So, earlier in the summer, my boss handed me a copy of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. I was racing through A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s a rather heavy book to schlep around in my purse in the August heat, so I put it off until I got on the plane to Anchorage. And then I read the whole thing in a single day. Obviously, spoilers to come.
It’s not a perfect book. In fact, it’s substantially far from a perfect book. There’s an extent to which it’s a hard science-fiction novel: the process by which scientists working for the military identify and then replicate a virus, experimenting on death-row inmates with it, is explicable, if advanced. But it’s also a book that relies, at least in what we know so far, on magic. That isn’t always a combination that works. Magic throws doubt on the validity, capabilities, and limitations of hard science, and it’s difficult to make the transition from scientific thinking to magical thinking. I do hope that Cronin manages to reconcile magic and science in the subsequent books in the series.
But if the writing and character development are as strong as they were in the first novel, I’m willing to live with the contradiction, even if he doesn’t achieve a conceptual reconciliation. My worry is that with the conclusion of the beautifully developed father-daughter relationship that acts as the frame device for the first novel, Cronin won’t be able to keep it up. The Passage was much better as a road book, and as a collection of A Canticle for Leibowitz-like fragments, than as a portrait of a post-apocalyptic society. The setup and conception of the society was just fine, but the book got crowded and a bit baggy in the middle, and got much better once the cast slimmed back down and started moving again. If Cronin can build a relationship between Peter and Amy that equals the relationship between Amy and Wolgast (though it will, by necessity, be different), then I think the sequels will work.
The book’s at its best when it’s about the mysteriousness of love. Amy’s most often the object of that love, but she’s not a void onto which men like Wolgast and Peter project what they want to see. She’s a complete person, one who sees the sadness in A Christmas Carol, who experiences her greatest empathy in relationship to people who can’t communicate with others: a rape victim, polar bears in a zoo, people turned into shells. She is not theirs to decode, or make legible, rather they have to venture into her strangeness and accept it. I like that. It feels true.