Sunday, 21 April 2013

Article: Carnivalizing the Future: A New Approach to Theorizing Childhood and Adulthood in Science Fiction for Young Readers

Thanks go to Meg for coming across this article:

This article mainly discusses Reeve's Mortal Engines Quartet which I recommended in the seminar a few weeks ago as great reads. I think it's pretty accessible and is a good introduction to children's dystopian texts.

Some thoughts on the first half of the article:
Sambell talks about the way concepts of heroism, zeal and cultural confidence are rendered dangerously problematic. You have seen this in Reeve's Here Lies Arthur and you will see this in The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is a preoccupation which becomes increasingly prevalent throughout Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy. The population follow either Mayor Prentiss (later self-named President Prentiss) or Mistress Coyle. Both leaders commit acts of treachery, cruelty and genocide but express the kind of rhetoric we as readers are familiar with hearing in the context of war and terrorism (my personal frame of reference / immediate thoughts were of the Bush administration and the coverage of terrorism since 9/11), that is, they are doing it for freedom, for peace, for the future of the population etc. If you choose to finish the trilogy you will observe the way Viola and Todd and others critique the language of the two leaders in their attempts to justify their actions. Ness collapses the distinctions between right/wrong, good/bad, victim/villain, terrorism and 'just war' to show that they are purely based upon perspective and interpretation. Adults manipulate and exploit children and other adults. Mayor Prentiss literally brain washes people and controls others thoughts with 'noise'. Alongside the critique of leadership and ideologies, also interesting are the attitudes to killing and the distortion and subversion of traditional gender constructions (in fact, gender relations generally). 
Later in the trilogy, we are given the perspective of the Return, one of the Land (Spackle) and a new model of citizenship. Those of you doing ecocriticism for the second assignment would get a significant advantage from finishing the trilogy of which I have free copies.   
Sambell notes a lack of confidence in the ability of adults to know best how to ethically inform and guide children's future lives. While the actions of many adults prove to be fatally flawed in Ness' texts, later in the trilogy there are adults who give Todd and Viola the right to make decisions because of this lack of faith in other adults. There is an acknowledgement of children as the future heirs of the planet and their ability to see things more clearly and with the planet in mind. Children, here a young adolescent couple (a trope of dystopian children's texts) are idealistic, morally superior and come to question whether aggression is fundamental for survival.  
I also thought the following quotes were appropriate to The Knife:
'In the bleakly ironic landscape of the dystopian form, dominated as it is by fear, aggression and a "heroic" view of life as a battle or contest, child-utopians are predominantly imaginatively cast as innocent and vulnerable victims.'
'This childhood "fall from grace" also causes a dilemma for children's authors, as they struggle to avoid valorizing the values of the polluted society (such as aggression, conquest, striving for idealism) when they appear in the aspiring child-hero. The problem of combining hope with the dark reality is actually highlighted by Swindells's child-narrator in Brother in the Land, who discusses how difficult it is to carry on living honorably and optimistically when the rules of the classic dystopian fantasy world in which he lives are to kill or be killed: "Hardness versus compassion. No contest" (42).


Carnivalizing the Future: A New Approach to Theorizing Childhood and Adulthood in Science Fiction for Young Readers

Sambell, Kay. The Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 28, Number 2, April 2004, pp. 247-267


Dominant Trends in Recent Science Fiction for the Young 
Since the 1960s futuristic science fiction for young readers has been dominated by authorial fears about the violent, inhumane social and political worlds young people seem likely to inherit.1 Postapocalyptic, admonitory scenarios are rife, depicting horrifying visions of hostile societies that are shockingly indifferent to injustice, oppression, persecution and the suffering of the masses. Whether these fantasy scenarios extrapolate from current trends to take the imaginative form of neoprimitive or hypertechnological societies, or whether they predict the apocalyptic aftermath of nuclear aggression, the future is typically represented as a terrifying nightmare that child readers must strive to avoid at all costs. Often these stories2 —which include John Christopher's The Guardians, Jan Mark's The Ennead, Victor Kelleher's Parkland, Robert Swindells's Brother in the Land and Melvin Burgess's Bloodtide, among many others—expose and critique totalitarianism. The authors pull no punches in depicting brutally enforced inequality, horrifying violence and the systematic dismantling of individual rights in their future worlds.
This substantial body of writing is based on the dominant genre model of the classic dystopias, 1984 and Brave New World. As in these didactic adult novels, the dystopian form for children is used to make serious and daunting comment on where we are really going as a society and, worse, what we will be like when we get there. Its primary purpose is to puncture old myths and dreams, by proving, in the form of a literary experiment, what human aspirations and ideals are really likely to mean for the future of mankind. Above all, children's dystopias seek to [End Page 247] violently explode blind confidence in the myth that science and technology will bring about human "progress."3 They achieve this by working through the application of science in worst-case scenarios, demonstrating that it can be used to bring about oppressive, inhuman and intolerable regimes, rather than "civilized" ones. This can be seen in the ways in which the old, the sick and the unemployed are callously viewed as useless and disposable members of society in such technologically "advanced" societies as those envisaged by Robert Westall in Futuretrack 5, Monica Hughes in The Tomorrow City and Enid Richemont in The Game. In each of these novels an all-powerful ruling elite uses science to exploit and exclude anyone who is perceived to be different, unproductive or weak. In Hughes's novel, for instance, the computer that is programmed to administer a perfect city for its child inhabitants destroys the elderly and homeless, while in Richemont's world the populace is brainwashed to hate "imperfections," who can then be eradicated. In Westall's future vision social stability is bought at a terrible cost: the law is brutally enforced by "Paramils" who use "psychopters" to invade people's minds; nonconformists are lobotomized; and the unemployed "Unnems" are controlled by their lusts in a culture of suicidal but addictive game-playing.

