Army researchers have been working for years to incorporate powered armor, exoskeletons, and high-tech weaponry into the arsenal of next-generation soldiers. And this latest development from DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the US Army – is being hailed as the closest thing there is to a real-life “Iron Man” suit to date.
Its known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) and is designed to deliver “superhuman strength with greater ballistic protection”. Named in honor of the Greek automaton made of bronze that Zeus assigned to protect his lover Europa, this suit incorporates a powered exoskeleton, liquid armor, built-in computers and night vision, and the ability to monitor vital signs and apply wound-sealing foam.
Put together, the capabilities would make the already elite Special Operation Forces nearly invincible in the field, according to the Army. As Lt. Col. Karl Borjes, a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) science adviser, said in a statement:
[The] requirement is a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armor suit where we bring together an exoskeleton with innovative armor, displays for power monitoring, health monitoring, and integrating a weapon into that — a whole bunch of stuff that RDECOM is playing heavily in.
For the sake of the suit’s design and high-tech features, DARPA reached out to engineers from MIT, who are currently working to produce the liquid body armor that is perhaps the most advanced feature of the suit. Composed of magnetorheological fluids, this armor will “transform from liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied.”
The suit is expected to make a first-generation appearance some time next year. Because of the high number of highly integrated technical challenges with advanced specifications, the Army is also drawing on a broad range of collaborators from multiple fields to complete the design in time. And as Jim Geurts, USSOCOM acquisition executive, in a statement:
USSOCOM is interested in receiving white papers from a wide variety of sources, not just traditional military industry but also from academia, entrepreneurs, and laboratories capable of providing the design, construction, and testing of TALOS related technologies. The intent is to accelerate the delivery of innovative TALOS capabilities to the SOF operator.
For some time now, the concept of advanced powered suits of armor has been a feature of science fiction. Examples abound from literary references, such as E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, to RPGs like BattleTech and Warhammer 40k, and to the gaming world with the HALO and Fallout series’. And much like lightsabers, there has scarcely been a geek alive who didn’t want one!
Now it seems that something very close might be realizable within a year’s time. I don’t know about you, but I feel both inspired and more than a little jealous. Damn SOCOM, always getting the coolest gear first! And of course, there’s a video:
Move over coin-powered rocket ship! A Japanese company has just produced a robotics mecha suit for kids. It’s known as the Kid’s Walker Cyclops, a bright green robot that measures 2 meters (6’9″) tall, a meter (3’6″) wide, weighs in at a cool 750 pounds, and runs off rechargeable batteries. And most cool of all, it comes with two appendages: one a grappling claw and the other a drill, most likely for intimidating your enemies!
And much like the Kuratos robot that was unveiled at the Wonder Festival in Tokyo by Suidobashi Heavy Industry in July of last year, this machine does not walk, but glides along on foot-mounted wheels. This lends it the appearance of shuffling along as the driver moves it forward. It can also rotate in place, and has a range of movement for its arms.
Naturally, this design doesn’t come cheap. The manufacturers, Sakakibara Machinery Works, are selling it for nearly ¥2m (about $20,500), but it is apparently available for rent as well. Good thing too, since just about every kid I know will want to take a ride for their birthday! The only downside is that the time will come to give it back, a tear-filled and tantrum-ridden moment no doubt.
This is actually Sakakibara’s second mecha design, coming on the heels of their Landwalker robot, an armless mecha that comes equipped with some seriously badass air cushion ball guns! That machine sells for a much heftier ¥37,800,000 (about $387,500), measures 3.35 meters (11 feet) and weighs a full metric ton. And apparently, they offer boxing robots that actually fight each other too. Take that, Rock em Sock em Robots!
Good to know that every day, we get close to something out of Battletech or Macross Plus! And as they say, its never too early to educate our kids on how the use of battle mechas. Someday, we might all have to know how to use one…
And of course, there’s a video of a child operating the Kid’s Walker Cyclops. Take a gander:
I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, ever since my conceptual post on Galactic Empires in fact. After doing my research on what distinguished one from the other, I noticed just how central technology, or the perception thereof, is to it all.
And let’s face it, Star Trek has had a lot to say about technology over the years, not all of it consistent! So with a series of examples, I thought I’d examine just what Gene Roddenberry and his successors have had to say.
Cloaking Device: First developed by the Romulan Empire, the concept for an invisibility field that encompasses an entire ship has been picked up by just about every advanced race in the galaxy. Considered impractical by many because of the intense power drain, other races have found ways to adapt it to give their ships a decided edge in combat.
One such race are the Klingons whose vessels all come equipped with a cloak. The Romulans maintain use of this technology on their military vessels, particularly their warbirds, and even the Federation has been known to dabble in it from time to time. Another discernible weakness is the presence of tachyons and anti-protons that cloaked vessels are known to produce.
Holodecks: The holodeck is an advanced holoprojector device that was designed by Starfleet for use aboard starships, stations, and institutions. It serves the purpose of entertaining, training and training purposes. Using focused photons to simulate matter, the holodeck is able to create physically real virtual environments out of pure energy.
Because of their potential for danger, all holodecks come equipped with built-in safeguards. Matter created aboard the holodeck ceases to exist as soon as it passes beyond its generators, and the technology has been adapted to creating AI’s such as the ship’s emergency doctor program.
Hypospray: This non-invasive piece of medical technology is the mainstay of Starfleet medical. Using a compressed air transport mechanism, this device is able to transfer the injectant painlessly from the device into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery.
In the original series, hyposprays resembled hypodermic needles, but by the time of the 24th century (the TNG series) they had become much more sophisticated, resembling the unit pictured at top left.
Phasers: Short for phased-energy laser, phasers are the most common energy weapon in Starfleet and the known universe. Beginning in the 23rd century, the technology was adapted for use as hand-held weapons, military rifles, and as the primary weapons banks on ships.
The 24th century saw further developments in the development of this weapon, which included mutli-segment phaser arrays, and phaser cannons. The former made their first appearance in TNG on the USS Enterprise D and other updated ships while the latter appeared for the first time on USS Defiant.
Replicators: Using the same technology as the holodeck, a replicator is a matter-energy device that is capable of dematerializing quantities of small matter and reconstituting it as something else. This can take the form of food, commercial products, or machine parts. In short, anything can come out of a replicator so long as it has the atomic matrix down, and isn’t illegal!
