It is time to talk about Mortal engines again. But this blog contains comparisons to other fiction as well, so don't worry about it I will reference a lot of Stuff I talked about in the Beginners Guide series and my earlier vlogs on Mortal Engines because I don’t want to bog down this blog by repeating myself. So you are warned. And with that out of the way, let’s begin. I already said something about Mortal Engine being a High Concept story that doesn’t sit well with me. But I needed to think hard about why. It has a lot of components, in the book and the movie, that make sense. But These don’t connect in the right ways. Today I want to explore why that is. Because I thing we see this problem prop up in more Steampunk fictions.
Well, I guess we'll starts with Steampunk being a High Concept genre.
For those who haven't seen the last Steampunk Beginners Guide episode on technology, High Concept stories focus on a single idea rather than character development. So rather then telling a story about a protagonist and the trails they need the overcome, like old mythologies or romance novels, High Concept stories focus more on the context in which the protagonist finds itself.
This context is usually the world, but it could also be a particular situation, like Kafka’s story were a man transforms into a fly for no reason.
Anyway, High Concept can usually be found in Scifi because it often tries to answer what-if-questions. What if our reality really is a simulation? Or What if city could drive around.
In Steampunk first self proclaimed novel The Difference Engine Gibson explorers a 19th century where computers were invented. This is all well and good, but how many such stories like this really exist within the genre. I mean Steampunk stories that follow the Cyberpunk-in-the-past-principle that Gibson envisioned.
Now, Mortal Engines is already a poor fit for this definition, it being future prediction and all. But let’s leave that for what it is. Another Youtuber , Shadiversity, reacted to Mortal engines trailer in a video called: Can fantasy get to dumb and unrealistic? He talked about the impossibility of city’s being able to drive because, Physics! I agree to a point. Yes, Mobilecity’s build like these are impossible - or at least impractical. I defended this in the my previous video with… Realism is not what Mortal Engines is about. The roaming cities are a metaphor for our own western society and it dependence on fossil fuel that forces powerful countries to exploit other nations for their oil.
In other words, Mortal Engines is a message-story. There is nothing really wrong with this. Orwell wrote such stories to great effect. But Orwell spoke from personal experience and his stories were metaphors for how he saw communism in Spain and the Soviet Union. There is a lot of nuance to his work. Yes, communism is harmful in his eyes, but you can also shows us why it is compelling to those who embrace it. You might call these people brainwashed stooges, but many people take comfort in the fact they don’t have to responsible for their actions. And if things go wrong, there is always an enemy to blame.
And this is my problem with Mortal Engines. For me there is nothing compelling about these moving cities. There are no reasons given why people would maintain such a lifestyle for a 1000 years. Why don’t people leave these cities on their own accord and... I could go on about all the issues I have with this concept. And this is the premise the story is based on.
In my earlier video I stated that in Steampunk there is a necessity for the suspension for disbelief. That is not what this is about. Or at least not entirely.
My question to you is, are these cities compelling to you? Like, really? Would you invite your family and friends to come along and spend your life on London?
Why do I ask you this?
Let’s take another setting. Altered Carbon. This is a show on Netflix that takes place in a far future were people consciousness can be transferred from one body to another thanks to implants called stacks. Some of these bodies walk around in custom made ‘sleeves’ as they are called. These can made to be beautiful or resilient for military purposes. And if you die, your consciousness can be retrieved as long your stack doesn’t get blown out.
Our protagonist is a former resistance fighter, Kovac, who got arrested and his Stack was locked away in a freezer for two centuries. When he is released he receives a proper body from a mysterious benefactor. This man turns out to be on of the most powerful men in existence, Laurens Bancroft, who got him out of the freezer to solve a peculiar murder case. Namely his own. Of course his consciousness moved to a new body, what makes all the weirder that the scene looks look a suicide.
Although not new in fiction, body swapping is out there idea, and quiet dystopian. But is it compelling. Even if you find the idea distasteful, could you think of any reason why people want to use this? Well, Altered carbon has you covered in that regard. It is used from healing the crippled to fetishism to granting people eternal live.
