Catastrophe and Coincidence

Just a quick book review tonight, if I am capable of such a thing. I don’t know how other bloggers feel about fictional dystopias, but I find myself both hypnotically drawn to them and rather horrified by the premises underlying their vision. I read somewhere (if only I could recall where) the comment that science fiction is fundamentally pessimistic – that it always starts from the assumption that this world we live in is one we will shortly destroy. The novel I have just read, the award-winning Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, certainly bears this proposition out.

The story is set several millennia in the future, after ‘the Ancients destroyed themselves in that terrible flurry of orbit-to-earth atomics and tailored-virus bombs called The Sixty Minute War.’ Having poisoned the environment and obliterated much of the land mass as we know it, towns are now enormous traction engines, organized in tiers (that also designate social hierarchy) and continually on the move, searching for other towns in the Great Hunting Ground which they can swallow up for resources. It’s called Municipal Darwinism, or as the narrative has it, a town eat town world. There are, as ever, pockets of rebellion. An Anti-Traction League exists, with strongholds in the East, insisting on the old-fashioned, static way of life. When the novel begins, Tom, the main protagonist and suitably an orphan, considers the anti-tractionists to be dangerously behind the times and a threat to the modern (and therefore correct) way of life. Tom is a lowly apprentice to the Guild of Historians on the traction city of London, a society separated into Historians, Navigators, Merchants, and the all-powerful Engineers. The story opens with London chasing prey for the first time in ten years, a small town called Salthook, and Tom, young lad that he is, is longing to escape the museum and watch the action. It’s this small act of disobedience that propels him into a terrible and magnificent adventure.

One thing that science fiction does formidably well – and particularly in YA novels in which it seems there are no holds barred because children have yet to create sacred cows – is to examine social ideology. In this dense and powerful novel, we watch Tom forced to challenge the validity of the way he lives, the authority figures he has idealized, the rightness of the principles that govern his particular culture, and the moral justifications for warfare. Reeve taps into two almost inhumane forces that we can see operating in our own world, one being the unflinching forward progress of technology which masks an underlying desire for power, and the other the fierce allegiance to a society, a culture, particularly when it’s under pressure, that reduces the alien other to a non-entity, something to be pillaged and cast aside. But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a heavy, theoretical novel in any way – it isn’t. Instead, it’s a rip-roaring, fast-paced, plot-rich cornucopia of a book, and the profound questions Reeve manages to ask are all evoked through the situations his characters find themselves in.

I can see exactly why this book won awards – it is superb on many levels. The feat of imagination that created this extraordinary world, the delicate development of the main characters, the inventiveness of its plot, all are exceptional. But it’s not the type of book I would normally read, and whilst it’s the best of its kind, it isn’t really my sort of thing. I had to think quite hard to isolate what it is about the narrative that doesn’t appeal to me. All I could think to say at first was that it felt Dickensian. Then I realized what I meant by that. The novel dramatizes a clash between the world in which the characters live, which is bleak, damaged, impoverished, dark, verging on the apocalyptic, and the tone of what happens to the main, privileged characters, which is optimistic, governed by destiny, full of coincidences and fortunate escapes. No matter how big this fictional world, Tom is regularly saved by people turning up exactly where he is, at the exact moment he needs them. When he boards a pirate ship by mistake, he is spared certain death by the caprice of the pirate captain who wants to learn etiquette. The twists and turns of the plot call for this level of fateful intervention, and yet nothing appears to have intervened for the salvation of the world that provides the backdrop – it is a lost cause – and this is a book with a high body count. Outside of the charmed circle of hero and heroine, no one is safe.

There is never any moral highground to be occupied by the fact of one’s literary preferences. We all like some sorts of books more than others, can tolerate some kinds of incidents better than others, and this is effectively meaningless in the big scheme of things – it only advises us how to make good choices in a library or bookstore. I can see that this contradiction in narrative corresponds well to a developmental position in teenagers, who are often critical and negative about the world they live in, but need very badly to believe that they can take risks and find the necessary resources to survive and even flourish. And in this respect (as in so many others) the novel really does its job. This comes highly recommended for anyone who likes their fiction powerful and catastrophic, and would probably go down particularly well with the kind of teenage boy who can still be persuaded to read.

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12 thoughts on “Catastrophe and Coincidence

  1. This review is spot on as ever! I enjoyed the book enormously as did my daughter. She went on to read the whole series and I think they are on her treasured books shelf. I know what you mean about the central characters, which I think is typical of much of the genre anyway. I can also see how it might be applied to Dickens, but materially preserved doesn’t mean psychologically unscathed. Take Pip for instance.