Prior to TNG, Starfleet ships used food synthesizers, but by the 24th century, the technology had been perfected and made standard on all starships, stations, outposts and settlements. Because of their sheer usefulness and versatility, every advanced race has adapted the technology for their own use.
Shields: Also known as Deflector Shields or Screens, these devices are the mainstay of all advanced races in the Star Trek universe. Operating by creating a layer, or layers, of energetic distortion containing a high concentration of gravitons, they are able to provide protection against weapons fire and natural hazards.
Typically, shields are emitted from either a central emitter dish or a series that are dispersed over the hull. They usually come in six sections, covering the fore, aft, port, starboard, dorsal and ventral areas of the ship. In time, shields can be dissipated by either continuous or repeated energy discharges, leaving the ship vulnerable.
Transporters: Utilizing subspace technology and the same matter-to-energy concept as a holodeck, the transport is the principle means of transportation to and from ships in the Star Trek universe. Often referred to as “beaming”, transporters are able to dematerialize, transmit and reassemble an object from one pad to another.
Making its debut in the original series, the technology has been updated in the TNG universe and its various spinoffs to allow for greater accuracy and safety through the addition of added redundancies. This increased accuracy allows for point-to-point transport, usually within smaller areas like the ship itself. Tricorders: A handheld sensing device, the tricorder was invented by Starfleet specifically for use by Starfleet personnel. However, since their inception in the 22nd century, they’ve gone through repeated upgrades, adaptations and have been adopted by just about every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant.
As it stands, there are six varieties of tricorder in use within Starfleet alone. These include the psychotricorder which measures a patients brainwaves, a medical tricorder which diagnoses ailments and injury, and four models (VI,VII, X and XV) all of which are in service in one branch of Starfleet or another.
Warp Drive: In the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is both the primary means of transport and the pinnacle of a race’s technology. In fact, Starfleet only makes contact with a new alien race once they’ve developed this technology, as it’s felt that it is only at this point in a species’ development that they will be advanced enough to experience first contact.
First developed by the human race in the late 21st century, warp technology was what precipitated First Contact with the Vulcans. Utilizing a matter/antimatter process and a dilithium chamber, a warp drive generates a “warp field” to envelope a starship. This has the effect of distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that exceeded the speed of light.
Every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant has this technology, though some are able to achieve greater velocities (known as warp factors) than others. In the course of the old series and new, new and more advanced forms of FTL are being researched which may replace standard warp. These include transwarp, quantum slipstream, and a host of others.
Technology as Utopian: For the most, part Star Trek seems to be making the point that technology is a good thing. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or the many spinoffs to follow, it seemed that humanity owed much of its current condition to technological progress. Though they never explained how, at many points in the franchise it is said that Earth is now a paradise, bereft of crime, bigotry, hunger, and inequality. Just about all known diseases have been cured, and even money has become obsolete.
Yes, it seems that in the future, the focus of the economy has shifted to one of “self-improvement”… Might seem a bit hokey on the surface, but as I said in the Galactic Empires post, it’s really not that farfetched. Although its still pure fiction, the advent of something like warp drive, which would make space travel quick and affordable, commerce and transport between colony worlds would be open. This would mean abundant resources that went far beyond Earth and the Solar System, and we already know just how rich our system is in resources (see Asteroid Mining).
But more importantly is the development of replicator technology, which comes in the form of personal and industrial sized units. The former are used to produce everything from food and clothing to consumer products while the latter can create just about anything in bulk quantity. If this were possible, then all scarcity and deprivation would cease to exist. What’s more, the entire basis of an unequal distribution of wealth would disappear. Frankly, it puts me in mind of what Orwell said in 1984:
From the moment that the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.
By the “machine”, Orwell was of course referring to industrial technology and the economy it spawned. However, his overall point was clear. Modern technology, dedicated to the write purpose, had the ability to significantly raise the fortunes of all people. And let’s not forget how in the Star Trek universe, hyposprays and various medical devices can solve just about all that ails you! Break a bone, you get the bone knitter! Tear your ACL, you get the… ligament bonder. I don’t know, all I do know is that pain is virtually obsolete in this universe and its because of progress.
So really, Roddenberry wasn’t far off when he envisioned a “perfect society” in the future. It was just in how he failed to explain how this could done that things seemed a little weak. But of course, there was a flip side to the whole thing.
Technology as Dystopian:
But of course, there were plenty of examples of technology gone wrong. The examples are a little too many to name, so I’ll keep it to just a few. The first comes from the first season when the Enterprise D comes to a planet of Aldea. There, a group of advanced humanoid aliens live in relative peace and prosperity, except that they are sterile and therefore dying off. Hence why they start kidnapping the Enterprise’s children!
Eventually, the Enterprise crew determines that the source of their problem is the great machine that runs their planet, otherwise known as “Custodian”. Because they’ve forgotten how to use the machine, the Aldeans have been unaware of the fact that it’s long since broken down and has been letting harmful radiation in. They assist them in fixing it, and the lesson about letting technology run your life has landed!
The second example comes from the regrettable movie Insurrection, where the Enterprise E comes to an idyllic planet inhabited by the Bak’u. Here, people live in virtually perfect harmony with the planet by denying themselves certain technology, opting instead for the simple life. Their philosophy is simple: “when you create a machine to do the job of man, you take something away from the man”.
All of this seems inconsistent with the usual message of Star Trek, and even the movie itself. Far from being purely primitive, the Bak’u employ all kinds of labor saving technology, which includes irrigation and dams. So really, are they really so opposed to technology or just specific technologies? Nevertheless, the metaphor is clear. Combined with the fact that this place has youth-preserving powers, the metaphor of this place is pretty obvious. It is the fountain of youth, garden of Eden, and the evil Son’a who are advanced and creepy want to destroy it. Not their best movie!
But the last and best example comes in the form of The Borg. A race of cybernetic beings who have merged the organic and synthetic, run by a hive mind that quashes all individuality, and threatening to assimilate all in their path, the metaphor is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. They are the ruthless march of progress personified!
And just look at them and their ships, are they not the perfect representation of cold, unfeeling technology? Sure they are! And the way people change once they’ve been assimilated, becoming soulless automatons and losing all color and individuality. Tell me that’s not a perfect visual representation of the death of the human spirit under the weight of urbanization and anonymity.
