THE ORIGINAL STORY
Tripping the light fantastic in the Traction Era
By A.V. Varghese
“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” So went my introduction to the sheer delight that is Philip Reeve. I found him at 55. He put me into a quaint airship and flew me into a world driven mostly by the ideology of Unlimited Municipal Darwinism, with Thatcher as its god(dess).
This dive into the Traction Era, around for a 1000 years on Earth, began with the book Mortal Engines, conceived for readers in the age group 9-11. But the Mortal Engines Quartet (called the Hungry City Chronicles in the USA) is also for adults who want to regress without regrets to pre-adolescence. It is post-apocalyptic literature, even dystopic, but the tales are un-put-down-able.
The action is set in an Earth after the Sixty-minute War, a conflagration triggered by high technology weapons. Bits and pieces of this Old Tech are highly prized for purposes of trade and power politics. The race, by protagonists and antagonists, is for the reassembly, use or defusing of two deadly Old Tech star-war weapons – MEDUSA and ODIN (Orbital Defense Initiative).
The tetralogy consists of Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. It’s a skillful tapestry of plots and sub-plots involving fascinating characters, human and cyborg, reinvented geographies and the central notion and motion of Traction Cities – gigantic cities and small towns, moving on caterpillar tracks seeking to devour other cities with their “jaws”, dismantling and digesting them as resources in their “guts”. These “hungry”, roving cities include London, Arkangel, Airhaven, Motorpolis and Anchorage and are contrasted with the Anti-Traction League of “landed” nations.
The adventures of an incredible cast of characters, with young boys and girls at centre stage, spin across distorted geographical configurations – The Dead Continent (irradiated north America), Asia (home of the anti-Tractionists), the Icy Wastes (Arctic spaces), Anchorage-in-Vineland, Nuevo Maya, etc.
The populations of the cities are divided into classes – the Guild of Historians, Guild of Engineers, Scriven (mutant humans), Stalkers (cyborgs), aristocracy, traders, pirates and slaves. Political machinations and plunder are the order of the day.
The tales follow the life and times of Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice Historian, and Hester Shaw, a girl on a vengeance mission, whom the Fates draw together in the Traction City of London. Wren, their daughter, later, treads her own path of adventure. There is the Stalker Shrike, a ruthless cyborg with protective feelings for children, and Anna Fang, savior of Tom and Hester and resurrected later as a Stalker ‘queen-dictator’. And there is Sathya, the Indian anti-Tractionist and founder of the radical Green Storm. I won’t mention the many other colourful characters and their complicated relationships and deeds of heroism or chicanery. Trace the their incredible life stories and the histories of the forces they ally with or are arraigned against, as they grow up literally and psychologically, into heroes or turncoats.
The moment I finished reading the four books, Fever Crumb fortuitously dropped into my hands, the first book in Reeve’s trilogy that is the prequel to the tetralogy. Following the trail fo the girl Engineer Fever Crumb, one discovers the origin of Shrike, events that led up to the Sixty-Minute War and more. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the other two books in this series – Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon. But, soon …
There is too my anticipation of exploring Reeve’s steampunk universe in the illustrated Larklight trilogy – Larklight, Starcross and Mothstorm. I shall then regress further to Reeve’s Buster Bayliss series (meant for even younger children). Reeve himself is an accomplished illustrator and those who take to his books will ultimately relish his illustrative works too. And, finally, tthe hope remains that the rumours of Peter Jackson wanting to make Mortal Engines into a magical film will become celluloid reality at the earliest!