In two weeks’ time, the movie Snowpiercer opens. This book is, much like Captain America and his friends, based on a comic book. And just like Captain America, it stars Chris Evans. So before looking at the movie next week, let’s look at the comic it’s based on.
In case you know the comic, be aware that I’m only going to cover the part that is in the movie today. This would be the first volume that was originally published as Le Transperceneige #1. It’s a 120+ pages of adventures of the last bastion of humanity – a train that can never ever stop – on a frozen planet Earth.
«Transperce… what», I hear you ask? That’s the original title of Snowpiercer. Transperceneige. It’s a mesh of three words, really, and obviously French. «Trans-» is a common French prefix for travelling things that cross something. «Pierce» is obvious, because it’s the same word in English. «Neige» is French for snow.
With the terminology out of the way, let’s look at the story. Global warming got really bad, so humanity did what it thinks it does best: It thought of a solution. An experiment should fix the planet’s warming. But it goes horribly wrong and it ushers in a new ice age. Humanity’s pretty much screwed. Everyone dies. Well, not quite everyone. Thousands of survivors manage to save themselves onto a train, a train with 1000 carriages. Humanity’s last hope. Le Transperceneige.
But not all’s well aboard the magnificent train. Initially planned to be a luxury holiday resort on rails, the Transperceneige is its own little ecosystem. It has greenhouses aboard, waste is recycled and it runs on the closest that humanity will ever get to having a perpetuum mobile.
The people aboard the Transperceneige are divided into classes. The people in first class have it nice. Good food, good beds, entertainment and the carriages are well-insulated against the unforgiving cold outside. They live at the front of the train. In the back, there’s the third class. The passengers there are constantly cold, starving and nobody in the front of the train really knows how bad they’ve got it. And it’s so much worse than they imagine. But they have nothing but their imagination. The people in the back think that they first class is some sort of Promised Land. The people in front think that the back is either some sort of hellhole worthy of destruction because nothing good can ever come from it or a place where people need help.
And one day, Proloff appears in the front of the train. The man faced the cold outside, braved death and got past the border that separates first and second class. His reasoning: «Even death is better than Third Class. » How Proloff made it to First Class, we’ll never know, because that’s not the plot of the comic. The comic is about the society this unique setting has created. While the plot pretty much follows a group – including Proloff – walking from the back of the First Class all the way to the Engine, we are confronted with all the various technological marvels and all the people on the train as well as their problems.
An example: Proloff breaks a window getting back into the train. No big deal, right? Wrong. Because if you’re on a train that can never stop and there’s absolutely nothing on the outside other than certain death, a window becomes very precious. Where do you get spares? This pretty much applies to everything aboard. Once it’s gone, it’s the last time you’ve ever had it. And another thing is something the Transperceneige once had more of: Speed. Because even though the train is running on something close to a perpetuum mobile, it’s not quite a perpetuum mobile. The Transperceneige is getting slower. So the people in the First Class are thinking about disconnecting some carriages from the back, where the human waste lives. Of course, Proloff is against this.
So yeah, that’s the point the book really wants to hammer home over the first 120 pages. It’s a slow story, despite being set on a train that’s charging through ice and snow at high speeds. Because, in the end, it’s not about a high speed chase or a race against time or any of those old tropes. In the end it’s about people in a very small world where they are prisoners. They can’t go anywhere. Ever. They have no chance of it getting any better. Ever. They can only wait until nature calms down. Maybe.
Sure, there is the plot-driving point of «If we make it to the front, everything will be okay», but everyone on the train knows that this isn’t the case. So it feels a bit tacked on, like something the characters do just so that they’ve done it. Because they don’t know what else to do. Because there isn’t anything else to do.
The book is all in black and white, adding to the drabness of the world. I mean, what use are colours when the first and only thing you’ll ever see outside your window is white? The people in the book aren’t pretty and that’s for a reason. It’s a statement of a run-down society who hasn’t quite come to terms with nowhere to go and nothing to do but live on for another day. And on that day, there’s nothing to do either. Other than surviving another day. It’s also this survival that leads to one of the better twist endings of comic books. You wouldn’t see it coming, but it makes perfect sense.
All in all, this book is pretty good. Nothing too spectacular, nothing too horrible. It’s worth a read solely because of the idea of a lone train that has survived the end of the world.
The movie is based on the first volume alone. There are two more volumes that tell further stories of the Transperceneige, but they are not done by the team of creators as author Lob died before he could get around to writing them. So, if you want to, check out the sequels.