Equations of Life (Book 1 of the Metrozone series)
You are now entering the London Metrozone. The time is 7:35, two decades after Armageddon. MIND THE GAP.
Protagonist Samuil Petrovitch is a young, brilliant, wise-cracking physics student living in the chaos and squalor of the Metrozone – the last city left in England after a nuclear war decimated the planet two decades previously. Refugees have flooded in from all over the world; makeshift flats are built from shipping containers; Hyde Park is filled with the dead and the dying. But among these terrible scenes move a cast of colourful and eccentric characters: laconic policemen, gun-toting nuns, crazed doomsayers, and huge immigrant criminal organisations, chief among them Marchenkho’s Ukranians and the Japanese Oshicoras. Petrovitch himself is a refugee from Russia, having fled the fallout to take up a place at Imperial College. There, he and his colleague Pif work away at the equations that will unlock ‘the theory of everything’, opening up the mysteries of the universe to humankind. That, and Petrovitch tries to keep his head down, stay unnoticed and, most importantly, not die. But the Metrozone won’t let him off that easily, and when Petrovitch accidentally saves the daughter of Hamano Oshicora, he is sucked into its dirty, double-crossing, and downright dangerous underworld. And there are more surprises waiting there than he’d bargained for…
Welcome to Simon Morden’s Metrozone series. If you’re on the lookout for a dystopian thriller with plentiful lashings of humour, Equations of Life could be your thing. It’s fun, fast-paced, and mischievous, crammed with gun battles, car chases, and general chaos. Fans of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash will recognise its exuberant OTT-ness – and although Equations of Life does not reach the same level as this eminent forebear, it’s definitely an enjoyable romp.
Unfortunately, whilst I enjoy the occasional romp, my tastes veer more towards the character-driven side of the tracks. And I’m inclined to say that if you, like me, prefer stories that pack emotional punches rather than physical ones, you might want to look elsewhere. Morden’s characters are vivid and fun, but they weren’t fleshed-out enough for my liking. The emotional moments seemed to me stilted and rushed, as though Morden was eager to get them over with and launch us back into another gunfight. Whilst I realise that this maintained the book’s pace, and kept the adrenaline pumping throughout, it left me dissatisfied and unconvinced by the characters’ interactions. This was especially true of Sister Madeleine and Petrovitch; although I did warm to their friendship as the book continued, it was more a case of suspending disbelief rather than accepting their emotional arc.
Petrovitch himself was quite difficult to get a handle on. I definitely liked him and rooted for him, and especially admired the way Morden created him as physically frail, with a failing heart and bad eyesight – certainly not your standard action-hero, no sirree. Still, I wanted a bit more from him emotionally. The setup is promising: Morden hints that Petrovitch has a mysterious past, which is then slowly revealed as the book goes on. This is all well and good – except that I never really got a sense of how this past really affected Petrovitch, apart from in fairly superficial ways. What I found most grating, I think, was his continuous smart-ass manner. In places, Petrovitch’s one-liners were well placed, and very funny, but elsewhere I found myself wishing that he would stop being so goddamned precocious and express more doubt, more fear (especially considering that he’s supposed to be quite young). I would have loved, for example, for Petrovitch’s sarcastic nature to be revealed – at least partly – as a defensive front, a coping mechanism through which he deals with his and the world’s horrific circumstances. That would have been ace. But sadly, even when Petrovitch does open up to the other characters about his past, this doesn’t seem to be the case: he’s as witty as ever.
Perhaps I am being unfair. This is, after all, only the first book in Morden’s series, and it could be that I’m pre-empting him. But if so, I fear that the deeper character insights will come too late for readers such as myself.
Unfortunately, I had similar misgivings about the setting. The Metrozone is certainly a ‘cool’ idea in a morbid sort of way, and I do have a soft spot for the grungy post-apocalyptic aesthetic – but again I’d like for the book to have dug deeper under its surface. I mean, this place is awful, right? People have flocked there to avoid radiation poisoning, or because their home countries have been wiped off the map. People go to Hyde Park to die in hordes. And yet the horrors of the situation don’t really seem to impact on the characters or the storyline very much. OK, so they’ve lived there for a long time and they would be hardened to it to some extent, and sure, sister Madelaine cries when she and Petrovitch have to go through the park, but the feeling I came away with was that the post-Armageddon scenario was convenient. That is to say, it provided a nifty setting in which the characters could run free and bash/shoot/blow things up without real fear of imprisonment or consequences.
Also, there were many things about the setting that didn’t work for me, at least not unless I was given more explanation… For example: there are still cars and computers and all kinds of things being produced in, or shipped into, the Metrozone. Is this feasible? I mean, who’s making them? Where? How are they getting their resources when the world’s gone to sh*t? How do people still have money to buy them? Haven’t the banks collapsed? And how come Petrovitch and Pif are still using paper with apparent abandon – has the environment not been affected by this world-changing nuclear war (which didn’t happen all that long ago, remember)? Or was it, despite being called ‘Armageddon’, not actually ‘that bad’? Is the world already well on the way to recovery? TELL ME MORE I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THIS IS ALL WORKING.
Again, I may be pre-empting Morden here; later books will hopefully weave in more detail. But as a fan (and student) of apocalyptic literature, I didn’t get a sense of why it mattered that Equations of Life was set in a post-fallout scenario.
But perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. Equations of Life isn’t The Road, after all – and it’s not meant to be. It’s energetic, it’s amusing, and it will keep you reading. (It’s also got a really funky cover. I mean, look at that! So awesome.) If those qualities tick your boxes, then hop on for the ride – just ignore the gaps.