Some might call this inconsistent, but it seemed more likely like Roddenberry and his writers were simply hedging their bets. On the one hand, he was showing how human potential could one day yield the perfect society, or at least one that was free of all the problems we know and lament today. On the other, they must have wanted to show the obvious downside and dangers at worshiping at the altar of progress. After all, if you put an ideal, any ideal, ahead of humanity and life, all you get is dystopia!
And as always, other races in the Star Trek universe serve as a mirror for the human condition, or rather different aspects of it. If the human race has got it right, then others must not have achieved that careful balance of humanity and progress just yet. Whereas some prefer to be Luddites and live in an agrarian Eden, others have become runaway cyborgs who assimilate all in their path. It’s all about balance people!
Well, that was kind of fun! And it combined two of my favorite things in the world. Sci-fi and literary criticism. Perhaps I should do more of these. As always, suggestion on which franchise should be covered would be great. I can think of a few off the top of my head – such as the Star Wars universe, Dune, Aliens, Terminator, and possibly Battletech – but I would like to hear from others too. There’s always those added few that would be perfect but I fail to think of. Thanks all!
As Smith said that ambiguous sequel known as Matrix: Reloaded, “More!” And what better way to start this latest list off than with an example from that franchise…
Starting off today’s list is the Armored Personnel Unit (or APU) from the Matrix trilogy. Making it’s first appearance in Matrix: Reloaded, it’s real c0ntribution came in Revolutions when every single unit in existence was used in the defense of Zion.
Hydraulically operated, the APU was run by a single operator who sat in a central cage and operated everything through a series of hand controls and leg straps, much like the Cargo Loader from Aliens.
It’s weaponry consisted of two 30mm cannons which are mounted on the arms. Loading these weapons required the assistance of an ammo carrier who would feed the ammo boxes into the back with the assistance of the APU’s crane. Due to its flexible reach, a single APU could defend itself from multiple Sentries without much difficulty.
During the battle for Zion, some 350 APU’s took part in the defense. Unfortunately, they faced overwhelming odds and all were lost. Though some were still functional even after their pilots died, their systems were rendered inoperative after the Hammer arrived on scene and detonated its EMP device.
This next example comes once again from the manga and anime world of Full Metal Panic. Officially, the name “Arm Slave” is short for Armored Mobile Master-Slave System, referring to their coordinated unidirectional control system. Basically, this means that a single pilot would be controlling multiple suits, either from inside a command mecha or from a remote location.
Built by the US in the fictional FMP universe, these powered suits went on to become the mainstay in every western army, giving new meaning to the term “mechanized infantry”. However, these mecha were featured chiefly as the weapons of Amalgam and Mithril, organizations to whom the main characters were members.
In the course of the story, every state produced its own variations of the Arm Slave and the design went through several generations. Beginning as smaller variants powered by internal combustion engines, the later models would feature cold fusion reactors and electroactive polymer muscles, making them faster, more mobile, and capable of much better performance. In terms of weapons, the Arm Slave is limited only to what it can carry, making many different configurations possible.
These include, but are not limited to, two 12.7 mm chain guns, two XM18 wire guns, a single 40, 57, or 70 mm smooth-bore cannon, a single missile launcher, or hand to hand weapons such as the M1108 anti-tank dagger or the GRAW-2 Monomolecular cutter. And given its raw power and strength, it can also attack with its bare hands and just bash things to death. Good to have options!
AT-ST: The other famous walker from the original Star Wars universe! Designated as the All Terrain Scout Transport, the AT-ST was a bipedal walker that was created by the Republic for use in the Clone Wars, but saw more extensive service with the Empire during the Galactic Civil War.
Appearing in both Empire and Jedi, the scout walker was basically the reconnaissance version of the AT-AT, often serving in a support capacity during major assaults. However, in situations where the terrain was more dense and difficulty to navigate, as was the case with Endor, the AT-ST was considered more favorable. Hence why the Imperial garrison chose to deploy several in the field while keeping their AT-AT closer to the shield generator station itself.
In terms of armaments, the AT-ST carried a twin-blaster cannon on the front of its module, along with a light twin blaster and a concussion grenade launcher mounted one either side. While relatively fast and able to negotiate Endor’s heavily wooded terrain, its bipedal configuration and relatively thin armor made it vulnerable to the Ewok’s log traps.
Two were destroyed in this way, while another was commandeered by Chewi and two Ewoks and used to destroy a fourth. Without any walker remaining to provide cover, the garrison was quickly routed and all their speeders destroyed. Not a very good record of service, being beaten by furry wooded creatures and their flying logs!
Back to the good ol’ universe of Warhammer 40k with another installment! And this time around, boy did we bring out the heavy hitters! Here we have the Dreadnought, a heavy cybernetic mecha that is similar in concept to the Dragoon and Immortal from Starcraft.
Basically, whenever a Space Marine is mortally wounded in combat, they can have their remains transferred into one of these behemoths so they can keep on fighting. Entombed within the unit ceramite skin, the pilot controls the Dreadnought through a series of neural links from a command “sarcophagus”.
As a heavy mech, the Dreadnought’s primary function is that of infantry support. Its weaponry can take many different configurations, but often involves laser or gatling cannons mounted in the arms, missile launchers embedded in the shoulders, and additional launchers or cannons mounted over the head. Smaller weapons are generally mounted under the upper body for point-defense against lighter infantry as well.
Enhanced Powered Armor: This next example comes from the F.E.A.R. gaming universe. Known as EPA’s, these bad boys are the latest generation of powered armor to come from this universe and are by far the biggest and baddest of the bunch!
Much like its predecessor, the Elite Powered Armor, the Enhanced was designed for combat against both infantry and vehicles. For these purposes, it is armed with two GAU-19/A heavy rotary machine guns, one on each arm. In addition, it has three sets of rocket launchers, mounted in the shoulders and above the right arm, that launch homing missiles.
For strictly defense and maintenance purposes, the EPA also has an automatic repair system which activates when the unit is heavily damaged and a new shielding system. Although it does not have the ability to engage in melee attacks with its hands, it is still capable of generating powerful stomp attacks with its feet that send powerful shockwaves in all directions. Because of their power and obvious expense, these units are rarely encountered in the game, and only ever at the end of a level.
