Did you ever have the perfect atmosphere when you sat down to read a book? Let me explain, the exact moment I sat down to read Snowpiercer I was riding the Metra to work in the middle of one of the worst blizzards we had seen all winter. The train was 70 minutes late getting to downtown Chicago, turning a 50 minute train ride into a two hour trial.
Why is that a big deal? Because Snowpiercer (published by Titan Comics) is a graphic novel series set on a train 1001 one carriages long doomed to circle the frozen Earth again and again. The planet has frozen over and to go outside is suicide. No one is really sure what happened. There was a weapon that could destroy the climate, a war and then a freezing wind. A few survivors managed to flee onto the Snowpiercer, a luxury train that is pulled by an engine that runs on perpetual motion.
The passengers are a microcosm of society, if reflected by a very dark mirror. The elite live in the luxury carriages near the front and live a hedonistic lifestyle with little interest for the other passengers. The second-class live in the middle carriages, passionate about their belief that “Saint Loco” will save them and warmed by their hatred of those behind them. That would be the third-class, the refugees who were just happy to find a spot in the cattle cars but now live a miserable existence where day to day life is a constant struggle to survive and any attempt to reach the front is met with death and destruction.
Volume 1, titled “The Escape”, tells the story of Proloff. He is a refugee from the tail who managed to sneak into second-class before being captured. Instead of being thrown off, he is taken as prisoner to the front of the train and we get a glimpse of what life is like for this small remnant of humanity. Proloff’s march to the front, however, brings death in his wake and we don’t learned what happened to the Snowpiercer until Volume 2, “The Explorers”.
Turns out the Snowpiercer was a prototype and a larger, more advanced model also survived the eternal winter. Sometimes called Snowpiercer 2 or the Icebreaker, the passengers are much more organized and even those at the back live more comfortable lives then the third class of the original Snowpiercer. Unbeknownst to them, every aspect of their lives are controlled by the “Council”, an oligarchy that maintains orders by manipulating their charges at every level. Still people remain content (although increasingly depressed), except for Puig, one of the elite Explorers, those brave (or crazy) enough to venture outside. He believes things are what they seem and his anti-authoritarian stance eventually turns him into the exact thing he hates.
Overall I enjoyed Snowpiercer. I preferred Volume 1 over Volume 2. The second volume seemed a little tacked on and the tone changed drastically after Legrand took over for the late Lob. The black and white illustrations reminded me of Walking Dead, but the flow of the dialogue didn’t always follow the usual left to right path you see with American comics, which caused me the backtrack just so I could figure out what the characters were talking about. Also I recommend not reading this in public like I did. Snowpiercer is very casual about sex and nudity.
What caught my attention the most about Snowpiercer was the tone. The books didn’t pull its punches with the social commentary. Some might find these graphic novels depressing, but there are bright spots for humanity when we show our true potential, even in the face of our ultimate demise. You sort of see this a lot with European fiction (see also Revelation Space). There are not always happy endings for our characters or for humanity, but that is not always what is important to the story. Melodrama is more apparent in American fiction where we want everything to turn out good for our heroes (although modern cable television is starting to resemble the other style of fiction more and more). As we know, however, real life does not always turn out that way. The bad guys win, the good die young and justice is rare. Maybe I am sounding pessimistic, but books like Snowpiercer remind us that the world is not made up of black and whites.
Snowpiercer is an enjoyable, if depressing, dystopia that really puts a tiny bit of fear in my heart as I look out at massive snow drifts outside my home.