  2. Oh, I need to get my hands on this soon! I finished my first Philip Reeves (Here Lies Arthur) just a few days ago, and I was so impressed with how smart and complex it was, and with the kinds of questions it dared to ask.

  3. I used to hate dystopian novels, but I think that was before I actually read any. This past year I read what feels like dozens though in fact I think it was maybe five or six. I’m now perfectly addicted to them, so adding this one to the list! It sounds steampunky, which is nice, I’ve wanted to like steampunk for ages and so far never have. :P

  4. As you won’t be surprised to hear, this was very much my thing, and I think Reeve is one of the great children’s writers around at the moment. I do think, however, that this series ran just too far and by the time we got to book four there were just too many loose ends to tie together and the book suffered as a result. He’s now written a couple of prequels as well. Time to move on. Given that sci-fi is not your thing do read his Carnegie winner, ‘Here Lies Arthur’ which is very different and, I think, magnificant.

  5. This sounds like the perfect kind of YA book, great plot but filled with lots of ideas that make you think and ask questions. Has you son read it? And if so, what did he think?

  6. I enjoy dystopia settings tremendously and always have – ever since I first read Ray Bradbury. I think it’s the combination of what could potentially happen and fantasy that I enjoy so thoroughly – this is certainly on the tbr list. Incidently, I have only recently learned the proper way to refer to Dickens-like novels, thanks to you and public radio.

  7. Bookboxed – no you’re right, certainly not unscathed psychologically – but I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse for me! I’m very glad you and your daughter enjoyed these, though – they are spectacular novels, and I wondered whether they might be known to your household. :)

    Lilian – what were you discussing about Dickens? I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that one! :)

    Nymeth – And I’d really like to read Here Lies Arthur! I am sure you would enjoy this. It’s high quality stuff, and just wonderful for readers who are into fantasy.

    Jenny – I really need someone to explain steampunk to me! It’s such an intriguing term, but I can’t get a good clue from it as to what it means. I have read very little fantasy, but then Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl set me off just before Christmas, and I’m following in your footsteps this year. Next up is Angela Carter’s rewriting of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. Should be good.

    Ann – I am certainly going to read Here Lies Arthur. This isn’t so much my thing, but I can still recognise the quality of the writing, and the imagination that went into it, and I’d very much like to read more by him.

    Stefanie – Alas! He falls into the category of teenage boy who refuses point blank to read, which is a shame because I do think he’d enjoy it. Perhaps I can lock him in a room with no internet connection and read it to him – well, if I survived the encounter, of course. ;)

    Courtney – now Ray Bradbury is another author I feel I ought to have read but haven’t. I’d love to know what you think of this if you do get to it – the plotting and the quality of the writing is marvellous.

  8. It’s definitely interesting to figure out what you (people generally) don’t like and why. I’m not sure I would like the plottiness of it; I’m not someone who likes my fiction catastrophic! Usually, at least. It’s always good to try something different anyway, just to test out whether your assumptions about yourself are really accurate.

  9. I’m interested in why dystopias are so popular. My theory is that life is very easy at present – I mean for the kind of people who read the books: affluent Westerners who aren’t dealing with hunger, political unrest, war, discomfort, natural disasters, etc. So just to balance things out, we imagine ourselves to be in those situations.

    “May you live in uninteresting times” as the Chinese blessing has it.

  10. I sort of like dystopian fiction, or at least have a fascination with it (and find Jenny W.’s comment interesting as I hadn’t though why I find it so). This might be a little over the top for me–I think I prefer fiction that resembles the world as I know it (to some degree anyway), but I can see where a boy or young man might go for a story like this. And I am all for trying something if only to help make those good book choices later! And I’m so surprised your son doesn’t like to read, but then my niece doesn’t either–she can spend hours playing with her nintendo, though.

  11. I have this and want to read it quite soon. Very interested in your ideas about it being Dickensian and I can see what you mean, while Dickens wanted his novel to reflect on society and set up his young characters to represent certain whole factions, the resolutions do end up saving his hero rather than reforming society. Which I guess is because Dickens wrote realistic novels and his readers could believe in one boy being saved form the system miraculously, but they could see all around them that poor people as a whole weren’t getting rescued any time soon. So what does it say when modern fantasy, a genre ripe for experimentation, isn’t able to break away from this idea and save the whole wide world? Is it something to do with the fact that lots of fantasy is still grounded in reality and when we look around we still see whole groups of people that life is not working out for? Not sure, but interested and very appealed to by the idea of cities that move!

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