I adore post-apocalyptic science fiction. The fragility of humanity and our selfish inability to step off the path to oblivion for the sake of a few home comforts is fascinating to me, not because I’m some kind of crusading eco-warrior, but because I suspect that, of all sub-genres of speculative fiction, this kind of thing could really happen. Perhaps it comes from being a teenager in the eighties, and living under the constant belief that World War III was always just around the corner.
Anyway, Snowpiercer is set in a typical post-apocalyptic world. We don’t find out what happened in this book, only that something caused the whole planet to fall into a new ice age, entirely covering it in snow. The only pocket of humanity to survive is a group who managed to board a perpetually moving train, which travels round and round the world, endlessly carving its way through the bleak, sub-zero landscape. Originally designed to be a modern Orient Express, the train is a luxury cruise ship, with everything it needs to stay moving for months, including its own food supply and some kind of near-perfectly efficient perpetual motion engine.
In fact, this side of things doesn’t bear the weight of much scrutiny. There are more than a thousand carriages on the train and we can’t begin to think about how much space you’d need to grow food for such an enormous number of people. Suspend your disbelief though – the story is still worth it.
It’s not all luxury, though. During or just after the moment of apocalypse, someone decided they should add more carriages on to the back of the train, so that some poorer people could cram in like cattle to avoid the catastrophe.
This creates an inevitable class divide between those living in luxury at the front and the ghetto at the back. The front make the rules, control the supplies, and guard it with weapons. The back make a failed attempt at a revolution but are beaten back by their oppressors. And so an unhappy balance is found.
In this first book in the series we follow a character from the back of the train who manages to break through to the front. His journey is the main thrust of the book so we won’t spoil anything, but there are plenty of plot twists and surprises lined up for him.
Despite the unbelievable situation, the story is thoughtful and intelligent, more like an experiment in microcosmic human society than a rip-roaring adventure story, though it has elements of this too. It’s more about the characters than the backdrop and on this level it works remarkably well.
The black and white art is gritty and captures the claustrophobic nature of the train, with its narrow corridors, cattle trucks at the back and private booths at the front.
If you dislike post-apocalyptic stories then this is unlikely to win you over, but the rest of us can sit down and enjoy this book for what it is: an enjoyable if bleak peek through the window of an apocalypse, and what life as a survivor might hold for us all.