Gun X Sword: Back to the world of anime, this time for a robot that puts the swash in swashbuckling! Officially known as “Dann of Thursday”, this mecha comes from the anime of the same name and was the personal powered armor of Van, the show’s main protagonist.
Built to resemble its user, who is also tall and lanky, this mecha is unique amongst its peers in that it has no ranged weapons. All its capabilities revolve around its central blade, which while in compact form, causes the mech to resemble a giant sword. When in humanoid form, this blade can be wielded as a single sword, or broken down for use as two.
In additi0n, Dann has also has an electromagnetic shield which protects it from ranged attacks. This allows van to close ranks with enemy mechs and eviscerate them with his blades. But by far, the Dann’s greatest feature is its ability to heal its pilot once they enter the cockpit. Pretty handy when you need to recover from some wounds, or just shrug off a hangover!
Iron Giant: There’s something to be said about a gentle giant, even if he is 40 feet tall and made out of solid metal. Taken from the 1999 Disney movie of the same name, the Iron Giant is distinguished amongst its peers here in that it is not only an alien machine, but a sentient one. As such, it is as much at home on a list of AI’s as it is giant robots.
Apparently, this robot was meant for first contact purposes, possessing the ability to learn and boasting some rather impressive defensive protocols. When activated, these weapons are capable of evaporating tanks, aircraft and entire platoons of infantry. However, as was demonstrated, these only become active when the robot is threatened, or he becomes angry.
And few things make an Iron Giant more angry than threatening his best friend in the world, which in this case was the little boy Hogarth Hughes. In addition to seeing past his massive metal frame, Hogarth taught him how to understand English and acted as his guide to the confusing world of humans.
Above all, the Iron Giant demonstrated a tremendous capacity for emotion. Aside from anger, he also demonstrated love, attachment and empathy. This last aspect was demonstrated when he chose to sacrifice himself rather than bring destruction down on the town of Rockwell (obvious allusion to Roswell). Having learnt that a nuclear missile was heading for him, he chose to fly away to intercept it rather than let it destroy everything and everyone around him. So sad when gentle giants are misunderstood!
Nova (Black Hawk):
Back to Battltech, once again for an Omnimech that is the workhorse of the Clans that employ it. Known as the Nova by its inventors, it also bears the name of Black Hawk by the Inner Sphere who captured one and began producing their own variants of it.
Designed initially for infantry support, the Nova was unique in that it was built with hardpoints which allowed infantry soldiers to easily mount and dismount. As such, the Nova could function as a mech and a sort of battle taxi, ferrying infantry into battle alongside it.
In terms of armaments, the Nova was again unique in that it could be armed exclusively with energy weapons, 12 of them to be exact. However, in other configurations, it could be outfitted with machine guns, autocannons, gauss rifles, or even a sword. These would be mounted almost entirely on its arms, but also in two large clusters around the head.
Unfortunately, production of this model soon ceased after a unit was captured by Inner Sphere forces and duplicates fashioned. Believing that their mech design had been compromised, the Clans began to focus on other models to serve as their omnimechs of choice.
Sentinels: This example is kind of obvious, surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. While I was never much of a fan of the comics, I did see a few episodes of the animated show, and these things certainly made an appearance! As a potential shout out, they were also featured in the movie X-Men: The Last Stand, appearing in the Danger Room as a simulation.
In the comic books and animated series, however, these massive robots made several appearances and were quite important to the overall story. Designed for hunting mutants, the Sentinels went through several different models. However, the most common were three stories tall, capable of flight, employed energy weapons, and had advanced sensors which could detect mutants.
In addition, their programming ran from the semi-intelligent, involving advanced tactical thinking and decision-making skills, to the fully self-aware. But of course, these were few in number, usually designed for the sole purpose of commanding other Sentinels (such as the Master Mold). Many Sentinels were designed to be capable of learning from their engagements, adjusting strategies to deal with mutants of varying ability.
Often serving as the antagonists in the X-Men universe, these robots were nothing if not a prime example of terrifying gigantism! Can’t believe I didn’t think of them sooner!
VF-0 Pheonix: And last, but certainly not least, we return to the Macross universe for another example of an over-sized mecha! In this case, we have what’s known as a variable fighter, which is basically a mecha that is capable of transforming from an aircraft to a humanoid form.
As part of Earth’s plan to counter a Zentraedi invasion, the Pheonix was a merger of fighter designs with Overtechnology. Composed of titanium/carbon composite, space metal alloy and SWAG energy converting armor, this mecha is capable of operating in space, upper atmospheres, lower atmospheres and even underwater. It’s clipped wing air design also ensures a great deal of maneuverability when in flight mode.
In terms of armaments, the Pheonix prefers energy weapons to autocannons due to a lack of internal storage space. As a result, it comes equipped with either one VF-0A/D or two VF-0S fixed Mauler laser cannons, and multiple micro-missile launchers mounted in the shoulders and chest. In flight mode, it is also capable of carrying a GPU-9 35 mm gatling gun pod and up to twelve air to air or air to ground missiles or guided munitions.
The Pheonix also comes with the added feature of being able to carry reactive armor for added protection. In fighter mode, it has two seats, one for the pilot and one for a radar engineer, similar to the F-14 Tomcat. And like most variable fighters, it can also deploy in GERWALK mode (or Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-joint ), a sort of half-fighter, half humanoid configuration which allows for ground assaults and quick take off.
Aerospace Fighter: Here’s one I found while sifting through info for another post (see Giant Robots). Like the mechas from that list, this too comes from the Battletech universe. And the name pretty much says it all. This futuristic fighter, which is found in the air forces of every Clan, is capable of flight in both air and space.
Typically, these fighters serve in a supporting role for the assault mechs in the Battlemech universe. Once the mechs are deployed in their drop pods, these fighters follow, flying from space directly into atmosphere and engaging enemy forces in the field of battle.
Using much the same technology as assault mechs, aerospace fighters are powered by fusion engines and are constructed from lighter ferro-fibrous materials. They also come equipped with cannons, lasers, missiles and guided munitions. Control is carried out through either touchpads, hands-on controls, and in some cases, machinery which can read the pilots thoughts.
Akira-class: I’ve been waiting to include this one. Years back when I saw it on DS9, I thought of just how cool it looked. After looking into it some more, the cool factor has been magnified considerably. Known as the Akira-class, this starship was meant for war and designed accordingly.
