Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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A Saturday Morning "I Have A Column To Write, So I'm Cat Hoovering" Review: Mortal Engines

There's a scene in H.G Wells' 1913 utopian novel The World Set Free, when an aircraft drops an atomic bomb on a central European city, causing untold destruction. There's a certain grim humanity to this action in Well's story, as the bomb has to be thrown by hand - a visceral linking of death and destruction to an individual choice and a physical motion.

This spiritual connection of man and machine is the heart of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and of his far future Earth. Untold cataclycsms have torn the world to smitereens, lifting mountains and draining seas. Cities have put on wheels, and roam the world, feasting on each others resources. It's a town eat suburb world out there, and after more than a thousand years the pickings are getting rather slim.

Reeve's story opens as London fires up its engines to attack a small mining town, somewhere in the ruin that was the North Sea. Tom, young apprentice historian finds himself in the presence of his hero, the explorer Valentine. But when Tom defends Valentine from a mysterious masked girl, Hester Shaw, he discovers that nothing is quite what it seems. Especially when, in order to hide the name of the girl, Valentine pitches him over the side of the city - to what should be a certain death. Tom's quest to return home becomes entangled with the girl's quest for revenge. And as Reeve throws Tom and Hester through his broken Earth we learn that these simple quests are actually part of something much bigger, something that threatens to change the shape of the world once more.

A prime example of the current trend for "breakout" novels that transcend the artificial boundaries between "young adult" and "adult", Mortal Engines is a wonderful book, destined for great things. Reeve's first novel reaches out to the reader (young or old) and, like all good SF, shows them a distorted mirror of our world. His motile cities are vast engines of consumption, made mortal by their unending desires and the forge of "municipal darwinism". As metaphor they may be strained, but the underlying story of Tom and Hester's quest for absolution is one that we would do well to read and understand. London has lost its soul, and it is in the final refiners fire that our heroes bring that it will regain it.

There are so many echoes of great writers here: H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Christopher Priest, John Buchan, Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish - even touches of Olaf Stapledon and Rudyard Kipling. All writers who have thought deeply about their world and humanity's place in it. For, when it comes down to it, despite the huge economic engines that drive the West, we are the mortal engines who steer its course, and (no matter how small and insignificant we may think we are) we are the engines of change.

It's also a cracking read. Just don't spend too much time spotting the rock music references...

A worthy entrant on the Whitbread prize list.
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