On the most obvious level, then, the dystopia didactically foregrounds social and political questions by depicting societies whose structures are horrifyingly plausible exaggerations of our own (Scholes 70). Dystopian authors predominantly teach by negative example, "making the familiar strange" (Rose 8) in order to shock and frighten readers into recognition of the dire need to question official culture and to expose the corruption of the present adult world that could plausibly lead to such bleak and intolerable futures. The dystopia foregrounds future suffering, then, to force readers to think carefully about where supposed "ideals" may really lead, underlining the point that these hugely undesirable societies can and will come about, unless we learn to question the authority of those in power, however benign they may appear to be. In this way dystopian texts emphasize predominantly social concerns (Swinfen 190). They primarily show how the future human hells they depict have been created in the name of a quest for stability, perfection and a man-made utopia. Grim irony is the main weapon in the dystopian author's armory and the future must be seen as incontrovertibly bleak for its admonitory function to be effective.

At deeper imaginative levels, though, children's dystopian texts "issue a warning about destructive tendencies in human behaviour" (Stephens, "Post Disaster" 126). They reveal a prevalent crisis in confidence in the [End Page 248] human species itself, fuelled by the evidence of world events since 1945,4 which have led to a powerfully pessimistic conviction that hope is unreal and "fundamentally irrational . . . in our fallen world" (Ketterer 99). Dystopian warnings importantly reside in a deeply pessimistic interpretation of human nature, which the atrocities of the Holocaust revealed only too plainly, most specifically its

Animal characteristics . . . predation, greed, rapacious short-term opportunism, manic and irrational competitiveness . . . [These] aggressive instincts [form] a dominant behavioural pattern which is destructive of other life, self-destructive, and patently unsustainable beyond the trivial time scale of a few millennia or centuries.

(Hollindale 9)
This dark interpretation of human nature renders the concept of heroism, zeal and cultural confidence as dangerously problematic.5 As Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins state:

We live, after all, in a post-heroic age: Heroes are for debunking and deconstructing. The gendered associations of the terms "hero" and "heroism"—macho posturing, manliness, celebrations of physical bravery (often in a context of imperial conquest), and a consequent devaluing of what are often seen as feminine qualities—have been analysed and condemned.

The Dystopia: Life Represented as a Tragic, Bloody Spectacle
The concept of heroism, fatally combined as it is with this dark reading of human nature as predatory and aggressive, is played out ironically and tragically in the dystopia in order to caution readers about its terrible consequences. 1984, for instance, classically imagines a world which is horrifyingly seen to be dominated by the "masculine" aggression of the tyrannical Party, whose heroic quest for power has allowed it to conquer, invade and use physical and mental might to dominate and rule by force. Orwell thus represents future life as a "tragic, bloody spectacle" (Meeker 33), in which the would-be "hero," Winston Smith, the tragic inheritor of such a system, is inevitably bound to fail. The author unswervingly uses irony to show that this is not simply a case of the "weak" Winston being unable to withstand the brute force of the powerful Party. Winston brings about his own tragic demise, because he is unable to see life in any other way than as a "heroic" battle for power. He, like the reader, must learn that to view life in terms of heroic aspiration and "higher" ideals is a false hope, and ultimately self-destructive. No element of the novel contradicts or questions this horrifying narrative logic, because the dystopia's admonitory function depends upon it. The decision to think about life differently rests with the reader outside the novel. [End Page 249]
Winston thinks he believes in the transcendent power of love, for example, but his language reveals that his "love" for Julia is, ironically, actually a heroic quest for power: "Their embrace had been a blow struck against the Party . . . It was a political act" (199).
In the dystopian future it is too late for hope, and Winston's abject defeat is used to underline how self-destructive and unsustainable the "heroic" interpretation of Darwinism really is. Orwell warns that if the "survival of the fittest" is taken to mean that the most aggressive, ruthless and powerful will "win," and society is structured according to this principle, the outcome will be inexorably undesirable.

