Snowpiercer, the post-apocalyptic train that never stops

The railways and climate change

This time, it seems summer has arrived in Europe for good. The terraces are filling up, shorts are replacing jeans and there are many more smiles on people’s faces. But in the twisted universe of the Snowpiercer, the summer period is nothing but a distant memory. Following a climate catastrophe, a new ice age has made the entirety of the planet uninhabitable. Only a handful of survivors remain, and they’re all on board a train that never stops moving. Far from Murder on the Orient-Express, La Bête Humaine or The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, this simple idea stems from science-fiction, and places the characters in the very particular context of a self-driving train.

The first version of Snowpiercer was a French comic series released from 1982 in the pages of A Suivre magazine. Later brought together in a single edition, the strips were written by Jacques Lob and designed by Jean-Marc Rochette, and were followed by later editions written by Benjamin Legrand after the death of Lob. The series was always pretty successful, but only really broke the mainstream following the film adaptation by Korean director Bong Joon-ho in 2013. Four seasons of a TV series based on the film have followed since 2020.

While all three versions of Snowpiercer draw on Jacques Lob’s surreal universe, each has its own quirks. The key commonality relates to the way the train is laid out. Right at the back, the carriages are filled with the poorest men, women and children, in some cases having climbed aboard the train illegally as it was departing. Towards the front, meanwhile, the carriages are rather nicer and the passengers far more privileged. Right at the other end, in the locomotive, is the creator and ruler of the Snowpiercer. In the middle, there’s a kitchen garden, cold rooms, an infirmary, a debauched bar or two – and a whole load of secrets.

At the back of the train, where people are starving, sleeping in filth and being forced to work to keep the Snowpiercer going, the passengers are outraged. Secretly they are preparing to rise up and fight their way along to the front of the train. The only issue is that along the way, there are dozens of bolted doors and hundreds of armed men. And that’s without mentioning the social inertia that helps maintain the status quo on board.

As you’ll have gathered, Snowpiercer is supposed to be an allegory of the wider world. The main difference being that social backgrounds here take the form of first-class carriages, second class, the bag carriage and so on. It also supports the idea that while it’s never completely impossible to break down the barriers that separate social classes, not everyone has a chance to do that, and when they succeed, blood and violence often await. But above all, it reminds us that those who fight back and win against the powers that be often keep hold of their newfound status for very bad reasons. But we’ll stop there, just in case we spoil anything.

Two other themes may explain the success of Snowpiercer. The first is the environment: the icy landscape through the train travels is the result of a catastrophic weather event. In the film version by Bong Joon-ho, it’s the result of a malfunctioning machine that pumped out cooling material to fight global warming which has transformed the Earth into one big ball of ice. It’s a half-veiled criticism of a society that prefers to tackle the symptoms of evil rather than its causes, often for the worse.

The various versions of Snowpiercer also emphasises survivalism and self-sufficiency. Those are two themes that really resonate these days, especially following the global health crisis that saw us all trapped indoors. In a vast train surrounded by a barren landscape where no food can be grown or natural resources be gathered, the smallest crumb becomes the most sought-after treasure. Anything wasted is a shot in the foot. Yet another thing that might unfortunately resonate in the age of a cost of living crisis. But in any case, one way to avoid one day having to jump aboard a Snowpiercer is to continue travelling by train rather than by plane, as we’ll explain below.

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