Snowpiercer And The Rise Of Cli-Fi

October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

Note: I know that not everyone has seen Snowpiercer, but if you do get some free time this weekend, catch it on Netflix because it’s a brilliant and intense film (a whole new spin on Netflix and ‘chill’)!  

One of the reasons I’m a science fiction fan is that the genre encompasses so many sub-genres, never leaving me satiated or bored. Of course, the hard core sci-fi fans guard the hallowed gates of the science fiction hall of fame armed with works of Clarke and Heinlein, their derisive and impassioned opinions firmly keeping the pretenders and phonies out, but I’m a bit more altruistic that way. I know not everything can be called true science fiction, but some works certainly do have the potential to challenge the way we look at this genre and its evolving sub-genres. Science fiction has its recognizable tropes that have been championed by Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov: scant character development, impossible yet plausible scientific theories, in medias res beginnings etc. This genre often takes us to unfamiliar places separated from us by both spatial and temporal dimensions, but some of its sub-genres set on Earth and in the near future do rely on the contemporary world to offer important social commentary and further build on its thematic elements.

There are many cult science fiction works that mirror their contemporary times, but deliberately hyperbolize these themes with the inclusion of quintessential aliens, starships and inter-galactic wars to fit the science fiction framework. Take Star Trek for example. Kirk and Spock heroically rally against hostile external and internal threats to protect the Federation. What does protecting the Enterprise and the Federation have to do with the real world? More than you may think. Star Trek: The Original Series (1966), through its science fiction narrative, implicitly touches on many themes such as the tensions emanating from the Cold War, and jingoism; these issues resonated with American public in the socio-political climate of the 1960s. However. Star Trek doesn’t set out to explicitly offer socio-political commentary on its contemporary society. You’re watching Star Trek for sheer fun, not to introspect and reflect on the actions of humankind!

The critic Robert Scholes, explaining the difference between the real and the science fiction worlds, mentions that science fiction texts “insist on some ‘radical discontinuity between the worlds they present to us and the world of our own experience.” However, there is a whole sub-genre (or as some may argue, an entire genre) of science fiction that seeks to bring the realm of science fiction closer to the world we actually inhabit. This (sub)genre is called climate fiction or cli-fi, and it aims to bridge that gap in a unique way. Yes, cli-fi is fiction, but its essence hits close to home; in our greenhouse-gas filled world, climate change is no longer a distant threat, but in Al Gore’s words, an inconvenient truth. Instead, the fiction, or as I’d rather say, the speculation lies in how humans would adapt to the changing environment. This also presents an opportunity to examine our society through the lens of a dystopian future, and offer fascinating social commentary. That’s exactly what the dystopian cli-fi, Snowpiercer does.

A quick summary of the film: After a failed experiment in 2014 to prevent global warming, Earth has gone into an ice age, and the surviving few live on an endless train that traverses a snow-covered world. By 2031, the rich have confined themselves to the front section of the train, while the subjugated poor find themselves in a ghetto-like tail section. Of course, a revolt is inevitable, and the rebellion is led by Chris Evans, the leader of the tail section, who aims to uncover the truth behind the mysterious train and its even more mysterious commander, Ed Harris.

I’ll admit it- Snowpiercer is not a hard science fiction film because it doesn’t depend on its fictional yet plausible scientific premise, and it doesn’t detail how the new ice age descended. It also doesn’t care to tell viewers about the perpetual motion of the so-called ‘sacred and eternal engine’ (seriously, a train that runs without any known sources of energy?!). But I’m ok with Snowpiercer not being hard core sci-fi because it’s primarily cli-fi, and we all have a basic understanding of the science behind climate change (the main scientific reason behind this dystopian future), which unfortunately isn’t a ‘fictional’ extrapolation of science.

Although Snowpiercer cannot be celebrated for developing and portraying revolutionary ideas about the way we look at science, it can be applauded for conflating the grimness of environmental disaster with the despondency and desperation of human nature. The film is gruesome to say the least, but if I were in the same position as the people in the tail section, I don’t think I would have acted any differently. It’s very easy for viewers to find comfort in their ivory towers (it’s just a movie), but cannibalism and other survival techniques (the worst protein bars ever) depicted in the film have already been observed in the real world, when people are under severe duress. You gotta do what you gotta do.

While I was watching the film, I could not help but notice the numerous similarities between Baxter’s Mayflower II (probably my favorite class reading so far) and Snowpiercer. Although Snowpiercer isn’t a quintessential sci-fi film, it borrows many elements from classic science fiction writing, particularly to develop its social themes. These elements can be traced back to Heinlein’s classic sci-fi stories, and for a cli-fi film, that’s quite impressive. For example, the train is quite similar to a generation starship, with a self-sustaining ecological system. The train’s engine is also called ‘sacred and eternal’ several times, and like the Mayflower II, it assumes its own unique identity. We also see many of the anthropological changes develop in the train’s inhabitants as we saw in Mayflower II‘s different transients. The separation between the haves and have-nots is one of the focal themes of the film, and the lack of resources leads to desperate measures such as cannibalism and self-amputation.

