such a way that they announce with every appearance "don't worry, this isn't real."
There's no resolution. The story doesn't end, it stops. Humanity as a whole survives, but the individuals we've come to know …
In fairness, The Passage, in spite of content and a reception suggesting it's here to save us from the excesses of Twilight, isn't intended for a genre audience. Readers unfamiliar with the tropes of science fiction, fantasy and horror - and Cronin wanders through many of them - may find that the distance Cronin's writing requires is comforting as they deal with what is, to them, a new landscape. Those who prefer to be more engaged with the text are likely to be disappointed.
Because I can't help thinking that if there's been an apocalypse, the reader ought to care.
Tanya Huff is the author of the Vicki Nelson series of vampire novels adapted for television as Blood Ties. Her next novel, The Truth of Valor, will be published in September.