Study Guide

Mortal Engines Analysis

  • Genre

    Science Fiction

    Let's see—futuristic setting, new-fangled technology, and the dangers of messing around with science you don't understand? Yep, this is sci-fi.

    But wait just a second. Everything seems awfully... Victorian-era, doesn't it? What with London's rigid class structure and the horrible living conditions for the lower class? It's like a Charles Dickens novel with airships. That means it fits right into the sci-fi subgenre of steampunk, which specializes in stuffing the nineteenth century full of futuristic machinery it never had. It's a little bit retro, a little bit futuristic, and a lot of bit amazing.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    While the great traction city of London might not be alive in the same way a human is alive, it is a living entity. Just as cities today seem to live, grow, breathe, and die, so does London-on-wheels. This London has a Gut, it makes waste, and it's a little bit heartless... like a lot of people we know. It's "mortal" in the sense that it has to eat to survive.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of Mortal Engines, Katherine & Bevis and Tom & Hester live happily ever after while all of London thrives and all the roaming cities live in peace and harmony.

    Just kidding.

    Katherine and Bevis die painful, horrible deaths, then everyone else in London burns when the city blows sky high. And then author Philip Reeve comes along and curb-stomps a kitten in front a group of nuns with cancer. Okay, we're joking about the kittens and nuns. All the kittens blew up when London did. There are no more kittens. Or nuns.

    Let's face it: the ending of this book is beyond bleak. Tom and Hester are circling London in their stolen airship as the entire town, the city Tom grew up in, lies in a smouldering heap. "Smouldering" might look nicer with that British "u" crammed in the middle, but fun spelling doesn't make it any less tragic. Hester says to Tom, "You aren't a hero, and I'm not beautiful, and we probably won't live happily ever after […] but we're alive, and together, and we're going to be all right" (37.12).

    That's nice. But what do they have to live for? Each other? They didn't even like each other until just a few hours ago. However, it's not like Tom or Hester lost anyone close to them in the London explosion, so personally they're not all that affected. And they are still alive, so that's good. We guess.

    Philip Reeve originally planned this as a standalone novel (source). We're glad there's a sequel, so there's some hope for these two. They can only go up from here.

  • Setting

    The Great Traction City of London, The Future

    Rollin' Rollin' Rollin', Keep Those Cities Rollin'...

    After the Ancients (that's us present-day folk—man, we feel old) blow themselves up in the Sixty Minute War, nuclear catastrophe unlike anything the world has ever seen or will ever see again, few people survive. It seems like the United States has been completely eradicated, and most places in Europe and Asia survive only by being mobile. Airships and traction cities—giant cities that roll around on tank treads—are the new thing.

    Most of the action takes place in London, a giant—but by no means the largest—traction city. London survives by rolling around and eating other cites, and by trying to avoid getting eaten by even larger ones. It's like the game Feeding Frenzy, but on land.

    This London is the London you know and love, with famous landmarks like St. Paul's Cathedral and districts like Cheapside; it just has giant tank treads and huge metal jaws slapped onto it. (What, no googly eyes?) Plus, it's not even in England anymore. Cities have had to go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyles in the post-apocalypse. We're talking about hunting smaller cities and gathering the loot.

    This whole Predator Cities idea is a consequence of nuclear war as well as of the dangers of continuous conurbation. Can a city, like a person, ever grow too large to survive? Will cities eventually have to get up and move? In other words, do cities need to go on The Biggest Loser: Entire City Edition to avoid an early demise?

    That's how the cities in this book roll, and by roll, we mean roll.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    It's a good thing we rank Mortal Engines at Sea Level, since the giant traction cities trundling over the countryside can't operate on rougher terrain than that. Once you can wrap your head around what these massive contraptions look like, it's smooth sailing from there. Need a little help picturing them? Check out our Best of the Web section for some nifty photos and illustrations.