Combining Honesty with Hope: The Challenge of Adapting the Dystopian Form for the Young
In children's science fiction, the crisis accounts of human society and human nature that I have outlined are further compounded by a perceived crisis in the nature of childhood, or, more accurately, in the confidence that adults still know best how to ethically inform and guide children's future lives. As Mary Galbraith highlights, "the dominant schematic metaphor of much postmodern writing seems to be to puncture all balloons of transgenerational zeal and referential confidence, since such zeal and confidence led to or allowed the unspeakable" events of the Holocaust (190). The bulk of futuristic fiction produced for young readers has forcefully exploded the "myth of the innocent, protected child" (Jenkins 2) by presenting dark future worlds that radically critique adult ethical legitimacy.6 These worlds spell the death of childhood as a secure, cherished state,7 deliberately calling constructions of "childness" and "adultness" into serious question. In most children's science fiction to date this sense of perceived crisis surrounding the adult world has been rendered in extraordinarily negative terms, often with child characters pitted against a powerful adult regime.
The metaphorical death of childhood is often depicted literally in the children's dystopia as, like Winston, child characters are often cast in the role of helpless victim. In many novels innocent child victims (although rarely the main child protagonist) actually die in order to highlight the negligence and corruption of the adult-created world they have inherited. This can most starkly be seen in postnuclear dystopian scenarios. In Swindells's Brother in the Land, Pausewang's The Last Children and Lawrence's Children of the Dust, the younger siblings of the main characters all die of radiation poisoning, emphasizing the dreadful consequences of the adult world's propensity for technological aggression [End Page 250] and its lack of care for future generations. In many other children's dystopias we see the differences between the figure of the tyrant controller (like Orwell's O'Brien) and the powerless main protagonist (like Winston) represented as a sharp distinction between corrupt adulthood and innocent childhood. Time and again in such novels the adults who ought to look after and protect their children not only let them down, but also, worse, knowingly manipulate and exploit them.
Many children's dystopias are peopled with adult teachers who imprison their child pupils with corrupting knowledge and ideas. In Hughes's Devil on My Back, Kesteven's The Awakening Water, Christopher's The Guardians, Westall's Futuretrack 5 and Schlee's The Vandal, to name but a few, we are introduced to future schools in which children are systematically drugged, brainwashed, or otherwise forced by adult tutors to become docile and compliant. In William Sleator's House of Stairs, for example, a group of children is taken by scientists and placed in an artificial nightmare environment where, in order to obtain food from a mysterious machine, they become conditioned to fight amongst each other for sheer survival. These children, like Winston, are oppressed, subjected to surveillance and brainwashed until the experiment creates an utterly obedient team of youths who will unquestioningly serve their leader and carry out any atrocious act on command. Worse still, they too are forced to believe that aggression is fundamental to an individual's survival.
I have argued that most children's science fiction writers display a desire to "tell it as it is" and use future fictional time to cast a heavily critical eye on the adult world. This tendency poses significant challenges for authors who wish to adapt the form to become suitable fare for young readers. Although most children's authors have, to date, based their futuristic alternative worlds upon Orwell's classic dystopian model,8 few have risked doing so without compromise, as it poses "immense tactical challenges to the children's writer" (Sambell, "Presenting" 164). The educational and ethical responsibilities typically associated with the act of addressing a non-peer audience, based, paradoxically, upon the notion of the adult informing, guiding, and protecting the child, present significant authorial dilemmas. They often cause authors to heavily control their narratives in ways that fail to repose trust in implied young readers to think for themselves, based on authorial fears for child readers. What, for example, if children infer that such ruined worlds are hopelessly inevitable, rather than preventable?9 How can the imaginative world truthfully present the dark truth of the forces against which one cautions, while simultaneously guiding the reader towards hope, often viewed as essential for young readers?10 In other words, how can authors [End Page 251] "find an honest hope to share with a reader" (Bond 41)? Furthermore, how can authors find ways of talking, supporting, and negotiating with children via an emancipatory narrative model, rather than instructing and molding them, in a socializing approach?11
Futuristic fiction to date has presented varying contested images of the child protagonist as a result of these implicit authorial concerns. In short, most children's authors appear to feel the need to adapt the classic "adult" dystopia, usually by compromising the dire warning and supplying hope within the text itself, rather than leaving it implicit or barring it completely, as Orwell did. Furthermore, Romantic conceptions of childhood lead the children's author to represent childhood as an antidote to corrupt adulthood, as well as seeing childhood as being at the mercy of it. The child as an emblem of hope for the future, capable of transforming and transcending adult mores, and the image of the child as helpless victim are often held in acute tension in dystopian writing for young readers. This leads, in some instances, to flawed novels that are imaginatively and ideologically fractured. I make this point not to devalue this serious and intelligent body of literature, but simply to highlight the significant narrative challenges that the dystopian form presents to the children's author.
Writers often seek to portray the "child-as-utopian" within their novel, in an attempt to signal hope for a better world. A young protagonist's idealistic, morally superior viewpoint, for example, may be used to suggest optimistic possibilities, and especially to provide an upbeat coda to an otherwise unrelievedly dark story (Stephens, "Post Disaster" 127). For instance the child Roland in Pausewang's The Last Children, unlike his younger sibling (and unlike Winston), implausibly survives against the odds to become a teacher in the midst of nuclear winter, woodenly preaching the virtues of peace and tolerance to child survivors at the end of the book. Very often the conclusions to the children's dystopia sentimentally depict an adolescent couple, as in Swindells's Daz 4 Zoe, Kesteven's The Awakening Water, or Kelleher's Taronga, striking out to forge a new and better life elsewhere.
By pointedly dealing with the theme of future suffering, horror and despair, however, many of these didactic texts incline, at least at deeper imaginative levels, towards what Julia Kristeva has identified as "abject" literature (cited in Stephens, Language 148). In the bleakly ironic landscape of the dystopian form, dominated as it is by fear, aggression and a "heroic" view of life as a battle or contest, child-utopians are predominantly imaginatively cast as innocent and vulnerable victims. Like Winston, they are hopelessly at the mercy of those in power. Their [End Page 252] innocence means they are likely to be viewed as easy prey, tragically ill-equipped to survive in the aggressively masculine world of the imagined future. Their survival thus risks seeming like an implausible escape: a jarring and clich├ęd device to present a hopeful alternative that undermines or counteracts the narrative logic of the preceding story. For instance, a few children improbably fail to be "broken" by adult conditioning in House of Stairs, The Awakening Water, Devil On My Back,and The Game.
Some children's authors hold their nerve, however, and trace through the abject "failure" of the main child protagonist. Sometimes, like Winston, their child characters come to represent a hopelessly debased or dangerously polluted form of humanity themselves. This can be seen, for example, in Kitson's increasing commitment to violence in order to fight the intolerably tyrannical system he faces in Futuretrack 5. This childhood "fall from grace" also causes a dilemma for children's authors, as they struggle to avoid valorizing the values of the polluted society (such as aggression, conquest, striving for idealism) when they appear in the aspiring child-hero. The problem of combining hope with the dark reality is actually highlighted by Swindells's child-narrator in Brother in the Land, who discusses how difficult it is to carry on living honorably and optimistically when the rules of the classic dystopian fantasy world in which he lives are to kill or be killed: "Hardness versus compassion. No contest" (42). Despite this, however, Danny does survive, physically and morally. Unlike 1984's inexorable tragic denouement, the conclusions to most children's dystopias are typically hedged about with qualifications and tensions such as these.
In short, unprecedented levels of pessimism for a young readership typically characterize this significant body of children's literature. In my view the overwhelming tendency to use Orwell's dominant genre model, with its emphasis on tragedy and the abject to evoke shock, horror, pity, and terror, pose immense tactical dilemmas for children's writers. It is exciting, then, to find a recent novel by Philip Reeve that adopts an innovative and radical means of presenting these issues for a young audience.

