Post-Apocalyptic Reflections: Themes and Social Commentary in Philip Reeve's "Mortal Engines

22 May 2023

"Mortal Engines," written by Philip Reeve, is a captivating and imaginative dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic world. The story takes place in a future where cities have become mobile and predatory, roaming the desolate Earth and consuming smaller towns for resources. The novel follows the journey of Tom Natsworthy, a young historian, and Hester Shaw, a mysterious and scarred girl, as they navigate this dangerous world and uncover shocking secrets.

Philip Reeve, born in 1966 in Brighton, England, is an accomplished author known for his works in the science fiction and fantasy genres. "Mortal Engines" was published in 2001 and quickly gained critical acclaim for its unique world-building and compelling narrative. The novel has since become a significant part of the young adult literature canon, addressing themes of power, survival, and the consequences of human actions.

In "Mortal Engines," Philip Reeve skillfully crafts a captivating dystopian world, explores complex themes of power and morality, and presents multidimensional characters, ultimately delivering a thought-provoking narrative that reflects on the consequences of human behavior and the pursuit of power. This essay will analyze the world-building, thematic exploration, and character development in "Mortal Engines," highlighting the novel's enduring significance in the realm of young adult literature.

mortal engines themes

Mortal Engines Plot Summary and Setting

Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic world where cities have evolved into massive, mobile entities. The story revolves around Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian from the traction city of London, and Hester Shaw, a disfigured young woman seeking revenge. When Hester attempts to assassinate the powerful Thaddeus Valentine, Tom intervenes, leading to a series of events that force them to flee London together.

As Tom and Hester journey through the dangerous Out-Country, they encounter various factions and adversaries, including the Anti-Traction League, led by the enigmatic Anna Fang, who opposes the destructive nature of the mobile cities. Along their journey, Tom and Hester uncover secrets about the past and discover the devastating truth behind the predatory cities.

The setting of "Mortal Engines" is a striking and imaginative world. Earth's landscape is desolate and scarred, with the remnants of civilization scattered across vast wastelands. Cities have transformed into enormous traction cities, equipped with massive tracks and wheels, enabling them to move across the barren landscape and capture smaller towns for resources.

These mobile cities serve as the primary setting for the novel, with London being the central focus. The intricate details of the traction city, from its sprawling architecture to its social hierarchy, are vividly portrayed, immersing readers in this unique and menacing world.

The setting plays a crucial role in conveying the overarching themes and atmosphere of "Mortal Engines." The mobile cities symbolize humanity's insatiable hunger for power and resources, as well as the destructive consequences of such pursuits. The barren and desolate landscape reflects the consequences of past conflicts and the consequences of a society driven by greed.

Furthermore, the mobile cities create an atmosphere of constant movement and danger, emphasizing the precarious nature of survival in this post-apocalyptic world. The setting's vastness and isolation contribute to a sense of loneliness and despair, heightening the stakes for the characters as they navigate through this treacherous environment.

Post-Apocalyptic Reflections Themes and Social Commentary in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines

The wonderful characters

In "Mortal Engines," Philip Reeve introduces a diverse cast of characters who play integral roles in the story. The main characters include:

1. Tom Natsworthy: Tom is a young historian from London, initially portrayed as naive and idealistic. As the novel progresses, he undergoes significant growth, questioning the morality of his actions and developing a deeper understanding of the world around him. Tom serves as the reader's entry point into the mobile cities and represents the potential for change and redemption.

2. Hester Shaw: Hester is a scarred and determined young woman seeking vengeance against Thaddeus Valentine. She is initially portrayed as a mysterious and hardened individual, driven by her desire for revenge. Throughout the story, Hester's complex layers are gradually unveiled, revealing her vulnerability and capacity for compassion. Her journey involves both physical and emotional transformation.

3. Thaddeus Valentine: Thaddeus is a charismatic and influential figure in London, known for his role in advancing the city's technology. Initially presented as a respected historian, he conceals a darker agenda. Valentine embodies the corrupting influence of power and explores the theme of the ends justifying the means.

The characters in "Mortal Engines" experience notable development and growth throughout the novel. Tom Natsworthy evolves from a wide-eyed observer to an active participant in challenging the status quo. He confronts his own biases and learns to question the morality of his society. Hester Shaw's growth is equally significant as she grapples with her past trauma and reevaluates her motivations, ultimately finding redemption and forming connections.

