Is it possible in any conceivable universe that Justin Cronin did not read Stephen King’s The Stand before he wrote this? Or see the movie series “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later?” No, I doubt it’s possible even in an alternate universe. Cronin has managed to combine them, refashion the product to be suitable for young adult audiences (but sold in both YA and Adult markets), and spin it out to over 760 pages.
The book takes place some twenty years into the future. In brief, a team of scientists and U.S. military develop an experimental drug therapy out of a rare virus believed to “weaponize” human beings. To test the formula, they experiment on death row prisoners. After the first twelve inmates have undergone rather bizarre transformations, the lead scientist wants to use a child for the next iteration. The choice for Subject Thirteen is Amy, a six-year-old girl who had been abandoned at a convent by a single mother.
The FBI agent sent to retrieve the thirteen subjects, Special Agent Brad Wolgast, balks at taking away a small child, and tries to escape with her. They are caught, of course, and returned to the top-secret Colorado bunker. But their future is uncertain: the “virals” as the once convicts -now vampire-zombies – are now called, escape, break down the bunker, and go out into the world wreaking havoc.
The book resumes one hundred years later, and the reader gets a tour of the post-apocalyptic world that remains. One of the characters summarizes succinctly what it’s like in that world:
“Courage is easy, when the alternative is getting killed. It’s hope that’s hard.”
Discussion: The story is told from multiple points of view, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out who is talking. The book could have been abridged quite a bit without losing anything of consequence. There are some mysteries that are never resolved (although apparently a sequel is in the works). Oddly, we never really get to know Amy, who is the lynchpin of the whole book, not to mention, of the book’s universe.
Is The Passage better than post-apocalyptic books such as The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go? I think The Passage just does not measure up to those books. But perhaps that’s not a fair comparison. Consider instead the series by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Life As We Knew It, The Dead And The Gone, and This World We Live In) which probably comes closer to The Passage in terms of the story line (e.g., massive kill-off of the population, and struggle for survival among the remainder). Certainly Cronin’s writing is much better, but otherwise I can’t really say I thought The Passage superior. And yet, I was not tempted to put it down in spite of its length. There’s also something about devoting all that time to characters that makes you miss them when the book is over.
What about this “passage?” What does the title mean? This is a question to which multiple answers are given throughout the book, some of which involve spoilers. But perhaps the most sensible answer is given right at the beginning of the story, when the lead scientist is sending an email to his friend about the virus project:
“When I ask myself why I should turn back now, what I have to go home to, I can’t think of a single reason….whatever happens, whatever I decide…I feel as if I’ve entered a new era of my life. What strange places our lives can carry us to, what dark passages.”
Another explanation comes in the form of one of the epigraphs in front of one of the divisions of the book:
“You who do not remember
Passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
Returns from oblivion returns
To find a voice.”
Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris”
And finally, we hear from Justin Cronin himself, who told the New York Times:
“The vampire narrative deals with the fundamental question, the basic human question, and that is, what part of being human is defined by the fact that we’re mortal? If you got to be immortal, would you be trading away your humanity? It’s the fundamental question of what is death to being alive.”
I take that to refer to the passage between mortality and immortality. Indeed that’s a passage that pretty much defines the book.
Evaluation: Generally I love dystopic fiction, but I think the real world is scary enough without having to come up with zombie-vampire-bat-thingies. Thus, the book was gorier than I thought it would be and sillier than I had hoped it would be. Nevertheless it has some appealing characters with whom you want to spend your time. Too bad a large number of them get eaten.
Published by Ballantine Books, 2010
Note: I am clearly in the minority on this one. This book is causing a sensation, and Ridley Scott has already paid $1.75 million for the film rights.