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Mortal Engines & Broken Humanists

[1]2,355 words

Mortal Engines is an action-adventure yarn spanning four books by teen fiction author Philip Reeve, first published in 2001. With the recent box-office flop of the movie adaptation, it’s an opportune time to share some thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of this enduringly popular quartet. I first read Mortal Engines and its sequels (Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain) in my mid-teens, and haven’t picked them up since, so the following is entirely from a decade’s worth of offhand contemplation.

The books are good, but offer only drama and spectacle. The social commentary is flimsy when it’s present at all, and unnecessary, tell-tale author whimsy lets slip that whilst this is Reeve’s most well-known work, he didn’t take it too seriously at the time. Nonetheless, the fantastic space of the imagination allows for the ridiculous premise and settings to breathe fitfully and unimpeded; something that has not translated well to the big screen. Mortal Engines is set in a steampunk post-apocalyptia where the Eurasian landmass is home to colossal, mobile cities that hunt each other for raw materials and slave labor. In turn, static settlements are prey for the smaller conurbations trundling around the continent. Europe is offhandedly mentioned to have become a volcano range due to the devastating nature of the weapons used in the so-called “Sixty Minute War” (the trope of a very short war unleashing cataclysmic energies echoing Half Life 2‘s so-called “Seven Hour War”), and cities have adapted to the resource hardship of the new world by simply upping sticks, adding tracks or wheels, and turning on each other in a “Municipal Darwinism.”

In the mind, the idea of a towering, lumbering London of multiple tiers sat squat on gigantic tracks works well – the imagination freely adapts from lived experience, and one can immerse oneself in the groaning and swaying of the floors, the reinforced crumbling brickwork and labyrinth streets linked by gantries, walkways, ladders, and hatches. On the big screen, it turns into a mush of special effects and is unable to properly distinguish itself visually from other grand-scale settings. Fans of the book series should turn instead towards Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children, a film that relies almost entirely on its quirky steampunk aesthetics, claustrophobic closeups, clever shot compositions, and freakish villains. The “Resurrected Men” of the Mortal Engines series, dead soldiers patched together with laptop innards and surgical aluminum faces, are a poor stand-in in the film for the original de-fleshed T-800’s from the Terminator franchise, and are saddled with the same job of hunting down troublesome, boyish protagonists. In The City of Lost Children, a group of blind, bald cultists make use of mechanical eyes to abduct orphans and bring them to a mad scientist’s lair, and make for better on-screen Stalkers than the adaptation of the book has managed.

The plot of Mortal Engines centers on the clunkily-named Thaddeus Valentine and his fiendish scheme to empower London with a superweapon hidden in St. Paul’s cathedral (which sits atop the predatory monstrosity). Hester, a once-beautiful copper-haired firebrand, tries to murder him for reasons unknown and gets entangled with the London museum wombat, floor sweeper, and hapless niceboy, Tom Natsworthy. They both get the boot into London’s dirt track, evade slave traders, and have misadventures on their way back to London to stop Valentine firing the super-doomahickey. Hester’s face has been horrifically scarred in a sword attack by Valentine himself, and in the books, she’s lost an eye; rather a big deal is made of Hester’s broken looks and Tom’s unending devotion to her (initially in spite of it, and eventually in attachment to her looks as part of her as a whole).

The movie has toned down Hester’s facial scarring considerably, which is a huge shame, as it detracts from the baleful animosity of her character. Hester’s savage drive propels the book quartet as surely as London’s locomotive engines, and it’s possible that with greater prosthetics, a radical rewrite, and emphasis on real-life settings with an absolute minimum of computer graphics, a much darker and more captivating film could have been made. In the film, both Tom and Hester appear to be throwaway teenage stand-ins, whereas in the book series they eventually marry and have a child, and Tom’s earnestness and Hester’s bitterness give them a poignant depth that the cartoonish movie can’t begin to articulate. The Mortal Engines movie actually does more harm than good to the book series by highlighting how shallow it is, which otherwise would have gone unnoticed by younger readers. It is faithful in the worst possible way – Starship Troopers fans can grimace at the thought of such a grindingly uninventive, high-budget, scene-by-scene, shot-for-shot film version of Heinlein’s classic. Mortal Engines fans can only shake their heads sadly that the source material was not used as a springboard to a reinventive, standalone film – instead, it’s a beat-by-beat hashing-out of the book that exposes how little creativity it originally had, to set the stage for “epic” money-grubbing sequels.

