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Criticism of David Gerrold’s Criticism of the Film Snowpiercer

30.09.2015, noahward

Based on his facebook post here: https://www.facebook.com/david.gerrold/posts/10206543363995191

‘All right, so let’s talk about SNOWPIERCER, a brilliantly produced movie that ultimately fails in the two most important ways a science fiction film can fail.’

Yeah, saw the movie years back, I think… Still, I am more than up to discuss it. And I agree, the movie had its issues, and in addition, I am somewhat curious to hear what the self-styled master of all things related to the asterisk — has to say about it.

‘I’ll take the easy one first — the audience will suspend disbelief, they will not suspend common sense.’

I kind of do get what you trying to go for, but you are mistaken. It is not extremely strenuous for me to argue that suspensions of disbelief is simply suspension of common sense. After all, a reason for disbelief is often caused by something going against our common sense. Additionally, were one to pick up a religious text or a manual they are not personally invested in, it rarely takes much reading to stumble onto something that goes against one’s common sense, and yet there exists people who believe it to be true.

Suspension of disbelief is suspension of common sense.

‘The idea here is that the Earth has frozen over. The only survivors are living on a train that circles the globe endlessly. ‘

That is correct. It also reminds me of Transarctica, a PC game released in the year 1993, which was based on the post apocalyptic science fiction saga: La Compagnie des glaces. Just in case someone happens to fancy the concept and would want to absorb more media regarding it.

‘1) The Earth is frozen over because scientists have decided to put something called CW7 in the atmosphere to halt global warming. They do it with chem trails. It works too well. The planet gets too cold, everything freezes down so cold you’ll freeze to death in minutes.

Now, look — whatever that CW7 stuff is — you’re gonna have to put several million tons of it into the atmosphere to cools down the planet. That’s a lot of chem trails. It’s going to take a long time. Years. Decades perhaps. Even if you could retro-fit every jet plane in the world on its next scheduled maintenance, it would still take millions of miles. And you would think that as soon as the temperature gradients start falling too fast, not matching the projections, the scientists — or whatever agency behind it — would stop the process to evaluate the results. But no — whatever this CW7 is … bam, it freezes everything to a giant planet-sized popsicle. ‘

So the goal of this ‘CW7’ chemical was to halt global warming. Thus in order to understand what this chemical actually does in our fictional the setting, we are required to have at least some kind of rudimentary understanding of greenhouse gasses and of our atmosphere. For example how carbon dioxide does not have as high heat trapping ability as chlorofluorocarbons do, and that we can divide our atmosphere into different layers.

Thus from the top of my hat, my common sense dictates that there are at least two possible ways in which this ‘CW7’ chemical could operate.

  1. A) Our chemical has a poor heat trapping ability and is light enough to float high enough to create an atmospheric layer of its own. A layer above the greenhouse gases that reflects away a considerable amount of the incoming solar radiation, hence causing global temperatures to drop.
  2. B) Our chemical reacts with the pre-existing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the resulting chemical compounds are heavy enough to fall down to the surface. The overall result is that since the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is reduced, it is much easier for solar and infrared radiation to escape our planet’s atmosphere. Therefore, lowering the global temperatures.

Additionally, because of diffusion, we are not required to fumigate every square inch of our skies to achieve either of the two listed options. We just need some time, and the gases will achieve an uniform atmospheric mixture on their own.

‘2) Where did all that water come from? Even in this planet’s worst ice ages, there wasn’t enough H2o to make enough snow to cover every continent. ‘

Water vapour, air moisture, will freeze if the conditions are right. For example few years ago we had this warm and very rainy early winter, until the temperature finally dropped overnight and caused all that moisture to freeze in few hours. It did not snow at all, the ice flakes simply formed and sprouted from every visible surface outside.

Additionally, I would like to point towards the Gobi desert; which is a cold desert. You do not need falling snow to turn a region into something frigid and incapable of supporting life.