Akira-class ships first made their appearance in First Contact, where several were used to engage the Borg Cube that was trying to assimilate Earth. This was no coincidence, as these ships were apparently part of Star Fleet’s larger effort to create warships that could deal with the Borg threat. It would also go on to play an important role in the Dominion War.
Much like the Defiant, it was built for speed and firepower. But unlike other ships, it has virtually no secondary hull, placing the majority of its functions up front in the saucer array. It also has multiple phaser banks and torpedo launchers, as well as a powerful shield array. But its greatest asset comes in its shape. Resembling a catamaran with a thin profile, the Akira presents a very difficult target. Combined with its speed, it is able to descend on enemies and deliver an ass-whooping without much fear of retaliation.
Covenant Assault Carrier: Hello Halo! I was just thinking of how I’ve spent a good deal of page time on ships that belong to the UNSC Navy, but none that belong to the Covenant. That seem fair to you? And since they’ve got some really cool customers, I think it only fair that I throw some in here.
To start, here is the Covenant AC-class, the biggest ship in the Covenant armada and the Halo universe itself (aside from High Charity, of course). These ships serve as the flagships for Covenant assault fleets and boast a wide array of weapons and support craft.
Their massive hulls can not only accommodate multiple wings of Seraph’s, Phantoms, Ghosts, Wraiths, and one or two Scarab walkers. As events in the later series will attest, they can also hold two UNSC Frigates (the Forward Unto Dawn and Aegis Fate). Though designed primarily for planetary combat, their defenses also make them highly effective in ship-to-ship firefights. These include multiple point-defense pulse laser batteries, plasma torpedo launchers and at least two energy beam projectors.
At least two such carriers led the Covenant Fleet of Sacred Consecration to Earth where they engaged the UNSC fleet and Earth’s home defenses in Halo 2. After the Master Chief destroyed one with a commandeered Covenant bomb, the other led an assault on New Mombasa, and then jumped into slipsteam space once its forces were overrun. Interestingly enough, this was the only incidence of such a Carrier being destroyed by UNSC forces. They are just that powerful!
District 9 Mothership: This ship comes to us from the critically acclaimed if somewhat unoriginal District 9 movie. Yes, despite what some people said about this movie being unique and awesome, it was in fact a collage of ideas Peter Jackson got from other people and franchises. But that didn’t make it uncool.
The same goes for this ship. While the concept of the alien Mothership isn’t exactly new, this vehicle managed to do the concept some justice with its artistry, profile and purpose. For starters, this ship was clearly a “generation ship”, meaning that it was designed to hold an entire population of people and provide for them over the course of many generations as it made its way through space.
When the ship appeared above Johannesburg in 1982, it appeared to be carrying thousands of alien beings who had been designed or engineered for work (echoes of Alien Nation there). Though the ship possessed some very advanced technology, including weapons and medical facilities, it appeared as though none of the workers knew how to operate them. As a result, the aliens had to be resettled and much of their technology began to fall into human hands.
The ship also appeared to have a command module in addition to its vast main hull. As long as this module remains detached from the main vessel, it will hold its last position and remain inert. This was rather crucial to the plot of the movie, since one of the aliens was keeping the module hidden until he could affect repairs. This necessitated that the passengers remain in a camp on Earth until he was finished and they could return back home.
GVD Hatshepsut: I know what you’re thinking. “This guy must be obsessed with Freespace!” You’ve got some attitude buster! Besides, if you’d played this game much, you’d realize I have only begun to do it justice. Thus far, I’ve included Terran and Shivan ships in these lists, but there’s a wealth of Vasudan ones as well that deserve mention.
To keep it short, the Vasudans were a race of desert-dwelling people who loved history and venerated ancient things. As a result, the Terran forces associated them with the ancient Egyptians and designated their ships accordingly. Likewise, their heaviest ship, the Hatshepsut-class, was named in honor of the most powerful queen in Egypt’s history.
As a cruiser-carrier, the Hastshepsut carried a wide array of weapons. This included multiple laser turrets, point-defense turrets, fusion mortars, anti-ship beams and heavy beam emitters. In its massive carrier bay, which has points of entry on either side of the ship, carries over 30 wings of fighters, bombers and support craft. Other improvements over older models include a heavily reinforced hull and more powerful reactors, which give it the ability to maintain beam fire for longer periods of time.
Independence Day Mothership: I seem to be in a Mothership kind of mood today. And I seem to recall someone suggesting I include this one some time ago, can’t remember who did, sorry. Just raise your hand and I’ll be sure to give you the credit ;).
Though I’ve pretty much mocked and bashed this movie every chance I could get, I have to admit that Independence Day remains a guilty pleasure for me. And when I saw it, I did think the mothership was pretty cool. And there were things beyond its aesthetics which I now see as praiseworthy.
Much like the District 9 and Alien Nation motherships, this vessel was also a generation ship. As stated in the course of the movie, it housed the better part of the alien race’s people and all of its landing forces. These were all kept within its massive internal bays, which appeared more like an internal city than anything else. These forces were apparently being held in reserve until their attack ships were finished leveling humanity’s cities and destroying it’s defenses.
And as was illustrated at the beginning, it also houses all the attack ships on its exterior. Though not much in the way of technical details are offered in the movie, the ship was very clearly massive and most likely incapable of anything more than sublight speeds.
Liberty Class Cruiser: Wow, I almost got through an entire list without mentioning Star Wars. But I don’t imagine I’ll be making a list anytime soon with a single mention from that universe. And today, it’s the MC80 Liberty-class Mon Calamari Cruiser.
Like all Mon Calamari cruisers, each design was unique, making classification somewhat difficult in the early days of the Rebellion. Though the Liberty-class was technically of the same make as Home One (also classified MC80), the Liberty was smaller, narrower and had a pair of wing-like appendages attached to its hull.
In addition, it also packs a lighter weapons array and compliment of fighters and bombers. Measuring 1200 meters in length, the ship boasts a total of 48 turbolasers and 20 ion cannons while three squadrons of fighters provide this ship with protection. All this, combined with its smaller size, make the Liberty best suited for support as part of larger assault missions.
Several of these ships took part in the assault on the second Death Star during the Battle of Endor. It was also Liberty-class that was the first to fall when the Death Star began firing its massive laser. However, these ships proved instrumental in attaining victory, their sleek profiles and coordinated weapons making them effective in close quarters against larger Star Destroyers.
