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.