As for Earth’s ‘ice ages,’ there are theories how Earth has been covered with ice in its entirety at least for three times. ‘Snowball’ Earth. Well, I must also mention the theories of a ‘slushy snowball’ Earth where portions of the planet remained free of ice.

Not to mention that all that looks like snow and ice, might not actually be snow and ice if the option B holds true for the chemical CW7.

‘3) Now let’s talk about that train. Supposedly there’s a track that spans the entire globe — we get a quick glimpse of the map. That train has been running for 17 years, non-stop. Who’s maintaining the rails? Who’s replacing the worn out bearings? Who’s maintaining the bridges. What’s it using for fuel? Any machine with moving parts wears out quickly. Even with the best materials available — friction takes its toll. This train is made out of bolognium….’

In the movie it was mentioned that the train ran with a perpetual motion engine. We know that ‘perpetual motion’ can only exist in isolated systems, and that true isolated systems do not exist. Thus we could argue that the train and its track form one perpetual motion machine that keeps going until it finally does not. (But for the passengers on board, the train will potentially keep going for all of eternity.)

And out of the sheer joy of engineering speculation, you could potentially build such a train in the following manner:

The track is made out of strong magnets and the bottom of the train is made of at least partially out of super conductors. Hence, the train is actually floating above the train tracks and all we need is a push to make our train move along the tracks.

Now, the fact is that trains usually do not remain in perpetual motion. Hence there needs to be a mechanism to stop our train. To move and to stop. As it was seen in the movie, our train had wheels. Thus we could theoretically use those wheels to give us our initial momentum, and then let them float in the air until we need to rewind the engine for another push of momentum. Then just add few solar panels at the sides and our train could theoretically keep on going forever by limiting the actual need for moving parts.

And as for the outside world, the conditions appear to be fairly uniform. It is primarily just cold. There is no scorching hot days to twist the rails. No erosion beyond wind. And our train moves fast enough to plough any snow in its way.

And what was Clarke’s third law again: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?

‘4) When there’s an avalanche blocking the track — does the train slow down and burn the ice away? No, it roars into it at high speed, cracking the ice like a bullet. Nothing derails. The engine doesn’t even get dented. ‘

Are you aware that even a lead bullet can pierce a sheet of steel? There is a section in YouTube dedicated just for videos showing that, if you do not believe my word of it. Thus if our train has enough mass and speed, then ploughing through a wall of ice become something of a triviality. Think of it as an ice pick being struck against an ice cube.

‘5) The McGuffin is industrial waste that produces hallucinogenic effects, but can also be compiled to make a bomb. Uh … really? ‘

Did you know that it is possible to get ‘intoxicated’ from paint thinner, and to turn it into an explosive? Thus, the concept of using unspecified industrial waste as the source of both hallucinogenic effects and explosives is not that farfetched.

Anyhow, I would strongly advice against using paint thinner as either explosive or material to get intoxicated from. Both are hazardous to your health.

‘6) The people at the tail end of the train are have-nots who are fed protein derived from crushed cockroaches. They are living in a slum. The people in the front of the train are the 1%.

Okay — why is there such a dichotomy? It’s never really justified. Why are these people even allowed on the train if they’re just there to be poor slobs?’

Think of the need for genetic diversity for sustainable population. In other words; without sufficient biological diversity the problems caused by interbreeding will arise in just few generations. The population might perish simply out of infertility.

Additionally, it is a universal truth that all people will die someday. Hence, it is beneficial if you posses a stock where you can draw replacements for whatever purpose.

And there is a final point I will address shortly after.

‘7) The train is a completely closed eco-system. We see a farm, we see an aquarium car, but we don’t really see enough to suggest an eco-system that can support all these people. And after 17 years, you’d think they’d have run out of steaks by now. ‘

It is a funny thing that you brought up the steaks. Because it was stated that before the people at the tail started receiving their protein bars, they were brought to a point of starvation where some turned to cannibalism. A point where some members at the tail of the train gained immense respect by offering parts of their own bodies to nourish the others. Thus, what suggests that the source of these steaks is not the people from the tail?