Retribution-class Battleship: At last, Warhammer 40k makes it into the Cool Ship series. And I’ll think you’ll all agree, this particular ship is pretty cool! Built to resemble an old-world Dreadnought, the Retribution-class is a massive ship of the line in the Imperial Navy, the human faction in the expanded universe (otherwise known as the Space Marines).
Featuring the distinctive armored prow of the Imperial Navy, this ship is able to speed headlong into an enemy fleet and deploy fire from both sides. It is also as fast as the main cruisers of the Imperial fleet, which comes in handy during large-scale fleet engagements where it’s support can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The main armament of the Retribution class are its rows upon rows of laser batteries lining the sides. For close-quarters fighting, it also carries several torpedo launchers that are capable of delivering devestating, armor-peircing blows. To top it off, the ship is equipped with a series of Lance beam turrets along the dorsal of the ship. They are normally used for finishing off an enemy ship that the main weapons have crippled, or providing return fire when the battleship is closing in on its foes.
Warlock-class Destroyer: And what would the list be without at least one B5 mention? As a final example, I have decided to include the prototype Warlock-class Destroyer that was making its debut just as the original show was ending. It also made several subsequent appearances in the TV movie Call to Arms and the spinoff series Crusade.
Rushed into production during the last days of the Earth Alliance Civil War, the Warlock featured some of the most advanced technology available. This included advanced weaponry, engines, and most importantly, artificial gravity. This, more than anything else, gave it the advantage over the older Omega-class destroyers which relied on rotating sections.
The Warlock’s engines are a hybrid design featuring the standard ionic thrust modules and a gravitic drive, which like the artificial gravity is borrowed from the Minbari. In terms of weapons, this ship carries two particle beam cannons, multiple heavy cannons and point defense turrets, and 28 large and medium missile arrays. In addition, the original concept also involved a Shadow machine which was buried in the ship’s core. These were promptly removed once Clarke was overthrown, for obvious reasons.
Much like its Omega-class predecessor, it also has a launch bay located at the bow of the ship between its sensor arrays and its cannons. And given it’s larger size, it is able to carry additional squadrons of Starfuries, Thunderbolts and support craft. And of course, its jump capable!
Wow, ten installments of cool ships, totalling close to eighty different vessels. I think some kind of celebration is in order to mark this milestone. Too bad I’m sick as a dog, I’d tilt a glass. Maybe those who read these posts can do that for me. Fill a glass with whatever imbibing liquid you like best and toast your favorite franchises for bringing us these inventive, imaginative designs. Some day, they might just be the basis for something real…
Welcome back. I had a lot of fun with the last installment, so here’s another! Updated, expanded, and with plenty of additions. Ah, screw it! Let’s get to it.
Immortal: Back to the Starcraft universe for a sequel. Much like its predecessor, the Immortal was a vehicle for severely wounded Templars who still wanted to serve. Developed shortly after the Brood War, the Immortals replaced the aging Dragoon design and improved on it in many ways.
In terms of armaments, the Immortals boast two phased disruptor cannons which pretty much doubles their firepower. Their chassis are heavily armored and of course boast shields that can even withstand attacks from heavy artillery.
The Immortal’s one weakness is that their shields are only activated when they are hit by heavy munitions. In addition, their weapons are best for ranged attacks. This makes them somewhat vulnerable to close encounters with small arms fire and auto-cannons.
Mad Dog: Another classic mech from the Battltech universe. Much like the Mad Cat from the last installment, the Mad Dog is another omnimech. It’s configuration, which appeared to Inner Sphere forces as a bird of prey, earned it the nickname “Vulture”.
Heavily armored with a n8 and a half ton ferro-fibrous shell, the Mad Dog is still fast and maneuverable, able to run at over 85 km/h. In its standard configuration, it carries two large pulse lasers in the arms, two medium ones (typically mounted underneath) and two shoulder mounted missile launchers.
Quick, powerful and versatile, the Mad Dog is well represented in the armies of every Outer Sphere Clan. In fact, the Mad Dog and Mad Cat are so close in design that they are often fashioned for the same mold. They often serve alongside each other for mutual support in the field of battle.
Madox-01: When it comes to big, mechanized war machines, much like many cool inventions, the Japanese seem to have the market cornered. But what do you expect, they got their first and pioneered the whole concept. And this example is one of the many originals shows to popularize it.
Taken from Metal Skin Panic, the Madox-o1 was a prototype mech design built by the Japanese Self Defense Forces for use against tanks. Armed with a large caliber minigun, a chainsaw, a grappling claw, and can also carry an assortment of missiles. It is deployed by helicopters to a field of battle, but is also capable of running speedily to wherever it needs to go.
In the story, it becomes the property of a mechanic who climbs into the mech and “merges”, meaning that the machine comes to recognize him as its controller and won’t let him leave. As a result, Koji – the mechanic – is stuck with the machine and forced to defend himself when the authorities come looking for it. But in time, it is agreed that the best thing for all sides is if Koji works for the government and uses the machine for good. Everybody’s happy!
Metal Gear Ray: Since these guys are so damn good at producing mech designs, I just had to return to the Metal Gear franchise! Picking up after the first game, this next example comes from its sequel: Sons of Liberty.
After the events in the first game, the world was apparently flooded with designs for the Metal Gear Rex. As a result, Ray began as a proposed countermeasure design, an amphibious design produced by the US Marine Corps. Because of this, Ray was the first Metal Gear that was both amphibious and not specifically designed for nuclear warfare.
Originally intended to be operated by a single pilot, the final Ray design was completely unmanned. Its primary armaments consisted of two machine guns, anti-tank and anti-ship missile banks, cluster bombs and a water jet cutter. Its smaller frame and lighter weight also meant it a lot speedier and more agile than its behemoth cousin, Rex.
MSZ-007 Gundam: Speaking of anime and Japanese robots, the next examples comes from a similarly old-school show, Gundam! Known as the Mass Production type Z Gundam, this “Mobile Suit” is one of the more popular mechs from the series. And for good reason!
In addition to being able to fly on its own without having to transform into a fighter configuration, this mech also carries a beam rifle and can get into hand to hand combat with its pair of beam sabres. Just because you’re a futuristic robot suit doesn’t mean you can’t go samurai on your enemies asses!
