December 14th, 2002

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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It was 30 years ago, today...

...that the last men to walk on the moon began their long journey home.

So is it time to go back yet?

From the transcript at NASA:

188:01:27 Schmitt: Ten seconds.

188:01:28 Cernan: ...10 seconds.

188:01:29 LM Crew: Abort Stage.

188:01:30 Cernan: ...pushed. Engine Arm is Ascent.

188:01:32 Schmitt: Okay. I'm going to get the Pro. (Pause) 99 Proceeded 3, 2, 1...

188:01:39 Schmitt: Ignition.

[Schmitt - "As I recall, at the moment of ignition, all we had was static - loud static. And I was looking to see what happened, to see if I'd lost lock."]
[Cernan - "Jack spent half of the lift-off trying to get comm back."]

[Schmitt - "And I remember somebody telling me that what had happened was that they had a site handover scheduled right at lift-off! And nobody caught it."]

[Jack's memory is not quite accurate, although the problem was, in part, due to procedures on the ground. The following has been extracted from the Apollo 17 Mission 5-Day Report: "On lunar module ascent, two-way lock with the lunar module transponder was lost. This resulted in a 4-minute loss of uplink voice, and tracking data during ascent. It was necessary to have the Command Module Pilot pass comments from the ground to the lunar module crew during this period. The initial loss of lock was attributed to attenuation by the lunar module (engine) plume. Communications should have been re-established in less time (than 4 minutes). A review of data indicates that a normal re-acquisition by Goldstone should have been attempted earlier. Approximately 4 minutes after lunar module lift-off, a normal re-acquisition was accomplished."]

[According to Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham in his book "The All-American Boys" Gene's last words on the Moon were "Let's get this mother out of here." During the mission review in Santa Fe, Gene was surprised not to hear those words but it seems likely to me that what he was remembering was his "Now, let's get off." at 188:01:25 and that, in later tellings, the wording changed to the more colorful version Cunningham quotes. I have discussed this matter with Andrew Chaikin, who is another aficionado of the audio tapes, and we agree on the interpretation given here. My thanks to William Bianco for reminding me about this issue.]

188:01:40 Cernan: We're on our way, Houston!
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    Brian Eno - Apollo - An Ending (Ascent)