Just like Mayflower II, the train witnesses many rebellions, though Snowpiercer puts an interesting twist on the reason for these in the climax. Harris is reminiscent of Mayflower II‘s Rusel, and Evans of Hilin. Taking this idea forward, Snowpiercer uses Evans and Harris’ characters to depict the benefits and costs of preordained positions: an eternal social hierarchy preserved by an almost sentient engine of the train. Once Evans challenges this order, things fall apart, and at great personal costs to him. Necessary evils, as they say.

Snowpiercer is an immensely gruesome and disturbing film, and that’s why it leaves such a deep impression on us. Climate change is not a recent phenomenon, but we’ve accelerated it to alarming levels (and no, I’m not a crazy alarmist). It’s disconcerting to see that people are still not ready to accept the realities of global warming. This is where cli-fi comes in. I’m not saying a simple film has the power to motivate us to take immediate and required environmental actions that we’re unwilling/lazy to take, but it definitely opens our eyes to nightmarish possibilities that accompany irreversible ecological damage, especially with respect to human behavior and interactions. The cli-fi genre is on the rise; Godzilla, Interstellar, and even WALL-E are doing great business. Timescape is another salient example (shout-out to Professors Clayton and Scherrer for bringing Gregory Benford to class!) I hope to see many more cli-fi works that challenge us and put us out of our comfort zones, encouraging us to think about the ramifications of our pernicious and irreversible actions on the not-so-distant future.

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

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§ 4 Responses to Snowpiercer And The Rise Of Cli-Fi

  • defabrsa says:

    I loved the structure of this entry, first presenting a concept relevant to all science fiction and then relating it to a wealth of material. As a firm believer in “we need to do something now before we REALLY screw up our earth”, I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties that the cli-fi genre encompasses.
    Whether we are fighting the problem before it’s too late, or just trying to survive in a post-climapocalyptic hell(snow?)scape, there is always a sense that “it’s already too late.” I think the instilment of fear within the genre may be a commentary on our present situation. It’s quite possible that cli-fi authors have resigned to the fact that we have gone past the point of no return. Their works sometimes feel less precautionary and more prophetic, an even scarier thought than the futures they confront us with.
    Of course, I tend to range on the optimistic side; I don’t plan on eating babies and I trust in our power to fix the mess we’ve made. But who know, maybe I’m just a dreamer too.

    -SD

    P.S. Thank you for the movie recommendation, I look forward to wincing my way through it.

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  • As someone who is particularly interested in the moment of climate fiction in which we are currently participating, I was excited to see a discussion of Snowpiercer (which, in my opinion, is one of the finest cinematic achievements within this particular genre). I obviously agree with the dire need to combat climate change emphasized in both this piece and in Sam’s comment, and I thank you for initializing a particularly important conversation.

    However, I don’t think that I can, in good faith, watch Snowpiercer as a film that encourages action to combat climate change. I recognize that I am biased; I am something of a pessimist when it comes to this particular iteration of humanity in relation to the climate — I do not share your optimism, Sam, even though the capacity to possess such short-term optimism would almost certainly improve the quality of my interior life. I have a tendency to assume that, by the time, a large enough number of people are willing to dramatically alter the lives enough to actually combat climate change, the changes will be so thoroughly accomplished that the willingness will rendered largely moot. The world is, in my estimation, in store for a large scale social upheaval — the neoliberal structures that got us to this moment in human relation to the environment will ultimately disintegrate when they eventually become ecologically untenable, and the world will be constituted again in some new form. While this is certainly alarming to those of us comfortable within the system in which we live to imagine its crumbling (and I don’t remove myself from this — it has provided me with a comfortable privileged lifestyle), I’m not convinced that, on a global perspective, such a grand change might not be for the better.

    And, I would argue, that is the crux of Snowpiercer. What causes the apocalyptic condition of the world in the film is not indifference to climate change; rather, it is an effort to apply human ingenuity to the problem that causes the hellscape of a world to come into existence — undoubtedly, this tactic for combating climate change was a product of large scale economic structures. Additionally, what is salvaged of the world in the aftermath of disaster by a large private company ends up creating a particularly brutal class system. The film seems wary of how the world is constituted, and, without giving to much away, I think the only solution it has is the complete upheaval of social structures that we seem fated to reach. Snowpiercer may be pessimistic in the short term, but, like myself, it finds its optimism in the fullness of time.

    –Lucas Hilliard

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    • dreamer2205 says:

      Thank you for such an insightful comment, Lucas. I agree with you; it’s hard to label the makers of Snowpiercer (and the film itself) as proponents or as dissuaders of such large-scale social and economic upheavals. It’s hard to imagine how we would cope with such radical changes in our society, and Snowpiercer doesn’t paint a rosy picture at all. But what I was more fascinated by was the decision to confine the remaining survivors to a claustrophobic train, and making the socio-economic tensions so much more palpable, disconcerting and tangible (according to me, the violence and gore were warranted). Snowpiercer makes it hard for viewers to see the glass as half full, but in its pessimism lies a huge potential for introspection and reprioritization in the way we regard climate issues, and that may act as an impetus for much needed change. And that’s why I see the film in an optimistic light.

      Having said that, the reason for all this mess was our interfering with the climate to deal with our previous interferences (the irony is not lost). So I’m skeptical about how environmental reforms will be implemented, and what consequences that will have, both physical and social in nature. Therefore, I share your hesitation about the radical changes, both before and after the snowpocalypse.

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