‘8) At the end, an Asian girl rescues a black boy, blows a hole in the side of the engine, which triggers an avalanche, which destroys the entire train. She and the boy are the only survivors. But it’s all right — they see a polar bear, so life is possible. Maybe — but if that polar bear is hungry enough, their life is over too. ‘

The assumption that they boy and the girl are the only survivors is based on the fact that they are the only individuals shown to climb out of the train. There might easily be more survivors still trapped within the other carriages of the train.

‘9) About that polar bear. Polar bears eat seals or whale blubber if they can find a dead whale. So if that polar bear is alive, seals must be alive. And if seals are alive, then fish are still alive. And if fish are still alive, then plankton is still alive, and that means the oceans aren’t frozen over because plankton need sunlight to grow. ‘

And that strangely enough brings us back to the ‘slushy snowball’ Earth I mentioned in passing earlier. Which raises an important point on human survival, how many of us would actually possess the right survival skills to survive global temperature drop right out of the bat? How many would even have an idea how the Inuit historically survived in very harsh conditions? The concepts of building igloos as temporary housing and hunting seals would be alien, if not an outright impossibility. Something that would be incredibly unlikely to cross into the minds of the survivors that got their ticket to enter the train. A group of people for which: the entire world they knew is both lifeless and frozen.

But yes, the observations based on the sighting of a polar bear are correct. Which makes it possible that other human beings have survived even in the frigid coldness. Hence, it is possible that our two survivors could be saved by other surviving communities of humans. Potentially even by a group hunters after that particular polar bear.

‘Should I continue?’

You can, but I must add that your track record has not been particulary solid thus far.

‘Okay, now some of the above can be fixed. For instance, the people living at the tail end of the train are the maintenance crew and the servants for the one-percenters. Everything from grease-monkeys to sex-workers. ‘

In our movie they were everything from spare parts to basically cattle.

‘From time to time the train arrives at some kind of underground facility where parts, fuel, and supplies are stored. The train is the only mechanism for moving supplies from one station to the next. So there are some survivors maintaining the stations, but the train brings its own repair and maintenance crew, because life in the supply bunkers is probably pretty bad too. ‘

Were there been these underground facilities, we would approach the setting of the previously mention PC game Transarctica. A setting that had multitude of population hubs, several other trains, political factions, trade, and even battles between different trains. But what you suggest did not actually reach that extent.

‘There, now right there, we have a more believable world situation. The maintenance crew is also responsible for clearing the tracks ahead of the train, checking that the bridges are holding up, and melting or blowing up avalanches. So there’s a luxury train and a crew train — and you have the set up for the story you want to tell. ‘

Previously it was criticized how the steaks must have already ran out during the 17 years of operation. Thus how do you propose that our train would be able to sustain the maintenance crew living away from if it could not even maintain the people living on the train?

Additionally, what you are suggesting would only make sense if these ‘maintenance crews’ were living in almost self-sufficient hubs of relatively hospitable conditions. For example; one location is able to do farming while the other is able to fish and the third produces the fuel required to keep every place heated up. In this setting, each of these separate locations would require the train to deliver them resources from the other locations. Hence, there would be no need to actually have any unnecessary people living at the end of the train.

And as for any rebellions; destroying the train would doom them all, not to mention how the people running the train could just speed by leaving any rebellious locale to perish on their own and a year later repopulate it. And for the new people, it will be a place with more space, and potentially better living conditions than before once they get things running again.

But the bottom line is, people want to survive, and they are all dependant on one train coming once a year. Thus any rebellion would suddenly become far more illogical and convoluted than just fighting your way onwards. Not to mention that each of these hubs of survivors would have their own individual struggles and tensions.

‘But that’s not the movie that got made — the movie that got made defies the laws of physics and a lot of the laws of common sense — so it’s not a science fiction movie based on science. It’s an … (wait for it) … ALLEGORY. It’s an allegory about a revolution by the have-nots against the haves. ‘

Funny: I could use your above paragraph to describe your suggestions.