Mortal Engines: Carnivalizing the Future
Mortal Engines is a postapocalyptic novel, set in the far future in the aftermath of a worldwide war. In order to survive, most of the decaying cities have literally torn themselves up by the roots to form itinerant Traction Cities that can roam around the wasteland preying upon each [End Page 253] other. The story follows the fortunes of London, whose built environment has been remodeled in a seriesof layers that correspond with the rigid social hierarchy now in force. In common with most dystopias, London's social stratification is based upon exploitation, inequality and overprivilege. Individuals bear the tattoo and uniform of their Guild, which denote rank and qualification. A ruling elite of corrupt politicians makes decisions about London's future. The Lord Mayor, Magnus Crome, together with the Head Historian and the help of the Engineering Guild, is rebuilding ancient technology to wage war on the nonmobile settlements of the Anti-Traction League who live beyond the Shield Wall.
Yet despite the stock motifs and themes it shares with other children's science fiction, Mortal Engines adopts an entirely different narrative approach to questioning the heroic myth, in a way that leaves hopeful possibility within the textual world intact. Reeve's futuristic novel importantly eschews the stark admonitory stance adopted by most writers. The story focuses upon three child protagonists, Tom, Katherine, and Hester, all of whom represent a different way of viewing and interacting with the future society they inhabit. Each assumes a different role as a result, and this allows Reeve to playfully trace through the consequences of each outlook. In so doing, he turns received ideas upon their head, achieving a playful form of humorous subversion by creating "roles for child characters which interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames . . . by using the strategies of 'carnivalesque' texts, which function to interrogate official culture in ways comparable to the traits of carnival identified in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin" (Stephens, Language 120, 121). Mortal Engines sets out to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging childhood over adulthood, playfulness over sobriety, everyday life over grand aspirations, the here and now over the long-term future. It achieves this inversion mainly through humor and gentle mockery, rather than relying exclusively upon violence and horror to provoke and warn the readers. In this innovative way Reeve "blurs the boundaries between the serious and the comic, and between the 'reality' that is and the ideality that is constructed" (Stephens, Language 148).
Debunking Adulthood: Ideological Precepts of Municipal Darwinism
The first way that Reeve achieves playful debunking is through parody of adult authority and the intellectual ways in which the future world's power brokers conceptualize life by drawing upon supposedly scientific, rational arguments. Europe in the far-future, a thousand years after the [End Page 254] "Sixty-Minute War," has developed its social and technical model based upon the idea that life is dominated by the hunter-predator, which, in order to survive, must win by becoming stronger and faster than its competitors. The concept of "Municipal Darwinism" has led the adult engineering elite to develop the "Traction Cities," which are ridiculously ungainly and "lumbering" mechanical parodies of the living predators they try to emulate. The novel opens by showing London in a childish game of hide-and-seek: "skulking" in hiding from those bigger cities "who had begun to look hungrily" at it or blundering "in hot pursuit" of a mining town, which "saw the danger and turned tail" (1). The playfulness of the language, which is deliberately hackneyed and theatrical, calls attention to the comic, juvenile absurdity of Municipal Darwinism. The novel thus displays the self-conscious textuality of the interrogative text from the outset, emphasizing the role-playing that is being performed by the Traction Cities, and calling the official culture into immediate question.
The concept of Municipal Darwinism has prompted the politicians and engineers to construct London as a grotesque human body. This allows a significant space for what Bakhtin termed "the material bodily principle" (qtd. in Stephens, Language 122). Viewed from afar, the image of the Traction City, teetering along on its huge caterpillar tracks, plowing up and destroying the earth, is a fantastic, carnivalesque motif, rather than a plausible reality. The city is clearly not well-equipped to play the heroic role of hunter: and the farcical reality and foolishness of Municipal Darwinism are revealed in a number of ways, by bringing the high-minded idealism and heroic aspiration of the concept back down to earth. First, it is based upon short-sighted incompetence, as it is running out of prey and ruining the earth with its caterpillar tracks. Secondly, the platitudinous mantra "It's a town eat town world" is flippantly used by its inhabitants to childishly evade the moral dimensions of their city's aggressive and exploitative acts, either preying on weaker towns, or ordering its own society in a rigid structure of "tiers."
London's adult elite is immaturely self-deluded in its view of the city as a ruthless predator. A more intimate inspection of London's material body actually reveals that it is comically and precariously cobbled together from bits of old scrap. The principle of scavenging and making do with others' detritus, not hunting and aggression, is really what keeps London "alive." "The Gut," the "sprawl of factories and yards" in which workers scavenge what they can from whatever London finds or catches, is the real powerhouse of the City. The "salvage gangs" working in the [End Page 255] "Digestion Yards" are the only people to produce anything of practical worth.
London's mayor, Magnus Crome, however, deludes himself into thinking he can bring about London's "progress" by arming her in order to make her "strong" and competitive. He plans to resurrect ancient technology that he can unleash upon the settlements that have chosen not to adopt the policy of Municipal Darwinism. Crome seeks to rebuild "Medusa," foolishly blind to the fact that the weapon of mass destruction will probably evaporate the settlements beyond the Shield-Wall that marks the edge of the "Hunting Grounds," rather than provide him with sitting ducks that London can consume.
Crome's "elite" band of scientists and engineers are actually shown to be foolish, deluded, and childish. Again, this serves to debunk adult authority and interrogate the "heroic" view of the world epitomized by their official culture. This is done by playfully inverting the socially accepted roles of adulthood and childhood. London's grotesque body is carnivalized yet further, revealing the "reality" beneath the idealized veneer of Municipal Darwinism. Crome's Chief Engineer, Nimmo, takes the young protagonist, Katherine, on a tour of London's "Turd Tanks," where he tries to explain the concept of Municipal Darwinism. In doing so he demonstrates a scurrilous fascination with human excretory functions, in a manner that opposes normal expectations of adulthood and which, according to John Stephens, is usually assigned in carnivalesque children's literature to child protagonists. Nimmo comically relishes the various vulgar naming of human bodily excreta:

