Mortal Engines: A Nostalgic Revisiting

I was both anxious and excited to discover that Peter Jackson is currently nursing the rights to adapt one of my favourite childhood books, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines.  When it comes to film adaptations, I always have mixed feelings.  And in this case, I hastened to read the book again first.  Before the film overrides the need for my imagination, I wanted to enjoy it just how I had enjoyed it the first time.

At heart, it is a tale of adventure.  In Reeve’s post-apocalyptic world, where natural resources are scarce, towns and cities have donned a set of wheels and now chase, consume and digest each other in order to stay alive.  Tom Natsworthy, a likeable apprentice historian from London, after being ‘accidentally’ exiled becomes involved in the revengeful ambitions of the scar-faced Hester Shaw, and tramps across the Out-Country, hopping from town to town, in search of Thaddeus Valentine, the man who murdered Hester’s mother.  Back in London, Valentine’s daughter Katherine sets out to discover the truth of London, and the missions her father secretly undertakes on behalf of London’s Mayor.  By alternating between the adventures of Tom and Katherine and the human relationships they build along the way, Reeve skilfully maintains suspense to the very end.

The teen romances now seem rather cliché and lacking, but as I had hoped, the charming touches and details that Reeve adds to his fantasy futuristic setting are satisfying.  The characters’ unfamiliarity with “a thing called a blue whale”, their historical inaccuracies, for example their belief that Pluto and Mickey are “animal-headed gods of lost America”, and the adaptation of familiar phrases, such as “a rolling town gathers no moss”, provide snippets of amusement throughout.  Furthermore, the steampunk element to the book is pleasingly subtle.  Until you start looking out for it, there is simply a delightful je ne sais quoi to the anachronistic technologies, the combination of progression and archaisms, and the pseudo-Victorian Dickensian characters.  It turns out there is a name for such a multi-temporal mishmash!

I’m glad I still found the book’s premise and story engaging and so wonderfully thought-through, otherwise I would have ruined a lovely childhood memory.  But I discovered so much more in this book that has now tainted my remembrance of it… in a good way.

Unbeknown to my thirteen-year-old eye, Mortal Engines introduces issues familiar in more mature literature.   Posing questions to social class inequality, the tiered cities literalise the social hierarchy by placing the wealthy few at the top, and the poor masses at the bottom, but throughout the novel, there are numerous characters who breach the divisions.  Also, I was surprised to find that Tom was not the protagonist I remembered; to challenge the tradition of male adventure heroes, Katherine and Hester are both stronger characters and lead the action forward far more than the slightly pathetic Tom.  And the opposition between science and history, progression and stasis, new and old that cleverly permeates the entire book not only gives food for thought in terms of the ethics of scientific development, but also subtly reinforces the book’s steampunk style.  The technological development revealed at the book’s climax is particularly pertinent to a 21st Century reader (bearing in mind Mortal Engines was published in 2001).  London’s Guild of Engineering has developed a weapon against which every other Traction town and city, and the Anti-Traction static settlements, will be powerless.  Essentially, a weapon of mass destruction.  At one point, Reeve explicitly refers to the terrible weapons of the “old American Empire”, but this is executed with the subtlety that characterises the whole book.

As I await more news of the film adaptation, I wonder if Peter Jackson will employ the same subtlety.  His taste and talent for fantasy and adventure is a known quantity… But is he going to draw out the more serious issues and accentuate these sensitive connections with our present?  We’ll have to wait and see.

This article has been published on Intuition and can be viewed online at http://www.intuition-online.co.uk/article.php?id=2508

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