The climax of both the film and the first book comes with the firing of London’s Medusa weapon. It’s here that Reeve’s boilerplate liberal sensibilities begin to be explicitly voiced. London has turned the techno-demonic Eye of Sauron on a larger German city, pursuing and blowing it to smithereens with ungodly laser fire. The people of London cheer on the ramparts as the city that was going to tear apart their homes and turn them into mulch or slaves is defeated. The staff of London’s museum (who excavated the ancient weapon) are handwringing over the loss of ancient pots, writings, historical records, and artifacts . . . only for Katherine Valentine, Thaddeus’ daughter, to admonish them with, “What about the people?” Oh, the humanity! Of course, the museum staff are totally correct – people are self-replenishing, given time, space, and the means to make a good living, but parts of the ancient world, once lost, are lost forever. Ancestral consciousness is a fundamental part of existence, and dying on a battlefield to defend a nation is partly defending the safety and security of that nation’s historical heritage. In the words of Jonathan Bowden (which you will have no doubt heard as the introduction to Fróði Midjord’s Guide to Kulchur podcasts [2]), “In order to have a future, a people have to be aware of their past, and of the glory of that past.”

Poor people, indeed! Katherine typifies the sort of extreme sentimentality to which humanists fall victim. The premise of Mortal Engines is that it is a tale of survival, yet the villain is the one who accepts the reality of the zero-sum game and plays it to win. Reeve’s sentiment throughout the series is with Anna Fang, an airship cosmopolite, her accomplices in a floating sky-city, and the pan-Asian static settlements of the “Anti-Traction League,” who are hiding behind a fortified mountain range. There is also a city underwater, Grimsby, which is home to a gang of Lost Boys who lead raiding parties from submarines on the few remaining island nations. The plot, which takes far longer than it should to get its mammoth tank-tracks rolling to its destination, eventually ends with Hester and Tom in a Romeo and Juliet-style death embrace (she takes her own life after Tom dies of heart failure). A city on wheels, a city in the sky, a city with a Nordic beauty to woo Tom away temporarily, a city underwater, and finally a bittersweet showdown on the “Darkling Plain” – the backdrops that Tom and Hester slog through to the last few chapters become increasingly shopworn and tedious once seen for the painted cardboard cutouts they are. Thankfully, youthful imagination and stepping into the shoes of Grimsby’s submarinal Lost Boys keeps it engaging.

On the final page, the story circles back on itself to its very beginning. The Terminator-lite “Stalker,” the Shrike (named after “the butcher bird that spikes its prey on thorn bushes”),[1] [3] has retired from pursuing Tom and Hester throughout all four books to sit in a Rodin’s Thinker pose and wait for someone to talk to. In the far-flung future, a bunch of agrarian quadroons with “honey-colored” skin, brown hair, and brown eyes (in stark, deliberate, and pointed contrast to the white protagonists, villains and yellow Anti-Tractionists) are enjoying a plentiful, peaceful existence in the way that Africans and mulattos generally don’t. When Shrike’s had enough pondering the imponderables, he starts to narrate Tom and Hester’s story to the fascinated and bemused audience of Starbucks-ready, perfect, mixed-race people. Thusly, Tom and Hester’s journey taken as a whole is a flight from crazy, power-mad white men and their crazy, city-eat-city Darwinistic model of life, to the relative safety of saner, mercantile Chinatown-in-the-sky, to eventual death in a wasteland, only to be replaced by amicable, empty-headed Third-Worlders with no history, no concept of history, and no means of production beyond subsistence farming. Take that, Wypipo! Right in your stupid, science-loving faces!