"What is that stuff?" asked Katherine.
"Detritus, Miss Valentine," said Nimmo, sounding proud. "Effluent. Ejecta. Human nutritional by-products."

It is Katherine who primly appears more adult in her sensibilities, prudishly using euphemism: "'You mean . . . poo?'" (122). Here the self-censorship of Katherine's language is a means of measuring the child character's level of civilization and socialization—in a way that comically inverts adulthood and childhood as constructed within the novel. The adult Nimmo is allowed to be more indulgent, outrageous, and revolting than the younger Katherine, who is more respectful, not only in terms of her prudery and the self-control exercised over her language, but also her respect for the hapless individuals (petty criminals) who are made to wade in the Turd Tanks, salvaging material.In this episode adulthood is pointedly dismantled as a superior, knowing state. Adults in Mortal Engines do not become the source of moral maturity, self-regulation, [End Page 256] wisdom, or knowledge. Far from it, in this world, the young play this "adult" role, radically requalifying constructions of "childness" and "adultness" when measured against the concepts of restraint, ethics, and civilization. Reeve uses humor, then, to gently undermine and redefine commonly held theories about the essential differences between childhood and adulthood, which in turn pave the way for a radical reinvention of the potential roles that may be performed by his child.
Nimmo's childish fascination with excreta reveals that he lacks the capacity for discrimination. Furthermore, his scientific logic-chopping, which ideologically weds him to the myth of Progress and the masculine heroism of Municipal Darwinism, blinds him to the reality that life cannot be controlled and artificially created by science, regardless of discrimination and moral awareness. He continues, in what sounds like a parody of contemporary advertising, in his explanation of the Turd Tanks, comically assured that science and rationality can, with time, be developed to fulfill any human aspiration:

"'Waste not, want not,' is the Engineer's motto, Miss. Properly processed human ordure makes very useful fuel for our city's engines. And we are experimenting with ways of turning it into a tasty and nutritious snack. We feed our prisoners on nothing else. Unfortunately they keep dying. But that is just a temporary setback, I'm sure."