In addition to being able to run at high speeds, its thruster packs provide a whopping 1.53 G (73900 kg) of thrust. This makes it capable of operating in air, space and on land. Its diverse weapons capabilities also mean it is able to perform ranged and hand to hand attacks. In short, its versatility makes it popular, and pretty damn cool to look at!
Robocop 2: Also known as “Robocain”, this monster appeared in the sequel to Robocop and was intended as his successor. In the midst of the police strike in the second movie, OCP intended to fully replace the police force with cyborgs. All they needed was a human brain to make the prototype work… again.
Unfortunately, due to some tampering from a rather ambitious OCP exec, the brain came from former drug kingpin and Jesus wannabee Cain. Rather than protecting and serving, he saw this as an opportunity for quasi-godhood. Heavily armed, armored, and clearly nuclear powered by the symbol on the right side of the chest plate.
And who wouldn’t feel like a god with this kind of firepower? Though somewhat cumbersome and easy to trip up, the Robocain suit had all kinds of advantages. A rotary cannon was its main article, mounted on one arm, while a shoulder mounted autocannon added some punch. While its right hand was articulated, its left was little more than a hydraulic fist. Hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’d understand.
At the end of the movie, Murphy and Cain get into it, with Murphy being heavily over-matched. In the end, he managed to defeat him by having his partner distract him with a vial of nuke (the designer drug he invented) and then jumped on his back and ripped his brain out of the head assembly. A grissly death, but a fitting one for a criminal madman with a god complex!
Tripod Walker: I always say there is nothing like a classic, but when it comes to giant robots, this is the cat’s ass of classics! Taken from H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the tripod walker was the proposed design of what an alien attack machine would look like. Tall, tripedal, and using heat rays to annihilate everything in their paths, these robots served as an inspiration for countless other franchises and genres of sci-fi.
In the novel, Well’s describes his creation as follows: “Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles… Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.”
From this basic description, movie makers and conceptual artists have through several renditions. The latest, which were featured in the Stephen Spielberg remake, were updated to look sleaker and more modern; in essence, less Steampunk-y. However, they retained the same basic design, consisting of a central “head”, three legs and a series of beam emitters mounted underneath.
As a finale, it’s back to the Robotech universe with the Zentraedi Battlepod. Built by the alien race that are the main antagonists of the show, this battlepod is essentially a mass-produced infantry mech and the mainstay of the Zentraedi forces.
Known as the Regult within their own ranks, this mech is fast, maneuverable, and highly versatile, especially when compared to heavier mechs like the Tomahawk. It lightweight and chassis-mounted thrusters ensure that it can make high jumps and operate in zero gravity.
It’s weaponry is also more sophisticated than the average human design, which includes two quadruple-barreled medium beam cannons, two single barrel light cannons, and two light pulse beam cannons mounted on the back of the head.
However, the Battlepod has a discernible weakness, which is its light armor. Although this makes the pod faster and more maneuverable, especially in space, it is not capable of withstanding direct hits from autocannons, missiles or lasers. In the end, the Battlepod’s greatest quality is it’s quantity. Later generations would be upgraded to include heavier weapons and armor, but for the duration of the First Robotech War, Zentraedi forces were stuck with this one.
Well, that was fun, again! Bring on the suggestions, I still got a few to work through. See you next time!
Forgive the all caps, but with a name like this, you gotta go big! Thanks to a helpful suggestion from a respected colleague (thanks Rami!), I’ve finally found the latest for my series on conceptual post. And I think my reasons for going with it are clear. Whether we are talking about mechs, mechas, walkers or sentient machines, giant robots are just plain cool! And here’s a list of some memorable ones from various franchises that have come down to us over the years:
AT-AT Walker: It’s only right to start the list with a classic example from the classic franchise. Though I’m sure this giant needs no intro, I’ve recently come to learn that there are some people who really haven’t seen the original trilogy. Yeah, I can’t believe it either!
Known officially as the All Terrain Armored Transport, this beast was the Empire’s weapon of choice for digging Rebel troops out of fortified emplacements. It’s size alone made it an intimidating sight to behold, which was kind of the point! But in case that wasn’t enough to make people run, it also packed quite a punch.
Although they were invented by the Republic during the time of the Clone Wars, the AT-AT didn’t emerge as a weapon of terror until the time of the Empire when it was resurrected by General Veers. During the Battle of Hoth, her personally led a force against the Rebel Echo Base and overwhelmed its defenders. Its armor proved too strong for conventional blasters, and its weapons were devastating once they were in range.
Under Luke Skywalker’s command, Rogue Squadron was able to destroy one using their tow cables while Skywalker destroyed another using his lightsaber and a concussion grenade. However, this did not stop Veers from destroying the shield generator and reaching Echo Base in the end. On Endor, an AT-AT would make an appearance guarding the Imperial shield generator.
Broadside Battlesuit: Finally, I’ve found an excuse to use something from Warhammer 40k! It’s a little hard to incorporate ships when the focus is really on cool battlefield stuff. But hey, the sign says Giant Robots, so we’re all good!
The Broadside Battlesuit is the Tau Army’s heavy hitter, marrying the concept of a tank with that of an infantryman. Armed with two arm-mounted missile launchers and two rail guns on its back, the Broadside is more like a mobile artillery piece than a mechanized suit of armor.
But of course, it also has a thick hide, which is a necessity given the mighty kickback of its weapons. Though they are comparatively slow and have no jetpacks, like other Warhammer mechs, they are able to entrench and kill their enemies from a distance.
Destroid Tomahawk: Speaking of walking tanks, this next example comes from the Robotech universe and is the mainstay of Earth’s mecha forces. Big, bad, heavily armed and armored, the Tomahawk is essentially a walking version of the main battle tank.
In terms of armaments, the Tomahawk carries just about every weapon under the sun. It’s two heavy beam cannons constitute its arms while two missile launchers make up the shoulders. It also carries two head-mounted machine guns, two gun clusters in the lower chest consisting of an auto-cannon, flame thrower, laser and direct-fire mortar. On top of all that, it also has an outboard missile launcher over its right shoulder.
Measuring almost 13 meters in height and weighing a whopping 31 tons fully loaded, this beast is still capable of running at 88 km/h. It also came equipped with vernier thrusters, making it capable of limited space operations. Unfortunately, its size and weight made it somewhat cumbersome when engaged with Zentraedi Battlepods (see below), which is why the design was eventually abandoned in favor of lighter designs.