Right from Valentine’s enlistment of an all-white team of scientists to reanimate the dead, to the “Municipal Darwinism” catchphrase, to the Scandinavian hideaway city whose primary selling point is its aristocratic heritage, Reeve’s world of megalomaniacal city planners seems designed to attack any sort of identitarian attachment or national feeling. Mechanical and technological grandeur is attacked in the books’ titles, Mortal Engines and more explicitly Infernal Devices signposting a send-up of white technological accomplishment. History and historical consciousness is given short shrift, with Reeve’s ideal society having seemingly given up on all that to sing “Kumbaya.” Nietzsche’s aphorism (and I must confess to never having read Nietzsche, only about Nietzsche) that man was a “broken animal” doesn’t apply to the villains of Mortal Engines, who are scrapping it out to survive at all costs, even as the number of settlements for them to swallow up dwindles. The “broken animal” is the voice of – Dr. Evil airquotes – “Reason,” Katherine Valentine, who even in the face of death can’t distinguish between her genetic ingroup (her father and his weapon, which defend her city and her life) and the predatory civilization bearing down upon her.


The original illustrated cover for Infernal Devices puts a dazzling brass, steel, and glass submarine into a foaming recall of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

In this sense, throughout the series Mortal Engines is a commentary and weak apologia for panmixia and a limp-wristed universal altruism. In the words of Mike Enoch, to counterbalance “the profound negative consequences of diversity . . . the mixing has to be justified,” yet Reeve offers no justification for it beyond a “gotcha” on the final page that describes a nonsense community of brain-dead brown people. The setting and use of steampunk (itself being a throwback and homage to white ingenuity), coupled with constant negative stereotypes of whites (the only race it’s acceptable to demonize in mainstream literature), add up to Mortal Engines being a liberal attack on whites acting in their own interests. A Google search for “Philip Reeve humanist” turns up other commentators who have a similar reading: Cambridge University Professor Peter Hunt states the Shrike expresses “what seems most to be feared in the modern world: a capacity for inhumanity and violence; scientific inquiry harnessed to serve imperial power, and the ethical vacuity of those in power.”[2] [5] If self-defense is not an “ethical” use of scientific power for whites, is there any way we preserve our existence without being “inhumane”?

A humanist is deficient in that their absolute beliefs not only prevent them from acknowledging their own group, but the legitimacy of other groups and social models. An Islamic demagogue would likely be able to define why he hates the neoliberal West: it is decadent, it brooks no public expression of ethnoreligious values, it is permissive and yet tyrannical in defense of that permissiveness; and overall, it is an affront to the spirit and inner struggle of jihad. However, a neoliberal humanist can’t conceptualize this – even ideologically, without going near a discussion of race – why our hypothetical Islamist feels the way he does. He thinks that the Islamist needs to be given a passport, a white wife to show how not-racist the West is, a Playstation 4, and socioeconomic opportunities, and then he will cease to be an “extremist.” From his perspective as a humanist, the good sense of placing his liberal-bourgeoise values of conflict avoidance and material comfort above all else is so self-evident that anyone who disagrees must not be of sound mind. They have to be thought of as maniacs rather than agents of an opposing group, because to admit that ethnoreligious ideals trump material comforts is to admit that humanism is a negation of identity and spiritual values. Humanism and its overemphasis on the abstract, bloodless, conceptual humanity is inhumane in that it rejects all the particular attributes that make someone an actual human being; the humanist ignores race, ethnicity, nationality, national character, historical experience, and historical destiny, and counts only the “human spirit.”

It’s this levelling egalitarianism that informs Reeve’s satire on the enterprising, Faustian nature of whites – the only people who would have the guts, grit, and collective fortitude to build cities on tank-treads in the first place. Even conceptual artist Anthony Gormley comes under fire in a digression about the coastal English city of Brighton, unfairly labelled “Gormless” in a move that shows that Mortal Engines is more hack writing than literary landmark. Like Gormley or not, his conceptual works have genuinely advanced art as an interactive experience and help to define contemporary white culture. Reeve condemns Gormley and all white innovators for pushing forward, whilst harking back in his final pages to a noble-savage utopia that never existed.

Thankfully, like the dog-eat-dog world of “Hungry Cities,” the status quo of the West continually gobbling up diversity is not sustainable, either. Broken humanists worship the Mortal Engine of economic assimilation, and its time is nearly up.


[1] [6] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel. The same convention of naming spikey metallic men after this bird is followed in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion science fiction series, where the “Shrike” is yet another Terminatoreseque antagonist.

[2] [7] David Rudd (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature (Oxford: Routledge, 2010), p. 189