The Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve is set in a long-distant post-apocalyptic future known as the Traction Era, in which cities have become massive mobile structures that move around hunting each other, following the theory of Municipal Darwinism (except in the lands controlled by the Anti-Traction League).

Can we work out when the Traction Era is relative to the present day?

Clues given in the books include a reference to 35th-century ceramics being studied by Historians in the first chapter of the first book, and a given year of the Traction Era (roughly 1000, if memory serves) being specified in the last chapter of the last book. But is there enough to work out the time period from now, through the Sixty Minute War and the advent of Quirke, to the time in which the books are set?


At least several millenia

The series is clearly set at least several centuries after the modern period, since the Stalkers were destroyed (and presumably created) "hundreds of years ago."

"I thought they all died hundreds of years ago! I thought they were all destroyed in battles, or went mad and tore themselves apart..."

Mortal Engines

Of course, we can do better than that.

The series is set around a millenium after the beginning of the Traction Era.


25th April 1027 TE

A Darkling Plain

This is supported by Ermene Khan's thoughts on the Shield Wall:

For a thousand years his family had helped to man the Shield-Wall, and he seemed dazed by the news that all his guns and rockets were suddenly useless.

Mortal Engines

We further know that it must have been at least 1400 years after the 21st century,

Two black-robed Guildsmen hurried past, and Tom heard the reedy voice of old Dr Arkengarth whine, "Vibrations! Vibrations! It's playing merry hell with my 35th Century ceramics.. ."He waited until they had vanished around a bend in the corridor, then slipped quickly out and down the nearest stairway. He cut through the 21st Century gallery, past the big plastic statues of Pluto and Mickey, animal-headed gods of lost America.

Mortal Engines

That makes the modern period at least 1400 years before the time of the series. The dating of the ceramics is probably pretty accurate, since Pluto and Mickey were (fairly) correctly placed in the 21st Century gallery. Indeed, it seems likely that the 35th Century was before the Traction Era, since the use of TE to represent the Traction Era seems to be standard. This would place the time of the series at no less than 2400 years after the modern period (21st Century).

This is consistent with Hester and Pomeroy's comments, which indicate that the modern period was at least several millenia before the time of the series.

Hester says of satellites:

"Except for the ones that aren't really stars at all. Some of the really bright ones are mechanical moons that the Ancients put up into orbit thousands of years ago, still circling and circling the poor old Earth."

Mortal Engines

Similarly, Pomeroy says, speaking of St. Paul's Cathedral:

Thousands of years old, that cathedral, and they go and turn it into a... into whatever they've turned it into, without so much as a by-your-leave..."

Mortal Engines

St. Paul's Cathedral was constructed starting in 1675. As such, we can suppose that the series is set no more than a few thousand years after the modern era, since even a stone building would degrade heavily after a while.

That's about the best we can do.

  • I don't think we can rely on "35th Century Ceramics" given that there have been multiple epochal changes. – Valorum Jun 5 '16 at 8:11
  • 2
    @Valorum - You said that earlier. But they seem to know when the 21st century is pretty well. The reference to the 35th century is really best interpreted in light of that. – Adamant Jun 5 '16 at 8:12
  • "The series is set around a millenium after the beginning of the Traction Era. This is also fairly consistent with the idea that the Traction Era began around a thousand years before the beginning of the series." Um, those are actually saying exactly the same thing. Not so much consistent as tautology :-) – Rand al'Thor Jun 5 '16 at 11:49
  • Anyway, +1: this is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. – Rand al'Thor Jun 5 '16 at 11:49
  • The marketing for the film sets the year as 3018, but this is directly contradicted by the books. – Jeremy French Dec 11 '18 at 13:24

I asked my good friend Philip Reeve when the novel/s were set. Suffice to say, his answer was somewhat nebulous.

Q: What year is Mortal Engines set in?

Philip Reeve: I have no idea! It's just The Future.

So there you go. Clear as mud. Hope that helped.

  • 1
    While I appreciate your 'above and beyond' effort in contacting the author himself, we can say a good deal more than just "The Future" using evidence from the books themselves, as noted in my question. At the very least we could get a lower bound on the period between then and now. – Rand al'Thor May 3 '16 at 22:00
  • @Randal'Thor - I think you'll struggle on that one. There's evidence of at least one epochal change which means that any figures listed ("30th Century" etc) are somewhat suspect. – Valorum May 3 '16 at 22:07
  • who is Philip Reeve? – KyloRen Jun 5 '16 at 13:37
  • @KyloRen - The author of the series that the question is about. – Valorum Jun 5 '16 at 13:43
  • @Valorum, oh ,I see now. – KyloRen Jun 5 '16 at 13:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.