When I spoke with Justin Cronin about his book, he mentioned a fascination of his: the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, largest ever built, with the power to simulate the conditions of the big bang. He told me something I hadn’t known about the experiment, which ran for the first time in November 2009: scientists thought there was a minute chance that, when the particles collided, the universe could cease to exist. There was the slim but appalling danger that while physicists watched in lab coats, the big bang might unbang itself, and the universe would wink out.
Justin Cronin’s The Passage begins in world we recognize, an eerie cousin of our of our own. But this time, when the switch is flicked, civilization erupts into chaos. The book accomplishes something I’ve never seen before in a work of fiction: it creates a full, vivid, and believable world, then destroys it, and reckons fully with the consequences. For many, many pages, we live alongside Cronin’s characters, discover their habits and secrets, learn to love them. And then, the unimaginable happens. When we step, blinking, into the wreckage, all bets are off. There are no familiar people, no known settings, sights or sounds. Our task, like the task of Cronin’s future colonists, is to make a home in a forbidding new landscape where truly anything can happen.
Like the Old Testament, Cronin’s trilogy tells the generational history of a civilization—we are promised in the opening paragraph that the story will span a thousand years. And so, the work lacks the sheltering hallmarks of traditional fiction. Gone is the easy reliance on a single, trusted protagonist; gone is the tacit assurance that central characters won’t die—they can and must. The novel’s epigraph is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64, which personifies time as a merciless, ravaging force, destruction incarnate; as history-maker, Cronin is merciless too, stripping from us familiar places and faces in humanity’s march towards the future. Time, we are deeply made to feel, will always break our hearts. But this novel is also a lasting testament to the human power to endure, our ability to recover from our brutal, even our irrevocable mistakes, and our endless quest to triumph, someday, over plain old death.
Cronin, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of two other novels. His first book, Mary & O’ Neil, a novel in stories, won the Pen/Hemingway award, the Stephen Crane prize, and other honors. The Passage, which has already been one of the biggest publishing events of the year has been praised by the New York Times, Salon.com, and other publications, and is destined for bestseller lists this week. Stephen King has said the book is “an enthralling, entertaining story wedded to simple, supple prose, both informed by tremendous imagination… It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve.”