A Tree Grows in Brooklyn found me when I was 11, the same age as the main character when the book begins. A Little Paris Bookshop found me just after a breakup. To the Lighthouse found me a few weeks ago— I guess I’ll figure out what brought her to me in the retrospective. But the book that inspired this post was not any of these well-written testaments to great literature.
No, the book that found me this week was Mortal Engines 1: Predator Cities by Philip Reeves. A post-apocalyptic steampunk critique of nuclear weapons posing as a YA novel about cities on wheels that devour suburbs, mistake Mickey Mouse for “an Ancient American deity,” and cut vicious scars into the faces of teen girls.
Because as we all know, that is absolutely what will happen when the world collapses into nuclear war.
The book found me right as I was deciding what to do after graduation; and it helped me make my decision. Read to the end to find out! No spoilers! You can skip down if you want; I am writing this post for me and for no one else, so I will probably ramble. I apologize in advance.
Let’s get this review started.
I saw the movie first. If I didn’t know me better, I’d say I was a terrible book lover. In my defense, I didn’t know there was a four-book series (although, in my offense, I wouldn’t have read them first anyway).
The movie follows a young (handsome, white, male) apprentice Historian (!!!) named Tom and his adventures after the villain, Valentine, pushes him and murderous (prettily-scarred, self-pitying, white) Hester Shaw off of London, the roving predator city who serves as a vague and yet uncomfortably sharp metaphor for colonialism. They encounter pirates, slave-traders, rebels, and a cyborg assassin in their quest to get back to the colonialism metaphor and kill Valentine for recreating nuclear warfare.
The book does not spend nearly as much time on the people of color as the movie does, to its detriment: Feng Hua (alias Anna Fang) and Captain Khora, Yasmina, and not one but two Uighur characters (albeit nameless). Instead, the book follows Tom and Hester. It also follows (white, blonde, rich, stupid) Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, as she discovers (painfully slowly) that her father murdered a lot of people on his mission to cover up the fact that he had an affair with and subsequently killed the woman who discovered the aforementioned nuke that would (spoiler) end all civilization forever.
But who cares about any of that? What I’m interested in is the museum at the heart of the story, and the Historians who formed the core of resistance to nuclear warfare in London. I’m interested in the way the crowds cheered as the nuke (spoiler) blasted through the Wall of Shan Guo, the rebel base in what was formerly known as China. I’m interested in the different ways the book and the movie treat the violence these young characters encounter. We’ll start with the violence and work our way back to the history, because that’s my favorite and I like saving it for last.
First, the violence. In the movie, it’s PG-ified. You see exactly one wound, in the beginning, when Hester falls on something stupid doing something stupid, who cares. In the book, the violence is so grotesque, you’re almost numb to it because it is so incongruent with the writing style. Writing-wise, it’s very J.K. Rowling pre-Goblet of Fire. Maybe even pre-Prisoner of Azkaban. Basically, very fast-paced and light, with a third-person omniscient narrator who has little use for its own omniscience. Combine that with Saving Private Ryan levels of violence, and you get Mortal Engines.
Seriously, I had to read about innocent people being dragged off of prey cities, killed immediately and used for fuel; the cyborg decapitates several people, sparing no detail; bones break through skin, blood pours from dying mouths, the heat-stricken fall into running rivers of sewage. Metaphors for the Holocaust abound. The movie completely skipped those parts, preferring to give just a few glimpses of blood and the smallest taste of the slavery the two main characters endured (in the book, it lasts for several chapters; in the movie, they don’t even get sold). It’s like the script was written with the book in the next room.
Let’s talk about the cheering crowds. This is probably the only thing that is exactly the same in both the book and the movie: the “innocent” people cheer the deaths of thousands. Are they innocent?
I don’t think so. Are any of us innocent for the things our government has been responsible for? Oh, now we’re getting heavy. You thought this was going to be a nice little review of a YA novel. Now we’re talking about colonialism and slavery and the Holocaust and whether citizens are responsible for national decisions.
Are you responsible for the death of an Iranian citizen caught in the crossfire? How about the child soldiers in Yemen? Or the journalist in Saudi Arabia? Should we be held accountable? The characters in both the movie and the book constantly refer to “the Ancients,” and their foolishness, their refusal to stop the end of the world as they knew it, their allowance of the apocalypse. The movie asks; the book begs, grabbing me by the shoulders: Are we responsible for the things we allow?
I’d say so. When I traveled to France, I was held responsible for the Parkland shooting; not for carrying it out, but for allowing it to happen.
What did they expect? you’re asking yourself. Did they expect you to fly there and wrench the gun from the shooter’s hand?
No. But they demanded an explanation, and they demanded it of me. In that moment, I became synonymous with my country. It’s the same when I visit my family in Italy; I am synonymous with the United States, and so synonymous with the Allies who bombed the village seventy-five years ago. And thus, vaguely a reminder of those directly responsible for the ruins down the street from our house.
But what about people who don’t travel? What about the people in London, who were constantly traveling? Are they responsible? Why shouldn’t they be— since when does the location of the confessional change who absolves our sins?
I didn’t mean to give anybody a crisis. I just wanted to look around, and think. What are we allowing our government to do? In a democratic republic, the government can only do what we allow it to do (in theory, but in theory is enough). So yes, I’d say we are responsible; and that’s a weight this book reminded me to carry.
Now we get to the real reason I’m writing: the history. In the book and the movie, history is venerated by everyone except the Engineers. The Historians guard treasures like furniture from the 23rd century, “old-tech” from the Ancients— that’s us— and 25th-century paintings. I wanted a whole movie just to tour the museum. The Frick House can hold my attention for hours, the National Portrait Gallery for days, the Louvre for weeks. The Mortal Engines museum would have to build exhibits around me for all the time I could spend there.
The presence of a museum in a book set so far into the future begs the questions: what of us will be kept? What will be remembered? What will we leave behind?
These aren’t new questions. People love talking about legacies— Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a whole musical about it. But I wonder how much we think about humanity’s legacy. That’s the whole reason I study history, to trace the foosteps of humankind through the centuries. Ugh, how pretentious does that sound?
But seriously, think about it. In a couple thousand years, we will be to people what the Ancient Greeks are to us. People roll their eyes when I say that and say, “Yeah, in a couple thousand years.” As if it doesn’t matter. As if what we do now has no bearing at all on how the future will perceive us.
This book asked these questions of me––what will you leave behind, what has been left behind, how will the future remember us?–– right when I was deciding how to spend my post-graduate life.
I had just decided to pursue my Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Georgia State University, provided they let me in. I’d be doing archive work, learning how to preserve artifacts and documents, working with librarians and preservationists to make sure nothing of us is forgotten. This book reminded me how important it is to protect as much of what has made us as we can.
Whether significant or otherwise, we deserve to be remembered with as much complexity as possible. That way, a thousand years from now, some (young, anxious, broke) historian won’t be left to wonder what it was like, way back then.