Cities on Wheels

Mortal Engines is the best-known example, but it did not invent the city on wheels.

Mortal Engines scene
Scene in Mortal Engines

The “traction city” of London in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) and its 2018 film adaptation (our review here) is probably the best-known example of a city on wheels. But it’s not the only one! In fact, there are enough examples in steampunk to call this a genre trope.

We’ll start with Mortal Engines. In its post-apocalyptic world, wheeled cities roam the Earth in search of smaller cities to consume. London is the most powerful and it boasts the only building that is known to have survived the cataclysmic Sixty Minute War: St Paul’s Cathedral.

Before the book was made into a movie, several artists, including David Wyatt (who was responsible for the original cover art), Ian McQue (who drew covers for the 2018 release) and Amir Zand (who contributed to The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines), imagined what the traction city might look like. McQue also did concept art for the 2018 movie.

Based on McQue’s art, the visual effects wizards at Weta Digital gave the lower the levels of the city an industrial look. The company’s Nick Keller pointed out in an interview with VFX Voice Magazine, “the further you move up, the posher and sleeker the city becomes.”

Mortal Engines concept art
Concept art by Nick Keller

The lions on the lower edges of the city are reminiscent of the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Squares, except they are much larger in scale. In the movie, they’re made out of metal.

Mortal Engines popularized the city on wheels, inspiring many artists (see below), but it did not invent it.

Ricardo Barreiro’s Moving Fortress (1988), illustrated by Enrique Alcatena, centers on a mobile city-sized fortress ruled by the warlord Emir Basileo.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) features a castle that moves on tiny chicken legs by some form of magic. It got a steampunk look in the 2004 film adaptation.

In Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, a religious group worships in cathedrals on wheels on the Moon. The French cover of the fourth book, Absolution Gap (2003), shows one of them.

The 2011 video game Alice: Madness Returns features a monstrous Gothic “Infernal Train” that is the size of a town.

In Disney’s John Carter (2012, our review here), Zodanga is reimagined as a mobile city that moves across the southwestern hemisphere of Barsoom (Mars) on hundreds of massive mechanical legs.

In the steampunk game 80 Days (2014), loosely based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the city of Agra moves on legs. Its status is contested with the British claiming it for the Raj and the rest of the peninsula arguing it cannot fall under anyone’s jurisdiction.

Steampunk artists have created their own cities on wheels, many taking their inspiration from Mortal Engines. Here are examples by Chris Goff, Jaguar Lee, Danyu Li and Oliver Wetter.

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