‘Now, the acting in this is pretty good. And if you ignore the gaping plot holes, the directing is fast-paced and keeps us moving forward. The costumes, the sets, the details of this thing, all look pretty good — almost enough to be convincing. And I like trains, so I’m aboard to see where they’re going. ‘

Go on…

‘Unfortunately … even as an ALLEGORY this thing doesn’t work. ‘

Once again, lets hear what you have to say.

‘That’s the second and much bigger failure. ‘

Yeah… But I do not really see the need for your attempt at building dramatic tension. It is just film criticism.

‘So the have-nots fight their way forward to capture the engine and the emperor of the train who lives in the engine. He’s played by Ed Harris who reveals that the entire revolution was scheduled to happen, because there are too many people on the train. ‘

It would be more accurate to describe the role of Ed Harris as the god of the train. The man who built the train, who designed it, the man who saved them all from freezing alive.

‘See, along the way, the rebels meet Tilda Swinton who talks to them about ecological balance, how life on the train can only exist because everything has to be balanced and everybody and everything has to stay in its appropriate place. ‘

In other words that there is exist a ‘natural order’ which cannot be broken or violated against. Basically, the age old notion that some are more important and worthy based on the merit of their birth. The same excuse humanity has used since the dawn of culture.

‘Ed Harris repeats this to our hero — the leader and last survivor of the rebellion — that there are too many people on the train for the train to support them all, so the rebellion was engineered so that the extras could be terminated. 74 of them have to die. Or is it 74%? Doesn’t matter. It’s a cold equation. ‘

And necessary for the survival of the species itself because over population in a closed ecosystem leads to the destruction of the ecosystem. One which it might never recover.

‘It’s a very cold equation. The coldest possible. And it doesn’t take too much of a leap to realize that the train is an allegory for the planet and there are too many people on the planet Earth — and um … we really shouldn’t have this many people on the planet because the planet can’t support us all and … well, um, see, here’s the thing … Ed Harris is getting old and he’s dying and he needs to find a successor, someone who can be ruthless, and gee, wouldn’t it be really a good thing if the leader of the rebellion became the new emperor of the train? The engineer. But of course, you’ll have to engineer future genocides. ‘

There are other allegories we could just as well consider. But I’ll get back to them little later.

‘Our hero, who has finally accepted his role as a moral man, never really gets a chance to say no, he will not do it. ‘

Or alternatively, to say yes.

‘And then — the Asian girl blows up the train, killing the hero, the engineer, and everyone else aboard. And she and the black kid, the only survivors, see a polar bear, and we’re supposed to see her as a heroine, mother to the civilization to come. ‘

We have discussed the survivors before, but it is worth take notice how our hero did not get his choice, or chance to suggest a new solution.

‘Oh, hell no. ‘

Yes, you seem upset.

‘As an allegory, this one sucks — it says that even if the have-nots can fight their way to the front of the train and confront the haves, they’re still part of the larger process of keeping the whole shitty system running smoothly. And if they don’t accept, then the only responsible answer is to blow up the train, bring the whole system down, kill everybody, and maybe start over — if the survivors don’t get eaten by bears. ‘

So let us have a look at those other possible interpretations: unbearable inequalities in human conditions eventually result in open rebellions against the systems that maintain them. However, there is no quarantine that once the rebellion is over that there will be an implementation of a new system, or even new masters running the old system. The whole society at large could be derailed or even destroyed, and in the case of this movie — it happened quite literally.

‘Okay, this part of the allegory is kinda fixable. What if … when the hero is confronted with the choice to become the new engineer and live in luxury, what if he says, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And what if it’s his intention to change things for the better, so everyone has a fair chance at a decent life — and what if, to his horror, he discovers that’s not really possible, that the system isn’t designed for equality, that the system requires that some people have to be maintenance workers and some people have to be cleaners and some people have to be farmers and that all of this needs real management and … the system can’t be changed. ‘

In a way you are just presenting an option, a possibility, that was already possible outcome in the film we got.