  • Municipal Darwinism

    Survival of the Towniest

    There's a huge image in Mortal Engines that's next to impossible to get out of your head: the image of the massive half-mile-tall rolling traction cities that rule the planet. Our first glimpse of London is "a moving mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke [...] and above it all the cross on top of St. Paul's Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth" (1.4). You don't want to meet one of those in a dark alley.

    The whole socioeconomic structure of the world as depicted in Mortal Engines is based on something called Municipal Darwinism. This is like Darwinism or Social Darwinism on a much larger scale. Municipal Darwinism imagines what Darwinism's ultimate endgame might be. After all, when does "survival of the fittest" stop? When only the fittest are left, how will they survive?

    Town Eat Town World

    When Magnus Crome goes a little batty... okay, battier at the end, he asks himself this same question: "How long will a new hunting ground support us? A thousand years? Two thousand? One day there will be no more prey left anywhere, and London will have to stop moving" (34.9).

    Since this man has Municipal Darwinism hammered into his very soul, his answer isn't, hmm, you know, maybe we should look at this another way? It's out-of-this-world insane: "We will build great engines, powered by the heat of the earth's core, and steer our planet from its orbit. We will devour Mars, Venus, and the asteroids. We shall devour the sun itself, and then sail on across the gulf of space. A million years from now our city will still be traveling, no longer hunting towns to eat, but whole new worlds" (34.10).

    Um. Yikes.

    A Different World

    Seeing the extremes to which Municipal Darwinism can go forces Tom to reevaluate his worldview. At the beginning, Tom thinks Municipal Darwinism is just the way things are. "It was natural that cities ate towns, just as the towns at smaller towns, and smaller towns snapped up the miserable static settlements" (1.29).

    Once he sees the pirate town of Tunbridge Wheels, though, Tom's mental wheels start turning. He sees that the town behaves in the exact same way London does; the pirate town just has more of a crass attitude about it. Has London been slyly pulling the wool over Tom's eyes this whole time? By the end of the book, Tom doesn't know what to believe in. All he knows is this: just because you were brought up a certain way doesn't mean that way is noble, beautiful, or for the good of society as a whole.

  • Airships

    Full of Hot Air

    The swift, mobile airships are foils, the polar opposites of the heavy, cumbersome traction cities that dominate the planet. As such, they're the vehicles of choice for the opposition: the Anti-Tractionists who oppose Municipal Darwinism at every turn.

    Aviators and aviatrixes, like Anna Fang, are believed to lead glamorous lives by people like Tom, who dream of becoming air pirates. While not exactly carefree, the air pirates do seem to live without one anxiety plaguing those living in the traction cities: the fear of being devoured on a daily basis. The air pirates don't seem to be wanting for resources, nor do they seem to need to hunt on a daily basis. Why doesn't everyone live like this?

  • MEDUSA

    We'd Rather Be Turned to Stone

    We're not shouting at you, folks: MEDUSA is in all caps everywhere in Mortal Engines. If it's an acronym, we're not told what it means. Mighty Energy Death Used to Slaughter All? MEDUSA is a relic of the past, and by past, we mean our time—a time where weapons of mass destruction could be anywhere, and all it takes is the push of a button to exterminate an entire nation of people.

    MEDUSA shows us just how horrible and unpredictable technology can be sometimes. Magnus Crome doesn't quite understand it, but that doesn't stop him from using its power to blow up his enemies. Unfortunately for him, and for all of London, it backfires and destroys them all in the end. Hey, wasn't the fabled Gorgon defeated by her own power?

      • Allusions

        Historical References

        • MEDUSA is obviously a reference to that famous Gorgon with the stony gaze (referenced throughout) 
        • Hester's mom, Pandora, is a reference to the girl with the box (6.16) (27.9)

        Pop Culture References

        • Disney's Pluto and Mickey Mouse (1.18)
        • Airsperanto is a reference to actual little-spoken language Esperanto (10.37)
        • The airship My Shirona is named after the one-hit-wonder (12.1)
        • There's a character named Walmart Strange (31.7). 'Nuff said.