The reader, not Nimmo, registers the tasteless joke, situating the reader in opposition to adult society's official structures of authority as represented in the text. The engineer is not a cruel man, but simply one who plays a role that he perceives to be necessary, unthinkingly unaware of its moral dimensions. Nimmo is, quite simply, a fool and the deserving butt of Reeve's joke. Similarly, at the end of the novel, Magnus Crome watches helplessly as his master plan to launch Medusa falls about his ears. He is tellingly left at the end pathetically wailing like a child, rather than an evil villain: "I only wanted to help . . . I only wanted to make London strong" (286).
Reeve's tactic relies on constructing adulthood as a period of helplessness, ignorance, and incompetence. Adult childishness emanates from the fact that not one of them has understood the first principle of freedom: that the rights of others bound freedom of action. They, not the young, are stuck in the solipsism of early childhood. Viewed as a carnivalesque text, Mortal Engines thus breaches these boundaries, exploring where they, in a moral rather than purportedly amoral ("natural") system, should lie. In this way the text requires the reader to consider the ideological bases for determining where these boundaries should be drawn. [End Page 257]
Roles and Role-Playing in Mortal Engines: Parodying the Adventure Story
Adult status, political authority and ideological principles are all radically transgressed by Reeve parodying the traditional heroic adventure story. Mortal Engines self-consciously parodies the literary embodiments of misguided ways of thinking and seeing the world. Crome is a parody of the stock character of the adventure story—the evil, sinister villain—but the power-crazed tyrant is really a bungling, incompetent child, who is "as mad as a spoon!" (271).
Reeve casts all his characters in exaggerated roles. His fictional world is peopled throughout with farfetched, pantomime characters that undermine the illusion of fictionality. In the way that London grotesquely apes a living creature, these human characters ape the laws of nature in Municipal Darwinism, showing their parody of the natural world for what it is: an absurd and incompetent farce. Reeve's dramatis personae include, for example: the pirate, Peavey, replete with monkey and complaining, murderous crew; the swashbuckling adventurous superhero, Valentine, adored and revered by the London mob; the hideously disfigured assassin, Hester, bent on avenging the murder of her parents: the mysterious Oriental aviatrix, Anna Fang, and the "squat, white-coated barrel of a woman," Evadne Twix, who "may look like someone's dotty auntie" but is an "utterly ruthless," mad scientist, aligned with the sinister, rationalist priests of the engineering elite.
Reeve repeatedly draws attention to the ludicrous and theatrical nature of his text. In his description of the ultimate battle for London waged between the Engineers and Historians, for instance, he points out that the Historians "looked like a chorus of brigands in an amateur pantomime." The battle smacks of childish slapstick comedy and overexaggeration.

There is a heart-beat pause, near-silent . . . just . . . the faint sounds of . . . arthritic fingers tightening on ancient triggers. . . . Dr Arkengarth falling backwards with his arms windmilling . . . Nothing remains of Vambrace but his smouldering boots, which would have been cartoony and almost funny except that his feet are still inside them.

This playfully undermines the literary form of the heroic adventure story, highlighting the ludicrous view of life as a quest for power and ambition.
At root, though, Reeve uses the stories of his three child protagonists, Tom, Katherine, and Hester, to interrogate parody and debunk a tragic, heroic view of life, by representing the literary embodiment of each individual character's idealized outlook. While the females, Katherine and Hester, single-mindedly pursue sublime ideals and play out tragic [End Page 258] roles, Tom eventually finds the concepts of heroism and adventure that his society has equipped him with to be utterly redundant. In contrast to his female counterparts, Tom plays out an essentially comic role. The part of comic fool, via which Tom ultimately learns to consciously turn his back on high-minded heroism, actually equips him for survival in the world that Reeve has consummately created.
Debunking the Heroic, Tragic Mode
Reeve comically inverts the male and female roles being played out, thus questioning the roles of "masculine" and "feminine" as social assumptions. Katherine and Hester each act out a heroic quest. Both single-mindedly pursue "higher" principles and ideals. They, unlike Tom, deliberately choose a tragic, sublime journey throughout the novel. Hester knows that her parents were brutally killed by the apparently ideal swashbuckling adventurer-hero of London, Thaddeus Valentine, when he attempted to steal Medusa from them so that he could gain fame, wealth and glory (rather than acting upon the "higher" idealized principle of helping Crome recreate London's heroic prowess). Hester dedicates her life to avenging the murder. Throughout the novel she aspires single-mindedly to kill Valentine, only hoping to stay alive long enough to achieve her ambition. As such, she redefines the role of the heroine in dangerously masculine, destructive, and tragically self-destructive ways. Her motive for revenge is further driven because Valentine maimed rather than killed her, while she watched him murder her parents when she was a toddler. This has, she thinks, denied her the possibility of playing a more feminine role by robbing her of beauty.
Katherine, Valentine's daughter, by contrast, seems cast to act out the idealized role of a heroine in a traditional adventure story. When we first see her she is represented as the "perfect" woman of Tom's dreams, witty, clever, rich, and one he can, as a Third Class Historian, never hope to win. But, due to a blundering mistake Tom makes, in rescuing Valentine from Hester's vengeful wrath, Katherine gradually sets out to learn the truth about her father. On finding that his heroism, wealth, and social status mask his self-seeking, self-aggrandizing crime, she, like Hester, decides to strive to put things right. She casts herself in the role of the moral hero, who will fight, use violence, and stop at nothing to prevent Medusa being unleashed. In trying to bomb Medusa, Katherine accepts life as a battle, a tragic bloody spectacle. She works for an ideal "higher" moral principle, for human futurity.
By contrast, Tom is cast in a completely different role. He takes "time-out" from the carnivalized city, when he impulsively lunges forward to [End Page 259] prevent Hester from theatrically assassinating his hero, Valentine. He has always dreamed of being a hero in an adventure: "After all those dull years spent dreaming of adventures, suddenly he was having one! He had saved Mr. Valentine's life! He was a hero!" (24).
But the reality is far from what Tom had imagined, and his fanciful aspirations are comically deflated. Valentine repays Tom's heroic gesture by shoving him out of the city, down the waste chute! He is thus brought down to earth, literally and metaphorically.
As soon as Tom experiences the reality of adventure, he regrets it. Initially he imagined himself winning Katherine, an idealized perfect image of kindness and beauty, wistfully describing her "as lovely as one of the girls in his daydreams . . . he knew that from now on all the heroines he rescued in his imagination would all be Katherine Valentine" (22). He soon transfers this romantic allegiance to Hester, casting himself in his mind as the heroic rescuer of a "murderous beautiful assassin" as he pursues her through the Gut. But the woman he catches is far from ideal in a traditional sense: ". . . she was hideous. A terrible scar ran down her face . . . making it look like a portrait that had been furiously crossed out. Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared out of the wreckage . . ." (26).
Nor does Hester's female behavior live up to Tom's idealized view of womankind: far from swooning into his arms and seeing him as the new center of her universe, she merely exclaims: "'You're alive then . . . I thought you'd died.' She sounded as if she didn't care either way" (29).
Tom's journey through the book takes him from social incompetence, when he blindly accepts his socialization and the childish stories he has inherited about heroism, adventure, and girls, to competence and an awareness of the reality beneath the veneer of the ideal, silly fictions he has been fed. He finds, for instance, that the role of male "hero" is neither glamorous nor easy. He is neither brave, aggressive, nor heroic, and rather prone to panic, as when he faces a robotic Stalker:

"It's impossible!" Tom whimpered. "They were all destroyed centuries ago!" But the Stalker stood there, horribly real. Tom tried to back away, but he couldn't move. Something was trickling down his legs, as hot as spilled tea, and he realized that he had wet himself.

Reeve uses Tom's comic disillusionment as a different means of interrogating the received wisdom of official culture. Whereas Katherine's demystification was hard won, intelligent, and noble, Tom's is utterly haphazard and coincidental. His journey takes him through the various scavenger communities that effectively populate the dump-culture outside [End Page 260] London. Tom has no master plan, and blunders through life, simply trying to keep out of trouble. Gradually he learns to set aside his preconceived ideas of chivalry, honor, and higher ideals and learns to live for the here and now. Outside, it is every man for himself, and he must learn to make the accommodations that allow him to modify his behavior to agree with environmental conditions, rather than dreaming of changing it as the novel's adult politicians do.
Ultimately, however, it is Tom, the comic hero, rather than those adopting tragic roles, who helps bring about the end of Crome's plans, albeit by sheer mistake. Tom, having followed Hester throughout, in the hope that she will lead him back home, finally decides not to enter an increasingly violent London after all. He waits, hovering in the wings in an airship above London, while Hester descends, her (single) eye determinedly focused on avenging her parents, to bravely pursue the role of a male adventurer, intent on killing Valentine. Meanwhile, Katherine simultaneously reaches the stage on which the future is being dramatically played out, armed with a bomb to destroy Medusa and thwart Crome's sinister plan. But as the two tragic heroines finally converge, both heroically facing their fears, Katherine's heroic certainty and zeal waver, because her father is standing right by Medusa. She is tragically unable to set aside her view of him as father, rather than murderer, which prevents her from throwing the bomb which will preserve the life of millions beyond the Shield-Wall. As a result, Valentine is there for Hester to attack, and he draws his sword to fight to the death. "Suddenly she [Katherine] understood why the goddess had brought her here, and she knew she must make amends for Father's crime." Bravely rushing forward to prevent him slaughtering Hester, "suddenly it was she who was in his path, and his sword slid easily through her and she felt the hilt jar hard against her ribs" (283).
This high, overexaggerated melodrama has an air of pantomime, as meanwhile the engineers, "clustering round their machine in a frantic scrum," comically lose control of Medusa, while London burns around them, engulfed in flame because Tom has had to shoot down an airship that was attacking his, mistaking him, rather than Katherine, for a terrorist. Katherine starts to "hiccup" as her life slips away. At last she sees life as it really is in Reeve's future world. Looking down at the sword that has killed her, she "watched it slither out of her. It looked ridiculous, like a practical joke" (283).
The "higher" idealism has been inverted to the level of the "practical joke." Katherine's death parodies the tragic literary form, actively embodying what John Stephens claims to be one of the functions of [End Page 261] carnival, which " . . . is, through the dialectic of high and low, to affirm the temporal and material against the higher claims of the eternal and transcendent" (Language 124).
Tom, the comic fool who lives the "low" life of the here and now, not Katherine, who adopted the sublime and pursuit of lofty ideals, ultimately has survival power in Reeve's alternative world. Tom turns his back on London, his home, and heroism. Hester, released from vengeance by finally pitying Valentine's devastating loss of his child, suggests she and Tom strike out for the settlements. Trying to raise his spirits, she tells him,

"They'll probably think you're a hero."
But Tom shook his head . . . He didn't know what he was, but he knew he was no hero.
"All right," said Hester, understanding . . . "You aren't a hero, and I'm not beautiful, and we probably won't live happily ever after." . . . "But we're alive, and together, and we're going to be all right."

