While Mortal Engines was written as a Young Adults sci-fi novel, the themes to be found within are very universal and in many cases not just for youths but for anyone who's ever loved anyone else, been forced to do things they did wish to do or simply wondered what would happen if the world went to hell in a hand basket.
The concept post-apocalypse novel has been around for years and some truly classic works have been published. My personal favorites include The Postman, The Day of Triffids and the more modern The Road by Cormack McCarthy.
Generally these kinds of books are set in some post atomic meltdown scenario but they are not really about that. When all is boiled down, these books are about humanity, the human character and the desire to sustain that character.
And Mortal Engines is no exception to this.
Outwit, outlast, outplay - survival of the fittest?
A central theme of this post-apocalyptic / dystopian book is the destruction of that world's way of life (that which existed before the 60 Minute War) and the subsequent struggle of restoring civilization and technology and reclaiming that element of lost humanity.
In Mortal Engines this reclamation works on two levels - our two protagonists Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy come to an understanding within themselves and each other about who they really are and in more broad terms, the book signals the end of the concept of Municipal Darwinism and a return to more 'humane' modes of living - this of course plays out in far greater through the following three sequels.
And that all sounds very romantic but when we are talking about the survival of cities, we are talking about the concept of survival of the fittest.
Let's explore this by taking a step back and considering the book's title. Mortal Engines.
If you didn't pick it, it is a quotation borrowed from William Shakespeare's play 'Othello'.
The full quote from Act III, scene iii is said by the character of Othello himself:
"And O you mortal engines whose rude throats / Th'immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit..."
It serves as a commentary on the book's concept of 'Municipal Darwinism'.
Municipal Darwinism is the 'technological ecosystem' by which most of the world of Mortal Engines works. While Shakespeare is referring to humans as being mortal engines, Reeve's turns the two words on the head of what Shakespeare meant and gives it a double meaning.
In theory, eventually the giant traction cities will have nothing left to consume and will die, thus proving to be mortal. The other is Shakespeare's - that regardless of your 'level of humanity' (such as that found in Tom Natsworthy) you will still die because you are mortal.
That's some heavy stuff for a young adult book!
Social Classes and Structure
Social class systems can kind of look like a wedding cake, especially the Victorian model. The lower class is the largest by measure of population size, and each higher class gets smaller and smaller until you get to the fabled 1% at the top, looking down on everyone.
It's basically the same in on the great traction city of London. Reeves actually describes it as looking like the tiers of a wedding cake, with the smog-filled lower layer powering the city, and with gleaming white buildings at the top, where the ruling class lives.
It's a deliberate theme of movie - those at the top of the cake, wield power over those that support them and actually enable them.
Let them eat cake indeed!
Family and lovers
In Mortal Engines, Tom Natsworthy has no family.
Hester's family has been murdered by Thaddeus Valentine
Katherine Valentine loves her father, Valentine.
The Shrike loves Hester and wants her to live with her forever as a Stalker.
Bevis Pod is in lust with Katherine.
As we mentioned above, while this book is set in a dystopian world where giant cities eat each other and the best mode of transportation is by air balloon, all the action revolves around humanity. And at it's most basic condition, humanity is family.
Mortal Engines covers it all.
The love between Tom and Hester. How Hester's mother and father were murdered by Thaddeus Valentine so he could get his hands on the Medusa Weapon. The Shrike, even though he has died and was brought back to life, had at one time spent so much time with Hester that he feel in love with her and wanted to live with her forever (in a wholesome way...).