It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. –Unknown
If the world should end in ice In days of endless night
I’ll let the snowstorms cover me In a blanket of white
–The Handsome Family
In a piece of contemporary science fiction, making an archaic technology like trains a focal point of the narrative is a statement.
The recent Atlas Shrugged films, for instance, faithfully retain Dagny Taggart’s railway lines as a central feature in the story of a dystopian, collectivist America. By embracing the anachronism, the filmmakers affirm their faith that Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness is a work of timeless wisdom and prophetic vision. Keeping Rand’s trains reifies the cult of individual strength embodied by Hank Reardon and his exceptional steel.
Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train in order to make a fiercely political statement. Transpiring after a climate change-induced cataclysm, Bong’s train exists to show how the advancement human technology has simultaneously wrought our planet’s destruction. More importantly, it creates a space that literalizes social inequality, and tells a story of revolution. Snowpiercer is a film about a revolt against the rich.
Like a lot of great sci-fi, Snowpiercer handles world-building as it goes, and parcels out only the most salient information at the outset. In 2014, the world’s governments try to combat global warming by releasing an experimental substance into the atmosphere. The plan backfires, creating an ice-age and rendering the Earth uninhabitable. 17 years later, the last survivors are relegated to living on the eponymous Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the Earth.
The film opens in the tail section of the train, where the poorest survivors live. Armed men scour the drab, dingy car looking for a violinist to entertain those in the front section, who “eat steak dinners and listen to string quartets.” In the tail section, the train’s restive underclass subsists on gelatinous “protein blocks.”
Chris Evan’s Curtis, an aspiring revolutionary under the tutelage of John Hurt’s Gilliam, is trying to track down a protein block with a name in it. Curtis and Gilliam have an unknown source, and all they need is the name of the man who designed the train’s security system—man who will take them all the way to the engine. Before the uprising can begin, people from the front come for another member of the underclass, this time a child. One of the tail’s residents hurls his shoe at the brightly dressed apparatchik leading the impressment gang, beginning a riot.
A friend of mine who writes a lot about the genre distinguishes between “kinky” and “non-kinky” sci-fi.
Non-kinky sci-fi asserts that our future is basically bright and that through cooperation we can conquer the outer and inner spaces, that good things are in store for us and that technology will make us better men, et cetera. Think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and 2001. Kinky sci-fi sees our civilization as a sham, sometimes our whole reality as a sham. Phillip K. Dick, Neuromancer and Mad Max are all kinky.
The most effective “kinky” sci-fi—fiction that excoriates our systems—builds a dystopian world with enough elements of our own to be recognizable but understated enough to be insidiously creepy. Think of the police state in Children of Men; desperate and securitized, but still functional enough that most people live their lives with a familiar sense of normalcy. It’s not until anyone steps out of line that the state resorts to the Abu Ghraib treatment.