Friday, 21 February 2014

Snowpiercer: no future for you

Snowpiercer, written by Jacques Lob, illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette, published by Titan

Snowpiercer is a cult French comic, written by Jacques Lob (the only writer to have won the Grand Prix prize at Angouleme) and illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette. Originally serialised in 1982, it was collected in graphic novel format in 1984, and has now received an English language translation from Titan, thanks largely to its marketability after being adapted into a film last year.

That film, a Korean-American-French collaboration, directed by Joon-ha Bong, with a cast including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill and more, is yet to be released in the UK and US, following a tussle over Harvey Weinstein's (who owns the distribution rights for North America, UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) desire to cut 20 minutes worth of footage from the 126-minute running length in order to make it more 'accessible' to audiences, despite 80% of the movie being in English.

In 1999/2000, almost a decade after Jacques Lob had passed away, Rochette teamed up with writer Benjamin Legrand to pen two follow up volumes, further building upon the story he had created with Lob. However, this book, labelled volume 1: The Escape, is Lob and Rochette's first, original tale, which reads and stands alone, with its ending also functioning as final, particularly as far as Lob's intentions were concerned.

I was narrating the basic premise of Snowpiercer to a colleague the other day: humanity's sole survivors entombed on a train 1001 carriages long, perpetually circulating the earth, unable to venture outside after an unknown event renders the atmosphere inhabitable, with the poor crammed together in the tail end carriages while the rich live in luxury in first class.'So it's a metaphor?' he asked. 'Well I think it's pretty literal!' I replied. And it is. A dystopian future, with an inhospitable Earth and mankind struggling for survival at least feels a familiar scenario, but the use of a train with it's pre-classified compartments is a clever way of dividing people into have and have-nots as social civilities break down, the rich and powerful quick to lay claim to the bulk of resources and space aboard, controlling a dictatorial military guard bribed with food comfort and sex to keep the unruly masses at bay. Earlier this week, I talked about humanity being stripped to its bare bones when reviewing Beautiful Darkness, and Snowpiercer is similar in vein, if more politically edged, perhaps, in its observations of class, wealth, power, war, idealism and revolution.

Snowpiercer opens with Porloff, our protagonist, a tail dweller or 'tail-fucker,' as they're affectionately referred to by those at the front end of the train, having somehow made his way through towards the mid-upper carriages, where's he's discovered and apprehended. Instead of sending him back, the powers that be decided they'd like an audience with Porloff, a meeting of which he is wearily suspicious- and rightfully so: the mighty Snowpiercer's engine is slowing down, and a plan is afoot to rid the train of a selection of carriages. The colonel and president want to enlist Porloff to return to the tail carriages, assess the numbers and conditions of those resident there, and facilitate their integration into the mid and upper sections, which will then allow the Snowpiercer to shed some weight, easing the stress on the engine.

There are two broad schools of thoughts when envisioning times of great catastrophe: one is that people will  band together, bound by a horrific shared experience, and forget their differences in an attempt to overcome the larger obstacle they face, or alternatively humankind will run scred and build further divides, pissing on others to make themselves feel better, exercising selfishness and brutality to survive. That's what we see here as Porloff journeys through the train, accompanied by guards, to meet the Colonel. The people aboard look like a body of people in war, displaced, on rations- it's difficult to imagine anything other than a black/white/grey color scheme here- it speaks to the snow/ash outside, the mood and feeling, the metal of the train, the complexion of sun and oxygen deprived skin, shabby, worn clothes, the unmitigating bleak relentlessness of it all. Rochette evokes the war-camp atmosphere acutely: the tired desperation, the rendering of a male dominated space, men clinging to uniforms and titles as proof of meaning, the underlying madness of it all.

And as Porloff journeys, Lob and Rochette show us the culture of the train: here's 'Mama,' for example,  a huge slab of genetically engingeered meat, ever-growing, kept in a tank full of nourishing fluids that keeps 'her' alive and sustainable.  Adeline Belleau, member of an aid group from the third class, campaigning   for better rights/conditions for the tail-enders, sent to represent Porloff, the 'priest-mechanics' and the religion that's developed around worshipping the great engine, 'Saint Loco,' which keeps the train in constant motion. The mindless debauchery of the rich, existing in an ambivalent drink/drug/sex fuelled haze, the corrupt politicians leaders.At first I felt the setting of the train was curiously under-utilised- no real sense of how conatined these people would be having spent years in such close living quarters, lack of real tension, but what's worse is the apathy and acceptance of the situation- where, after all, do these people have to go?

It's a brave choice to not depict or spend any time with those living in the rear of the train (Porloff is in the middle and moving up); mirroring the manner in which they've been dismissed and pushed out of mind by the affluent, instead guiding the reader towards their own imagination and the horrors it can conjure. One of the moments that stuck with me comes when Porloff  is marvelling at the space he's been quarantined in, narrating the story of a well-liked old man in the tail who they decided to throw a birthday party for. Asked for what he would like as a gift, he asked for some space. So they shuffled into an adjacent compartment for an hour, packed even more tightly than usual, only to return to find him hanging from the ceiling.

One of the main tenets of sci-fi has been to ponder and predict the future, but with Snowpiercer, Lob uses another of the genre's well-recognised facets: the criticism of a current social and political state of affairs wrapped in a future-set tale. Snowpiercer is a quiet, unflashy book, whose power lies in the mirror it holds up and the familiarity of the reflection. It's a sad and revealing indictment that despite being written in the 80's, so much of it, applicable then, is applicable today.  Humanity never changes, and the train moves ever on.


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