The characters' growth is influenced by their encounters with other individuals, such as Anna Fang, who represents resistance against the predatory cities, and Katherine Valentine, Thaddeus's daughter, who undergoes her own transformation and challenges her father's beliefs.

Philip Reeve utilizes effective characterization techniques to bring the characters to life. Through vivid descriptions, internal monologues, and dialogue, the author creates multidimensional personalities with unique traits, desires, and flaws. The physical appearances of characters, such as Hester's disfigurement, contribute to their depth and emotional resonance.

Reeve also employs the technique of revealing characters' backstories and motivations gradually, adding layers of complexity and keeping readers engaged. By exploring their pasts, the author provides insight into their present actions and motivations, fostering empathy and understanding.

The characters' dialogue and interactions reflect their distinct personalities and motivations. Tom's initially naive and innocent dialogue contrasts with Hester's guarded and blunt speech, emphasizing their differences and facilitating character growth and development.

Themes and Moral Messages of Mortal Engines

"Mortal Engines" explores several major themes that resonate throughout the novel:

1. Power and Greed: The novel delves into the destructive consequences of power and greed. The mobile cities' predatory nature and the lengths individuals go to maintain control highlight the corrupting influence of power. Characters like Thaddeus Valentine embody the theme of power and greed, showcasing the negative impact of unchecked ambition and the sacrifices made in its pursuit.

2. Survival and Humanity: The theme of survival permeates the narrative as characters navigate a harsh and unforgiving world. It raises questions about the lengths people are willing to go to ensure their own survival and the consequences of disregarding empathy and compassion. The struggle for survival also prompts characters to confront their own humanity and moral choices.

3. Identity and Redemption: "Mortal Engines" explores the themes of identity and redemption through characters like Hester Shaw. Hester's journey of self-discovery and her quest for vengeance evolve into a search for redemption and acceptance. The novel raises questions about the complexity of identity, the power of forgiveness, and the potential for personal growth and transformation.

These themes are developed through the characters' experiences, interactions, and the events of the plot. The predatory nature of the mobile cities and the clash between the Anti-Traction League and the Traction Cities highlight the theme of power and greed. Characters like Tom and Hester grapple with the morality of their actions and the consequences of their choices, providing nuanced exploration of survival and humanity.

The exploration of identity and redemption is intricately woven into the character arcs of Hester, Tom, and others. Their personal journeys involve confronting their pasts, reevaluating their motivations, and seeking redemption through acts of compassion and self-sacrifice.

"Mortal Engines" conveys several underlying messages and moral lessons. It serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the dangers of unchecked power, the consequences of exploiting resources, and the importance of considering the well-being of others. The novel emphasizes the value of empathy, compassion, and the recognition of shared humanity, even in a world divided by conflict and scarcity.

Additionally, "Mortal Engines" encourages introspection and self-reflection, urging readers to question their own beliefs, biases, and the implications of their actions. It highlights the potential for personal growth, redemption, and the importance of forging connections and alliances in the face of adversity.

the shrike mortal engines
The Shrike

The unique World building of Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines excels in its worldbuilding, creating a vivid and immersive post-apocalyptic setting. Philip Reeve constructs a world where traction cities dominate, emphasizing the shift in human civilization and the desperate struggle for resources. The author skillfully crafts a detailed and believable backdrop, showcasing the intricacies of the traction cities, their architecture, social hierarchy, and technological advancements.

Reeve's worldbuilding extends beyond the cities themselves, exploring the desolate wastelands, the ruins of the past, and the dangers that lurk in the Out-Country. He paints a picture of a world scarred by a catastrophic event, capturing the atmosphere of a society on the brink of survival.

Imagery and descriptive language play a crucial role in bringing the world of "Mortal Engines" to life. Reeve's evocative descriptions paint vivid pictures in the reader's mind. Whether it is the towering spires and vast moving parts of the traction cities or the desolate landscape with its ruined cities and remnants of the old world, the imagery immerses readers in a visually captivating and hauntingly atmospheric setting.