The Role of the Scavenger in Locating a Survival Ethic
According to John Stephens, "Carnivalesque children's literature . . . can well mask a didactic and educational purpose" (Language 125). He continues, "By making the familiar strange and by overturning some conventional aspects of narrative . . . modes, these books are able to see the world differently, less seriously, and to question and sometimes subvert a variety of its ideologies and structures of authority" (156).
Via Tom, Reeve has overturned the conventional hero myth, and enabled life to be seen from a different perspective. Tom's playing a comic role makes him capable of representing a form of "literary ecology" that embodies a new type of scavenging hero who is humble, absurd, and importantly imperfect. The ecologist Joseph Meeker suggests that the science of ecology12 proves that evolution really favors such adaptive, accommodating behaviors. Reeve depicts Tom as being in the basic situation in which Meeker suggests most animals find themselves: ad-libbing, improvising. Tom discovers that life is not a battle, but a game that has no "higher" goal or purpose. In fact, it's a terrible mess. The only important thing, however, is to keep the game going, to participate, because it is not a competitive game that one can win. When he learns this, Tom is freed from the bands of self-destruction that fetter the tragic actors.
In this way Reeve establishes a scavenger ethos that comically challenges the heroic hunter view of life. The child-as-scavenger can, [End Page 262] like common "pest" species such as rats, effectively populate the dump-cultures of far-future fantasies. In Reeve's carnivalized future Tom learns that ". . . the world is chaotic and meaningless, and perhaps it can't be saved, but it can be understood and endured by reaching out" (155). In this way Reeve skillfully and innovatively uses the comic rather than tragic mode to rewrite and assert a plausible, life-affirming view of human nature and human society.
Reeve's work thus establishes new possibilities for children's science fiction by finding ways of telling stories about the future that importantly transcend the artistic challenges that have bedeviled the literature produced to date. By carnivalizing the future, Reeve is able to present new angles of perception of the meanings of child-adult relationships, while still challenging young readers to critically consider the social foundations of our own world. Replacing the sense of vehement attack and denunciation that underpins much children's science fiction with an openly playful, subversive, and comic approach, Mortal Engines seems likely to encourage the reader to avoid responding with despair or distress, while simultaneously facing some hard truths. Given the strong desire to protect young readers, Reeve's strategies encourage readers to play with ideas in an imaginative environment that is affirming and supportive rather than hostile and threatening. If one seeks to empower young readers to become active agents of future change, as I believe most children's science fiction authors do, perhaps Reeve's narrative tactics have much to offer in forging a new style of didacticism within this important and growing body of children's literature. Experimental, genuinely mind-expanding, and liberating books like Mortal Engines are rare and should be highly prized.

Dr. Kay Sambell is a senior lecturer at Northumbria University, U.K., where she is course leader for a multidisciplinary degree in Childhood Studies. She specializes in children's fiction, with a research and publications focus upon futuristic fiction for the young and representations of childhood in children's books.


1. For detailed overviews of the genre see Sambell, "The Use of Future Fictional Time," and Wehemeyer.
2. See Esmonde and Waters. [End Page 263]
3. According to Peter Hollindale, the "ideological content is very near the surface" of much futuristic science fiction, and carries the cautionary message that "humanity is dangerously at the mercy of its own political or technological artefacts" (17).
4. See James Bittner, who, like Mary Galbraith, argues that the failure of socialist utopian experiments, together with the Soviet Gulag and Nazi death camps, had "nearly killed hope" and undermined confidence in rationality and principled authority for the future, meaning that "the positive utopia had been displaced in the system of literary genres available to novelists . . . 'new maps of hell' had become more numerous and more prevalent . . . the form available in the literary system for constructing alternate worlds had changed from utopia to nightmare" (244).
5. See Altman.
6. For overviews of the "crisis" or "death" of childhood see also James and Prout; Jenks; Lesnik-Oberstein; and Pilcher and Wagg.
7. See, for example, Wolf.
8. Frederik Pohl claims that adult and children's science fiction tackle such similar dystopian themes that there is little to differentiate them (111).
9. William Steinhoff suggests that Orwell's dystopia has been notoriously misinterpreted, often being seen as a prophecy rather than a warning (199). The artistic and ethical dilemmas of presenting "dark truths" to the young are also debated extensively by Hamida Bosmajian, in relation to books about the Nazi Holocaust.
10. Any text that denies hope is likely to receive critical condemnation. See, for example, Brian Earnshaw's view of the pessimistic stance of much science fiction for children: "What enrages me is the level of morbid pessimism . . . [which] will put children off science and off the future" (239).
11. For an overview of the spectrum of adult approaches to working with, rather than on, children, in what she calls an "emancipatory" model, see Galbraith, who believes this emancipation must be accomplished through adults transforming themselves and their own practices, rather than children. In my view the dystopian model of narration is less amenable to presenting an emancipatory model of child-adult relations than many children's writers appear to believe.
12. Millicent Lenz conducts a full discussion of what she terms the "biophile" in children's literature, a new way of looking at humanity that emphasizes co-operation, peace, and hope for the future. [End Page 264]

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