‘Then, like Orwell’s Animal Farm, we see the real horror of this allegory — that it doesn’t matter what your intentions are, the system overrules your idealism. ‘

Which in turn would have made the movie be nothing but Orwell’s Animal Farm set in a train.

‘But no — these filmmakers just blow up the train. And the takeaway from this is that the only answer to inequality is to destroy the system that keeps everyone alive — including your friends, your family, and all the innocent people who were just doing their best to make it from one day to the next. Fuck that. That’s not a rebellion for justice — that’s nihilistic anarchy. ‘

Or once again, you could consider that the outcome of extreme inequalities is not automatically set in stone. For example of Tyranny we need look no further than Soviet Union, which the animal farm is based of. For something better we could just look at the British crusade against slavery, how an English king chose to tax slave trade and centuries later what was a global standard had become alien to the British. Or we could just look at all the great empires of history that crumbled and vanished from the face of Earth due to changes of climate.

So in this movie, we actually have three separate interest groups. Those longing to maintain the statues quo, those who long to change it for better, and those who are willing to end it just because the possibility presented itself before them.

‘So … as I said when I started, Snowpiercer fails twice. First, it ignores the laws of physics and the truth about how machines really work — and second, the underlying allegory collapses like a bad souffle because instead of making a valid and poignant point, the filmmakers decided it was easier to just blow up the train and suggest that life was possible outside the train after all …. ‘

And it seems I have disagreed with almost everything you have presented. Arguing the points that you have not truly understood the physics and to some degree even the allegory of the film itself.

‘No. Just no. ‘

You just did not like the end result because it did not cater to your preset expectations and presumptions.

‘Part of writing science fiction is getting your science right. You have to do your research. A good writer takes the time to learn about ice ages, learn how trains work, and in this case learns how to create a self-sufficient society in a hostile environment. And then, a great writer thinks about the theme of his story. ‘

And I find myself somewhat bemused by the irony, when the given criticism appears to have failed on all of those mentioned points.

‘If you’re going to show people being heroic in search of justice, there has to be a victory. The moral arc of this story leads the audience to believe there will be a victory, or at least some kind of enlightenment waiting for us at the head of the train. Instead, no — there is no victory. Yes, there is enlightenment — the train is a balanced eco-system, but instead of dealing with that philosophical dead-end, they just give up and blow it all to bits. ‘

Personally, I admit that I would have preferred an ending where there is an attempt to find a more humane solution to the train’s carefully balanced eco-system. But considering the setting, the only possibility would be through authoritarian population control; the too old are killed and strict control on who are allowed to procreate, in exchange of more egalitarian living conditions for all. And perhaps centuries later when the train stops, there are fields of grass for the people to walk upon.

But the movie ended, as it ended, and it certainly provided its share of enlightenment. The world which the people on the train believed to exist, was not true. Like it was said before, 17 years later, the sighting of that polar bear means that life is possible outside that train. The supposed philosophical dead end was based on nothing but misinformation.

And finally, there was a victory, it just was not for the person most of us rooted for during the run of the film.

‘But in its failure, by what isn’t here, by allowing us to look at what’s missing, the picture reveals something about what we expect/demand from a great story. ‘

Or in this case, inspect what one critic expected from it. How anyone can be critic, without knowing any better. It is worthy lesson to take into one’s heart.

‘See, the thing about a science fiction story — it has to have two endings. It has to have a satisfying resolution to the scientific puzzle or dilemma and it has to have a satisfying resolution to the hero’s situation. This picture fails twice, but it’s a useful failure.’

Scientific Puzzle: The survival of humankind. At the end of the movie: it is possible.

Resolution to hero’s situation: If we consider everything we discovered about our titular main character, he had done horrible things to survive. Perhaps he would have done much more to if he had given chance to decide for himself. Thus the survival of the boy he went to save, might have been the best ending considered his troubled past.

‘More shortly.’

And I do not think I will comment further, even if you do decide to add more commentary.


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