The author's use of sensory details enhances the reader's experience, allowing them to feel the rumble of the moving cities, smell the oil and smoke that permeate the air, and sense the tension and danger that pervade the environment. The descriptive language transports readers into this post-apocalyptic world, engaging their senses and emotions.

The world building and imagery in "Mortal Engines" have a significant impact on the reader's immersion and engagement with the story. By constructing a detailed and believable world, readers are able to suspend their disbelief and fully immerse themselves in the narrative. The vivid imagery and descriptive language create a sense of place and atmosphere, enabling readers to visualize and connect with the characters' surroundings.

The immersive worldbuilding and vivid imagery also contribute to the emotional resonance of the story. The desolation and danger of the post-apocalyptic world elicit feelings of tension, uncertainty, and awe. 

social commentary of mortal engines

Social and Political Commentary of Mortal Engines

"Mortal Engines" contains social and political commentary that reflects and critiques aspects of our own society. The novel examines power dynamics, class divisions, and societal structures, offering insights and commentary on these issues.

We have a nagging suspicion that author Reeve was not a fan of Magaret Thatcher...

Philip Reeve's portrayal of power in "Mortal Engines" highlights the corrupting nature of unchecked authority under the guise of Municipal Darwinism. The traction cities, with their dominant positions and ability to consume smaller towns, represent the consolidation of power in the hands of a few. Characters like Thaddeus Valentine manipulate and exploit their positions of power, revealing the dark side of authority and the dangers of power without accountability.

Class divisions are another theme explored in the novel. The social hierarchy within the traction cities, where the wealthy and privileged reside in opulence while others struggle for basic necessities, reflects the inequalities prevalent in society. The stark contrast between the lavish lifestyle of the upper class and the struggles of the lower class underscores the disparity and social injustice within the novel.

Societal structures in "Mortal Engines" also come under scrutiny. The dominance of the traction cities perpetuates a system of exploitation and control. The theme of societal structures raises questions about the balance between progress and the preservation of humanity's values, as well as the consequences of prioritizing technological advancement at the expense of ethics and sustainability.

The social and political commentary in "Mortal Engines" is relevant to our own society and holds potential implications. The portrayal of power speaks to the dangers of unchecked authority, emphasizing the need for accountability and ethical governance. It prompts readers to critically examine power structures and challenge systems that enable the concentration of power in the hands of a few.

The exploration of class divisions resonates with contemporary issues of wealth inequality and social stratification. It highlights the need for a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, shedding light on the consequences of marginalization and social injustice.

The commentary on societal structures encourages reflection on the balance between technological progress and the preservation of human values. It prompts us to consider the ethical implications of technological advancements and the long-term consequences of our actions on the environment and social fabric.

london city
London City 

Reception and Influence

"Mortal Engines" has garnered generally positive critical reception since its publication. The novel has been praised for its imaginative worldbuilding, compelling characters, and thought-provoking themes. It received several notable accolades, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. The critical acclaim has helped elevate the profile of the novel and its author, Philip Reeve.

The success of "Mortal Engines" led to the development of a film adaptation released in 2018. Directed by Christian Rivers and produced by Peter Jackson, the film aimed to bring the vivid world of the novel to the big screen. While the film received mixed reviews and did not perform as well at the box office as anticipated, it still helped to introduce the story to a wider audience.

Additionally, the success of the novel led to a series of prequels and sequels, expanding the Mortal Engines universe. Philip Reeve has written several companion novels, including "Predator's Gold," "Infernal Devices," and "A Darkling Plain," further exploring the post-apocalyptic world and introducing new characters and storylines.

"Mortal Engines" holds a lasting influence within the science fiction and young adult literature genres. The novel's imaginative worldbuilding, unique setting, and themes of power, survival, and social inequality have captivated readers and inspired discussions. Its exploration of dystopian societies, environmental concerns, and the consequences of human actions aligns with the broader themes seen in young adult literature.

Furthermore, "Mortal Engines" has contributed to the ongoing popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction in young adult literature, influencing subsequent works in the genre. The novel's themes and worldbuilding have inspired readers and authors alike, leaving a mark on the collective imagination of the literary community.

The film adaptation, despite its mixed reception, also helped to increase the visibility of the novel and the Mortal Engines universe, introducing the story to new audiences and potentially sparking interest in the original text.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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