Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book review: The Passage

The Passage: A Novel
I was a little late in getting around to reading The Passage. The book was the must-have beach read this past summer, but I'd vowed when we moved to Atlanta that I'd learn to rely on the local public library instead of subsidizing Borders. Which means getting on waiting lists for really popular books and hoping they get to me eventually, and The Passage did. The question is, was it worth the wait?

What I had heard about the book through word of mouth intrigued me. People that I know who never read vampire or science fiction raved about the book. A few reviewers did slam it as "Twilight meets The Stand," but enthusiasts outnumbered the nay-sayers.

Well, I must say the nay-sayers were wrong. It's not Twilight meets The Stand. It's The Stand meets Resident Evil with maybe a little bit of Fire Starter thrown in for good measure. Cronin does a really, really nice job of channeling Stephen King and video games. Had this novel been published by a more obviously genre publisher like TOR or DAW instead of Ballantine, the reaction would have been a tad more muted, i.e., "competent reworking of an old theme" or "formulaic post-apocalyptic potboiler." As it was, the author's previous works had not been trapped in the speculative fiction ghetto; they'd been mainstream, so this novel was treated as Serious Writing for Adults.

Pshaw. The Passage is not serious writing, at least not in the sense of mainstream novel writing. It's well-written, it's fun, it's escapist, but it's also derivative, formulaic, and contains its fair share of howlers, like the usual finding gasoline that's decades old and having it still be usable.* Cronin's work is a lot closer to Michael Crichton in spirit and execution than it is to anything by writers such as Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie. Cronin treads paths that have been traveled so many times before that they've become metaphorical expressways: the killer virus that escapes the lab, the evil military-industrial complex that wants to weaponize an idealistic scientist's work, the ever-popular "this is what happens when scientists play God" meme, the classic Good defeats Evil (and why does Evil always want to hang out in Las Vegas?). . . I'm not sure just how many authors have mined this particular vein before, but I do know you could fill a pretty goodsized convention hall with them all. It's not a bad book, it's actually quite good if you're looking for escapist reading, some mind candy with which to fritter away some time you would otherwise have spent vacuuming or watching Oprah, but it really did leave me wondering what all the fuss was about.   

Maybe the best way to describe the book would be say that Cronin is good, but he's not great. He's competent, he can string words together in a way that makes sense and flows smoothly, but he lacks the artistry of writers such as Rushdie. Maybe he'll grow into it -- or maybe he'll figure out he's created the ultimate retirement plan, a best-selling novel that's part of a trilogy (guaranteed sales for the sequels) and is also on its way to becoming a movie (supposedly being directed by the guy who directed "Cloverfield," which does not raise much hope for it being any good), so he can say goodbye to teaching snot-nosed undergraduates and kick back by a pool in Santa Barbara. 

[*I loved the sweet little old lady making paper by mixing sawdust and water. I couldn't help wondering just where the heck had she been getting sawdust from for 80 years when the settlement is described as not having had any new construction done in decades. Besides, they were still scavenging shopping malls for shoes and clothes; why didn't she just hit a Staples and stock up on notebook paper and 3-ring binders?]


  1. I've been reading some old Readers Digest books, most of the stories in them are pretty good.

    I don't know if you would call it an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic book but Good News is a good read.

  2. You are exactly right about it being formulaic and full of old chesnuts. It is "Twilight" meets "The Stand."

    And I loved it. I'm all about the mind candy, and if it involves zombies, I scour it for valuable zombie apocalypse ideas and information. Because I'm a head-case that way.

  3. My favourite brain-dead fiction is Westerns by Ernest Haycox or Louis L'Amour. Otherwise John LeCarre or James A Michener.
    I admit to having read several Conan novels but never any 'science" fiction. Thanks for the warnings to stay away from it.


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