The Snowpiercer prequel kicks off with Part 1: Extinction, promising a deep dive into the events that leave humanity stranded on a perpetually moving train in the midst of an environmental apocalypse. The setting and tone are established immediately with a snappy set of vignettes which introduce the unfortunately named “Wrathers”, an ecoterrorist group lashing out at corporations which have irrevocably damaged the Earth in an attempt to curb further pollution and possible extinction. The first such vignette involves elephant poachers and is very effective at creating some sort of sympathy for the wrathers– we know the things they’re doing are wrong and ultimately won’t curb the apocalypse, but there’s a catharsis in their actions given the context of the situation and its similar nature to events in the real world.
Unfortunately, after that engaging opening, the story started to lose me. This is mostly due to the other factions at work in the story— the billionaire scientist Mr. Zheng and the also unfortunately named “Apocalypsters”– I hope and suspect that these lazy group titles are the result of uneven translations, it’s really hard to take a group seriously whose name sounds like a portmanteau of apocalypse and hipsters. Mr. Zheng is the man responsible for developing the snowpiercer train and is framed as an eccentric but benevolent scientist who truly believes that his train will be the key to the survival of humanity. The character reminds me of Elon Musk circa 2017, thoroughly convinced of his own success but just a touch difficult to fully believe in. Maybe it’s personal bias, but I just don’t find a benevolent tech billionaire to be a very engaging protagonist. That said, knowing what lies ahead for the train makes me a little optimistic about where Zheng’s character arc could be going. I’m left wondering if his goodwill is a facade, if control of the train is wrested from him, or if he is eventually corrupted by his position.
The Apocalypsters are a good idea with a strange flaw. At the heart of the organization is a doomsday cult which believes the world is beyond saving and that humanity must be wiped away for the planet to survive. This is a good idea on its own, but for some reason, the group’s leader is heeding the direction of a native spirit guide with as-yet-unexplained supernatural clairvoyance. Once again, this could be the beginning of an interesting plot point, but for now, it feels like magic and spiritualism injected into what is otherwise a relatively realistic story and it sticks out.
Once the players have been introduced their trajectories collide as Zheng seeks to save the world that the Apocalypsters fanatically want to end. I felt the ending stuck the landing well with the partial success of the apocalypsters and the tense race to subvert their plans on the world stage– the father and son pair who will likely become focal characters of the rest of the prequel help in creating the tension which is mostly absent in the middle third of the book as they’re the characters which really have a stake in surviving the end of the world. Again, I’d point out that the native spirit guide bits feel really out of place, especially near the end of the book with an event that I won’t spoil, but which felt somewhat gratuitous. Had that character and his followers been made out to be insane then the event would be serving a purpose, but the fact that the spirit guide seems to have truly precognitive powers makes this inclusion somewhat puzzling. I’d consider waiting for the release of further parts, as in it’s current state Snowpiercer: Extinction raises a lot of questions which may or may not be answered satisfyingly. I’m optimistic, but there are a lot of ways this series could go awry.