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  • Writer's pictureRobey

#MechWeek - Mechs & Why I Love Them

Let's kick off #mechweek with a short essay on why mechs are awesome.

The mech is the perfect embodiment of science fiction combat, and wargaming in particular. It combines elements of fantasy, reality, restraint and exaggeration in a single concept, with the expression of the concept shifting and mutating in response to the level of balance between these factors. At a glance, you can tell from a mech the exact levels of bat-sh*t crazy you should expect from a sci-fi setting. And, while it's not a perfect yardstick, it is the best one we've got because, at the end of the day, however you mix the ingredients, you still end up with a giant, stompy robot tank.

Let's break that down.

When we engage with a scifi setting, we instinctively look for certain cues that give a sense of what to expect from what our eyes (or our inner eye, in written fiction) are seeing. We look to the nature of the people - are they recognizably human? And in what ways to they deviate from our concept of normal? We look to the nature of the architecture - does it conform with our expectations of what is possible, or defy them? We look to the infrastructure of society - how do people get around? Communicate? Fill their time? We look to the scale of society - to what extent are people confined within space?

In many contexts - where war, for example, isn't a factor of the society or plot - we might not expect to see warmachines. But when we do it has a profound, even shocking, impact.

It is no accident that the designers of ED-209 - both fictionally and in the movie team - integrated the sound of a big cat roar into its threat response. There is an intersection between the organic and the technological in the ambulatory warmachine that engenders, from those confronted by one, a more visceral response than they might have to a more traditional platform, such as a tank or IFV, despite an equal level of physical threat.

But ED-209 is, at least, operating on a scale commensurate with biological creatures of our experience. Other iconic mech design concepts are almost Lovecraftian in the extent to which they challenge sane limitations on engineering.

In the space between ED-209 and the Imperator Titan lies a degree of creative leeway that taps into the same visceral response to the organic-made-technological, that offers a sliding scale of insanity. The mech is the perfect go-to for the creator to communicate with the audience. It answers the question: just how mad do you want to be?

But even between the size extremes there are varities of option offered by the mech that allows the creator to tweak the audience response. Take Gundam, for example:

Here, we have truly anthropomorphic mechs with human limbs, proportions and, broadly, ranges of movement. We are supposed to relate to these, despite the fact that they are multiple storeys tall - they are supposed to be the exaggerated, gargantuan avatars of their pilots, expressing personality and personal qualities in both their appearance and their behaviour. They are robot enough to avoid the Uncanny Valley, but human enough for us to mostly detach from their sheer scale:

By contrast, a more "realistic" approach (and we'll discuss, later this week, exactly what "realism" means when applied to mechs) is more disturbing:

The Ka-63 above has few reference points to tell us its size, other than an assumption that its turret is similar to turrets we see on modern IFVs. It's mobility shares little with biological equivalents. No pilot is visible or visualizable. This is the mech as pure warmachine, intended to unsettle and intimidate, but without evoking the mathematics of scale embodied in the Imperator Titan or its ilk. This is a mech that, however improbable, still feels imminent to our own lived experience.

And I can't leave off with out talking about the AT-AT and its smaller cousin, the chicken-walking AT-ST.

You know what this is.

The AT-AT and AT-ST are far from the only ambulatory weapon platforms in Star Wars and its extended canon, but they are certainly the most iconic. And although both the clone army and, later, the Rebellion and Resistance both use their own mechs, they are fundamentally associated with the Empire and First Order - moreover, they use designs that are explicitly both organic in inspiration and non-human. The Empire uses these designs to express their domination of the living, the slavehood of the organic and the non-personhood of the non-human. That the designs are obviously flawed (and not just because of the whole "trip them up with an inexplicable rear-firing grapple hook" thing) is less important to the setting than the message they communicate.

In many ways, it is only surprising that the Empire didn't choose to build an Imperator Titan instead of a Death Star. But at the least the First Order decided to go big.

Enough words for today. I hope this has whetted your appetite for #mechweek. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Am I right? Is the mech the best expression of a scifi setting's message and place on the insanity scale, or is that the presence/absence of safety rails, the use of antigrav on taxis or something else?

I'll look forward to seeing you in future #mechweek content!

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