Ten years ago, Justin Cronin was challenged by his daughter to write a book in which a girl saves the world. To his credit and our benefit, Cronin didn’t just accept that challenge; he made it a vital part of his life over the last decade, producing not one but three huge books, culminating in the recently-published third volume of The Passage trilogy, The City of Mirrors.
The first two books, The Passage and The Twelve, detail humanity’s epic struggle against the bloodthirsty virals, human beings corrupted by a military lab experiment gone horribly wrong. Humanity largely fails in that struggle after the virals escape confinement. Billions upon billions of the world’s population are slaughtered and turned into vampires, even as tiny remnants of survivors build protective enclaves in the desert places of California and Texas. Cronin does not spend much time retracing his steps from the first two volumes. He jumps right back into the tale, with only a minimal–and, at times, puzzling–glance back at the ground he has covered and a jump forward in time to territory we have yet to cross. What he does do, however, is reveal the backstory hidden from us in the first two volumes. We will know, finally, how the deadly virus emerged, and what Dr. Jonas Lear hoped to accomplish in creating it. We will also learn more about the role of Amy, the young girl infected with an alternate virus, who is regarded as a threat by the virals and their reclusive leader, Subject Zero, Tim Fanning.
What Cronin sacrifices in laying bare the backstory of Lear, Fanning, and the remnants and descendants of the Texas Expeditionary Force is the speed and violence of the battle scenes of the first two books. The virals and the Twelve who control them were defeated in the second book, but it was inevitable that, after a long period of peace, they would return. Except for one harrowing passage in which the virals attack from within the Texas compound, The City of Mirrors does not have the intensity of its predecessors.
The reason it doesn’t is Cronin wants to answer the question “why” for his readers and for himself. Why would science and the military create such a threat to our own species? Why do we exist, and fight to continue to exist, when there seems so little reason to do so? These questions are philosophical, but Cronin must answer them. As the unnamed writer friend of Nessa, a character who appears late in the story, puts it in one of his sober moments, “Because I can’t stand not knowing.” The radical philosophers among us would respond that, try as we might, we cannot know, or that not knowing is itself a philosophical stance, a kind of meaning; but, as Basil Wiley argued long ago in his book, The Seventeenth-Century Background, an “explanation” is a verbal construct whose conditions satisfy us. The explanation need not do any more than that. It doesn’t have to be complete. That it satisfies us is enough.
The explanation certainly satisfies Cronin, and he sets it forth for his readers to find. Whether readers will be satisfied is another issue entirely, but they need to be prepared for–indeed, they cannot miss–the deeply reflective turn that Subject Zero, Tim Fanning, takes as he awaits and prepares for the showdown with Amy, Peter, Michael, and Alicia in the soulless ruin of glass and steel that was New York City. Amy and her companions take on the suicide mission to destroy Fanning because they know if they don’t that humanity will never be free of him. What’s impressive about this dark, forbidding section of the novel is not the final confrontation–though that is striking enough–but Cronin’s eye for detail as he describes the landscape that’s been decimated by the virals. Fanning awaits his foes in Grand Central Station, the place where his life was to have started long ago and the place where it effectively ended. His thoughts are upon Amy, who has planted a seed of hope within her human companions that they might survive: “And yet she knows,” Fanning says,
“. . . this flowering is an illusion, the merest respite. There can be no safety; her triumphs have but scratched the crust. Below lies the dark core, that great iron ball beneath all things. Its compressed weight is fantastic; it is older than time itself. It is a vestige of the blackness that predates all existence, when a formless universe existed in a state of chaotic un-creation, lacking awareness even of itself.”
Into that darkness of thought and mind step Amy and her friends, motivated only by the love they have for each other and their fellow survivors. Fanning knows enough to consider the other side of the argument for a moment, but his conclusion, couched not in a statement but a rhetorical question, is the same:
“And is this love a reflection of some grand design, a taste of an ordered and divine creation? Is it truth or a departure from the truth? Romantic love, fraternal love, the love of a parent for a child and the love returned in kind–are they a mirror to God’s face or the bitterest gall in a cosmos of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”
Cronin strives, however, to show us that love in its many forms, including sacrificial acts of separation and the yielding up of life itself, is a powerful, positive force. Many readers are likely to find several instances of that love somewhat contrived in the book, as I do in the too-easy way that Michael and Alicia (who belongs to Fanning) renew their affection. Love, in humanity’s darkest hours, doesn’t have to “succeed” in order to show forth its value; the act itself is enough, as the decision of Sister Peg to stay with her charges as the virals attack the Texas compound and her touching good-bye to General Apgar demonstrates.
What is not contrived, although it appears to be, is the layer of archeological history within which the great story is told. Readers will discover enough archetypes of Christ, of Noah’s Ark and the Flood, of Cain and Abel, to last them a lifetime, but Cronin embeds the story within a millennium, as the descendants of humanity must wait a thousand years before they dare explore the contaminated North American continent. They explore that continent as our descendants will, using only the fragments that have been left behind as clues to who these people were, and how they lived and died. Only those fragments, and the ruins of settlements, can let those descendants know whether the “history” they have received is true or not. It is, in other words, an unsettling vision of our own history to come, when all that we’ve built, all that we have tried to preserve and pass on, will be nothing more than scraps in the earth, to be dug up by the curious, ignored, or simply washed away by the endless cycles of rain and wind. The context of history surrounds another great trilogy, of course: The Lord of the Rings was also a history, with the various appendices giving us a peek into the deeper history that lay behind the first, second, and third ages of the world. Yet, Cronin’s history is quite modern, and realistic in that nothing will actually be “known” until Dr. Logan Miles and his contemporaries attempt to resettle the continent.
Until then, all that Miles and his team knows is just guesswork. What is not guesswork, though, is the unmistakable evidence of warfare and the lives that were lost because of it. For all the power that love has in The City of Mirrors and in the trilogy as a whole, there is also within these many pages a deep sense of humankind’s talent for destroying itself. We began it with stones and sticks, progressed to guns, then moved on to bombs and germs over fifty years ago. The result is the same: the destruction of our neighbors and ourselves, and a sense of loss for which our companion habit of building things can’t quite compensate. There may well be a passage from darkness to glorious light in human affairs, but we haven’t found it yet. Perhaps, like the descendants in Cronin’s book, we stand on the threshold of such a passage, but perhaps not. There’s a dark core in each of us, and our history–both ancient and most recent–powerfully suggests that we are slaves to a very long and anguished habit of, year by year, bringing the end of our own existence just a little bit closer.