Survival of the fittest sounds all neat and clean from a distance. Creatures grow and change in a nice line, just like on that little evolutionary chart. The strong survive and the weak... don't. However, it's pretty bloody business when you take a closer look. Municipal Darwinism, the dominant social system in Mortal Engines, is no different. Not only do vicious towns clatter around the landscape and tear smaller towns apart with great metal jaws, but the people fight each other, too, with guns, swords, and missiles. With great shows of strength, there's bound to be blood spilled. In Mortal Engines, heads will roll.
Municipal Darwinism is built on a foundation of violence. Tom grows up seeing London tear other towns apart... to the cheers of the people.
Katherine and Bevis use a comparatively non-violent method to solve their problems... and they end up dying. Perhaps violence is the only way to solve problems like these.
Our social class system kind of looks like a wedding cake. The lower class is the largest, and each higher class gets smaller and smaller until you get to the 1% at the top, looking down on everyone like a cake topper with fake smiles permanently stamped onto their plastic faces. It all depends on perspective. From the top, the bottom layer looks awfully grimy, all close to the ground and stuff. Ick.
In Mortal Engines, the great traction city of London is also described 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. The thing is, that lower layer supports everything. Why aren't they taken better care of?
Katherine, Tom, and Hester come from three different social classes—upper, middle, and no class, respectively—and this affects the way they see the world. Katherine thinks she can change it; Hester pretty much thinks the whole world's gone down the crapper, and Tom, in the middle, is conflicted.
Mortal Engines shows us social classes within social classes. London itself is divided, but as divided as it may be, it considers itself above any city smaller than it.
Whether someone is meeting you in person, creeping your OKCupid profile, or carding you when you see an R-rated movie, they are checking out your appearance (and, man, that driver's license photo is awful). Appearances matter, and a good first impression is less about putting a good foot forward than it is about putting your best face forward. The characters in Mortal Engines are no different. A lot of value is put on physical appearance, and that involves both people and the cities they live in. And fair or not, it's the pretty ones who get special treatment.
Both Tom and Katherine, who are of a higher class than Hester, are very fixated on appearance. Hester, who is deformed and from the lower class, doesn't have the same superficial reservations.
Municipal Darwinism is about survival of the fittest on an epic scale. On a smaller scale, Social Darwinism is heavily dependent on appearance. Pretty ones are more likely to succeed.
It's hard enough living with the guilt that you were playing ball in the house and broke your mother's favorite horse sculpture, or that due to your shoddy navigation skills a three-hour boat tour ended up in years of being stranded on a tiny desert isle. But what if you blame yourself for the death of a loved one? Or for nuclear war?
There's a lot of guilt and blame weighing down the characters of Mortal Engines. (Some more than others.) Poor Tom seems to have the weight of a dying world on his shoulders, even though he's fifteen, while Valentine, who has committed more crimes than we have fingers and toes to count them, seems to be relatively carefree. What gives? Are these toxic emotions good for anything?
Valentine only seems to feel guilty when he's caught. Even so, the guilt isn't enough for him to change his ways: he continues doing the same nefarious things, regardless of the consequences.
Since Hester's parents were brutally murdered, she doesn't feel any guilt for her bad actions; she feels they're justified. Two wrongs may not make a right, but they don't make some people feel guilty, either.
There are courageous teens all over the place in fiction: Harry Potter. Katniss Everdeen. Those kids dying of cancer in The Fault in Our Stars. While there are always exceptions and doubts, most of the time, acts of courage make people feel good. Yay! I'm brave! That type of thing.
In Mortal Engines, it doesn't seem like anyone ever feels good. Courage in this world usually means killing someone who's trying to kill you, or blowing up your enemies before they can mount an attack. These courageous acts have consequences (see "Guilt and Blame" and "Violence" for example), consequences that might make you feel like you're not such a hero, after all.
Courage is about making hard decisions. Tom goes against his moral code when he kills Grike, or when he fires missiles at Valentine's airship. He's not only courageous against the world; he's courageous with himself
Courage is about making the wrong decisions. Tom mistakes guilt for courage when, in a surge of adrenaline, he strikes out and kills people. Only when the adrenaline fades does the guilt set in.
Putting people on a pedestal almost always sets them up for a fall. A president has a scandalous affair. Your favorite American Idol contestant lip-syncs to the wrong track. A star sports player turns out to have an imaginary girlfriend. Your role model tries to kill you. It never ends well.
Oh, that example of a role model trying to kill you? It totally happens in Mortal Engines. Tom views Valentine as a man who can do no wrong, who can move mountains and save small children from disaster. Shocker: he blows up mountains and pushes small children into disaster. How do you rationalize it when a person who can do no wrong—does wrong?
Admiration clouds Tom's judgment. It takes him a long time to see Valentine as a bad person, even after Valentine tries to push Tom to his death.
Tom admires Valentine because he is everything Tom wants to be. The problem is that Tom starts turning out just like Valentine, blowing things up, killing people, and so on.
Technology does a lot of wonderful things. We can carry hours and hours of music and reading on digital devices that fit into our pockets. We can scan people for diseases that are invisible to the naked eye. And we can blow up the entire planet dozens of times with nuclear bombs.
Wait. One of these things is not like the other.
Mortal Engines takes place in the aftermath of some "bad" technology: that would be the nuclear weapons that wiped us all out. So technology started up again, with traction cities and airships. Now, technology is speeding us toward destruction for the second time. Is it possible to modernize so much that we end up going around in circles and back to a primitive age?
Technology brings mankind farther and farther away from the natural world. The people of the traction cities are frightened of living on the earth, but they need to do this in order to survive.
The people of London have put so much effort into destructive technology that allows town to eat town that other things like healthcare and nutrition have fallen behind. It might be too late for them to catch up.
Mortal Engines can seem more like Mortal Kombat at times, with all the swords and blood and fatalities. But just as Mortal Kombat 2 introduced the "Friendship," Mortal Engines has a tender side as well.
Amidst all the carnage, Katherine and Bevis go from strangers to friends to sweethearts to… dead, but we're trying to focus on the positive here. Even Tom learns to look past Hester's ugly face and get to know the not-quite-as-ugly person within. Although Katherine and Bevis's friendship ends up leading to their doom, Tom and Hester's friendship saves them. As usual, everything has two sides in Mortal Engines.
Friendship isn't much of a factor in Municipal Darwinism. When living in a town-eat-town world, most people think about how they can get ahead... and friendship would just slow them down.
Hester avoids being friends with Tom for so long because she's been betrayed in the past, or because she's lost people she's loved. Friendship means trusting someone else, and that's hard for her.
How weird would Madonna's "Like a Prayer" be if she were singing to Donald Duck? Pretty flipping strange, right? The people of Mortal Engines think the Ancients (read: us) worshiped Disney characters like Mickey and Pluto. And you know, we kind of do...
Think about it. Disney characters have statues, they have places dedicated in their name (we're looking at you, Disney store), they have stories told in their honor, and they have books. They have everything. If we were archaeologists way in the future, we'd probably agree with the characters in this book. Religions change with the times. Who knows, maybe Poseidon and Aphrodite were really just comic book heroes back in the day.
Religion has two faces. In Mortal Engines,it is used as both a comfort—Katherine praying to Clio—and as a destructive force—St. Paul's Cathedral hiding MEDUSA.
Gods are totally made up in the world of Mortal Engines world, but people still believe in them. Consider this: Mickey Mouse, a Greek muse, and the guy who invented traction cities are all "gods" to the people living in the great traction city of London.