Even if you dislike the idea, you can still see the benefits, even if this includes taking joyrides in other people's body for.. Horizontal refreshment.
And that I think is the biggest failure of Mortal Engines. At first glance the idea sounds awesome. Going around the world without leaving home. Sign me up!
But nothing is done with it. London is not like The Starship Enterprise that visits all these alien worlds. Nor is the society itself anything unique. It is treated like a regular country or city, that happens to be on wheels. And the metaphor, although clever, is wasted because it lacks the nuance that could have created the conflict both the book and the movie sorely needed.
In the first book The politic commentary of the thing happening aboard of London could be summarized to Evil Men, bad. And weapons of mass destruction are bad.
Because of this everything that happens on board of London is just filler till Tom and Hester return to London to defeat the Mayor… Or Valentine if you only watched the movie. Yeah, what roles these man have really doesn’t matter because there is no deeper meaning to their personalities.
Maybe this is a good moment to talk about the meaning of themes. There are some characters in the first book of Mortal Engines that represent certain aspects of their setting. For example both in the book and the movie Hester and Tom get captured by slavetraders.
In the book this is one of the moments Tom develops a growing distrust for his fellow men and become more cynical over the course of the story. Also the slavetrader explains that the lack of resources drove him and his town to capture people and sell them as slaves in order to survive. Londons actions are also motivated by these shortages which is used as a narrative tool to justify the city's actions and ambitions so the it doesn’t look like a complete monster.
Off course this entire problem could have been avoided if London adapted to the new situation rather than maintaining it's way of life that is unsustainable. Than again that is the entire message of the book to begin with.. That leads me back to my first question. Do you find this compelling?
If you don’t question this - you are treated to the antagonists that consists of the Mayor and his cronies… And Valentine kinda. There really is nothing to these characters. There there to be the bad guys.. And they shoot your pets to proof it!
In the book Valentines motivation was simply - giving his daughter, Kate, the best possible future. Which is hilarious considering what he did to his other daughter, Hester… Yeah bit of a spoiler but not really as it has noooo impact on the plot… It seems to be there just to ape Star Wars…
Hester, I am your father!
Anyway Valentine didn’t seem to realize his daughter might not approve of the things he has done. And when she calls him out on it, suddenly he feels bad and he gets a bit of a redemptive arc…. Anyway the point I want to make is that the entire concept of Mortal Engines is completely irrelevant at this point. Because this franchise is a message story, all that matters is to get the message across which is that the moving cities are literally heading to their doom; in this case portrayed by the Great Wall of Shangri La.
Because there is a point they want to get across, there are few way to end stories like these. Unlike Altered Carbon, that explores all the possible ways how body swapping and memory storage could be used.
I don’t want to pretend that Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon is the Bees Knees of Cyberpunk, btw. I didn’t care for the flashbacks and I Especially found the final antagonist, Reileen, incredibly cringe inducing.
But beneath all that display of high-tech it turns out to be a a tale of human tragedy about a man that tried to undo what he had become.
Stories like Altered Carbon, or Ghost in the Shell, bedazzled us with possibilities of these science fiction concepts, while getting its audience invested in human tragedy.
Mortal Engines on the other hand... has a message. And it is a inconvenient truth we already know and don’t need to lectured about. So all we are left with are two protagonists, that ain’t bad but just don't connect to the setting very well.
And that is something I have noticed with many stories within the genre. This disconnect between High Concept settings and Low Concept characters made the genre drift away from it's science fiction roots. The Scifi elements are there off course, but mainly aesthetic. And In combination with this trend in media that everything needs to be ‘Topical’ takes away the genre uniqueness by becoming like typical fantasy… Or whatever subset you want to shelf it under.
I am not saying this is a bad thing. But I can’t help to think this isn’t talked about enough. Yeah, people complain that there is too much fantasy, and yes, suspension is disbelief is required if you really want to have steampowered well, anything the size of a backpack. But nobody discusses why this is the case or how writers can resolve this tension between Science Fiction and Fantasy. That takes effort, attention to detail and taking concepts to their logical extremes when developing them. Maybe I’ll explore this topic in the future. For know I will focus on the next SCP-video and will attempt to work on RRF for Fallout.
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