Municipal Darwinism

St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz

Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines 
Scholastic Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

[…] Oh, now forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
— Othello, Act III Scene 3

Even with a reread the first instalment in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines sequence astonishes with its vision, humour, tragedy and sheer storytelling — and to think this was his debut novel! Set in a far distant dystopian future, it imagines a devastated world dominated by Municipal Darwinism, a town-eat-town mentality in which large Traction Cities gobble up smaller towns for their raw materials. But successful entities like London are running out of prey, and the hunt is on for a way not only to become top predator but also to gain access to so-called statics and their defended resources.

In this future London is young Tom Natsworthy, a lowly apprentice in the Guild of Historians. He hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, a successful archaeologist in the Indiana Jones mode. But when a girl from a mining town which has just been caught attempts to assassinate his hero, Tom discovers that the historian is not who he thought he was, and is literally and figuratively precipitated into a life that he could not have in all his years envisaged.

I find it almost impossible to express how imaginative this steampunk novel is, even innovative. On a purely human level there are so many engaging protagonists. Young orphan Tom is our eyes and ears for much what happens and displays the conflicts that naturally occur when inexperience meets extreme situations; that his name reminds us of various literary Toms serves to indicate that he is an innocent abroad, but his surname also hints that he is too often regarded as having the insignificance of a gnat. Hester Shaw, Valentine’s wouldbe assassin, is another conflicted individual, wounded in body but also in character, a disfigured girl whose fierce motivation for revenge also leaves her vulnerable to kindness and loyalty. Others, too, merit out regard, including Katherine, daughter of the ruthless Valentine, who overcomes her privileged existence when she uncovers more and more of the truth about her father and where London’s authorities are taking the city; and we mustn’t forget the redoubtable Anna Fang of the Anti Tractionist League, of whom we are left hoping for more.

Even more so now than when Mortal Engines was first published we are forcefully reminded that the perversion that is Social Darwinism (here applied to the traction cities) has not the slightest care for people, society or the environment but is solely about selfishness. Under the credo of survival of the fittest it believes that the ends justify the means, tossing aside loyalty, altruism and suchlike virtues, and all for the sake of being top dog. But the author sprinkles this message — if message it is — very lightly over his white-knuckle-ride rollercoaster of a narrative.

London itself is almost as much as a star as Tom, Hester, Katherine or Anna. Imagine, if you will, a city on wheels, powered by mighty engines; tier upon tier rise up from the base, your residence indicating your position in society, with the most powerful literally on top; at the apex sit the most important buildings including, incredibly, St Paul’s Cathedral, itself hiding a dangerous secret. In profile I’m maybe reminded of those naval ships of World War I, especially when in convoy, with their seemingly top-heavy superstructures steaming out over a never-ending expanse.

British Grand Fleet World War I
Victorian image of St Paul’s Cathedral

There are few landmarks in this bleak landscape — we might discern Oak Island, Nova Scotia (though this may be a different Oak Island from that supposedly containing Viking traces), Central Europe (if this is what is meant by the traction cities’ Central Hunting Ground), possibly the Danube delta, the Caspian or Aral Seas and the Himalayas — but after the so-called Sixty Minute War nothing is certain any more. Archaeologists and scavengers recover bits of Old Tech (such as computers and CDs, aka ‘seedies’), and people sport names comically derived from such old tech (vambrace, for example) or even branded goods (Twix, for instance). Most powerful of all are echoes of myth and old literature, such as Alice in Wonderland (a chute instead of a rabbit hole) and the Gorgon with the mortal stare.

I mentioned tragedy as an aspect of Mortal Engines, and, despite the comic relief, it is much in evidence here. Characters whom we invest in die, even villains who have a change of heart; in this pitiless world there are people with heart who are yet fatally flawed. In particular there is a menacing cyborg, a Resurrected Man whom we will know as Shrike and whose story runs through the sequence like a scarlet thread. His history will prove a lasting one and we may invest in him more than we realise; and yet his name is testament to that small animal called the butcher-bird, which impales insects and small vertebrates like birds, rodents and reptiles on sharp thorns or similar objects. His brooding presence in Mortal Engines is emblematic of the two opposing trends in this magnificent series.

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book set in the future
I can recommend the retro look of the original David Frankland covers for this series, themselves resurrected for the 15th anniversary reissue. The end of 2018 promises the release of the Peter Jackson production, bringing this rip-roaring tale to a screen near you. First impressions from a teaser trailer (and the cast listing) suggest that this may be a refreshingly faithful transcription of the Reeve story, in contrast to the disappointingly bloated Hobbit trilogy we were subjected to.
David Frankland’s cover for Mortal Engines

14 thoughts on “Municipal Darwinism

  1. earthbalm

    I began reading the first in the series several years ago but had to stop for a reason that I no longer remember. Did enjoy it though! A film series eh? Perhaps I’ll look for a copy in the ‘Diff library. Thanks for the prod.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ME quartet is quite an achievement, I think. You should be able to get the others in the series quite easily as they were all reissued in a 15th anniversary edition a year or so ago!

      There are a couple of prequels, slightly less ‘whelming’ but worth checking out afterwards, which I’ll be reviewing after the quartet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve heard the title but never read these books. They sound wonderfully imaginative. And my TBR pile is less than inspiring at the moment – a trip to a book shop beckons. Great review Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is rich in imagery and action, so I hope the film-makers won’t be taking too many liberties with the original but stick to the story as they’re given.


    1. The third is the weakest, I seem to recall, but the last packs an emotional punch regarding Shrike, Tom and Heather. And then there are at least two prequels… 🙂


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