Dragoon: You know, I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned Starcraft in the context of one of these posts. Bout time really! And as a primary example of something cool from this universe, here’s the Dragoon! Much like other examples on this list, this machine requires an organic operator, or at least parts of them…
A quadrupedal attack walker employed by the Protoss, the Dragoon was considered a second chance for templars who had been seriously wounded in the line of duty. These pilots would generally be submerged in a fluid-filled tank in the Dragoon’s interior and operate it through an “essence translator”.
The Dragoon’s main weapon was of a centrally-mounted cannon which fired phases antimatter at targets. Combined with the units speed and maneuverability over unstable terrain, the Dragoon was a highly effective fighting vehicle and played a crucial role in the Brood War. It was due to this success that other factions, such as the Dark Templars and the Confederates, attempted to copy or adapt the designs for their own armies.
Fuchikoma: Also known as “Tachikoma”, these walker/rollers are essentially tanks that are used by police in the manga series “Ghost In The Shell”. Heavily armored, packing serious weapons and run by a simple artificial-intelligence, these robots can act independently but are generally used for fire support.
Every unit is based on the same quadrupedal configuration with two three-fingered hands which double as machine guns. They carry their sensor equipment in their “heads”, which consists of a large main lens and two sensors mounted on the “mouth” below. Heavier weapons can also be mounted on the underside, which can either be a heavy machine gun or a grenade launcher.
In addition to their firepower, the Fuchikoma is also highly versatile. They can handle many different types of terrain, are able to walk up walls, rappel, walk, extend wheels from their feet and drive, and are also even submersible. After missions, the AI’s also share their experiences with all other units so that they can learn and anticipate different scenarios.
Goliath: Back to Starcraft for another prime example of supreme robotry. And fans of the Marine campaign will certainly recognize this one. Officially, it is known as a Terran all-terrain combat walker. But to those who fight alongside it, it’s known simply as a Goliath.
Designed to provide support for troops in urban settings, the role of the Goliath expanded to providing infantry assault in all terrains and conditions. Employed by just about all sides during the Guild Wars, the Goliath became the backbone of Confederate forces against the Zerg and Protoss.
Composed of neosteel alloy, the Goliath’s exterior is highly resistance to small arms fire and most munitions. It’s weapons consist of two arm-mounted autocannons, two shoulder-mounted missile launchers. With the arrival of the UED during the Brood War, the Goliath’s design was upgraded with a belly-mounted machinegun and improved missile range. By the time of the Second Great War, the design was retired in favor of updated designs.
Metal Gear Rex: Seems like a fitting name when you look at that gaping maw doesn’t it? And given its size, shape and terrifying power, the comparison seems even more apt. The focal point of the Metal Gear game series, this behemoth was a prototype weapon developed by DARPA and Arms Tech for the US Armed Forces.
Based on stolen designs from the former Soviet Union, Metal Gear was a revolutionary concept for a “bipedal tank” which would be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. After decades of toying and production, the end result was Rex.
In terms of armaments, the Rex has two 30 mm rotary cannon, a compliment of anti-tank missiles and 100 megawatt free-electron laser. However, its biggest surprise comes in the form of a massive shoulder-mounted rail gun which is capable of deploying stealth nuclear warheads. So in addition to being able to gallop into the field of battle and level everything in its wake, it was also capable of nuking an enemy city from several kilometers away.
Scary! I want one! Several version of Metal Gear would appear in the subsequent games with various modifications. But that’s something for another post (or more) 😉
Timberwolf: No list of giant robots would be complete without at least one example from the Battletech universe. And here it is! The Timberwolf, otherwise known as the Mad Cat. Fast, heavy and quite formidable, this vehicle puts the “mech” in omnimech!
According to the series, this vehicle was the first omnimech to be encountered by the Inner Sphere Clans invaded. It was here that it earned the name “Mad Cat”, being similar in design to both the Marauder (MAD) and Catapult (CAT). It’s rare combination of speed, heavy armor and armaments also led to this designation. Apparently, this combination is quite rare!
In its primary configuration, the Timberwolf packs a good balance of energy and projectile weapons. It’s main armaments consist of arm lasers and two shoulder-mounted missile pods, both of which are effective at long range. It also carries two medium lasers and a medium pulse laser for close range combat, and a set of cockpit mounted machine guns for point defense against infantry.
Though it has no jump jets, the Timberwolf is capable of running at over 80 km an hour and is capable of some nimble maneuvering. It’s composite ferro-fibrous armor also mean it can withstand several directs hits from enemy fire.
Unicron: You know, I’m loathe to use the same example twice. But hey, the name says Giant Robots, and Unicron is nothing if not both of these things! Taken from the Transformers movie (circa. 1986), this big bot is the biggest bot in the universe, and an appropriate one to end this first installment on.
Also known as the “Lord of Chaos” and “Planet Eater”, Unicron is essentially a planet-sized transformer who goes about the universe consuming stellar objects. These can include planets, asteroids and even stars.
Powered by an array of massive quantum computers, Unicron is dedicated to being a force of uncreation, traveling across universes and consuming all he can to bring about an end to all existence. In addition, he is apparently able to confer powers on lesser beings, using the impressive technology which powers him to upgrade other machines.
In the end, the only thing that could stop him was the Matrix of Leadership, which contained the essence of his equal and opposite – a being known as Primus. Being a creature of destruction, such a creative power could only be seen as a threat. And it certainly was! In the end, the Matrix was opened inside his hull and unleashed a force which completely consumed him.
Well that’s all I got for now. Hope people enjoyed this little display of oversized automatons, mechanized vehicles and massive war machines. And like the song says:
“You dig giant robots I dig giant robots We dig giant robots Chicks dig giant robots Nice.” -theme song from Megas XLR
And it’s true aint it? Except for the part about chicks, I can’t say with any authority that they actually dig giant robots. But I know I do! See ya next time.
Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.
Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.
But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?
Asimov’s Foundation Series:
Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.
The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.
However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.
Frank Herbert’s Dune:
One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.
For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.
But by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”
Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands” was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.
Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.
However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.
In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.
According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.
Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.
Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.
Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.
This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.
The Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!
Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.
Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.
Babylon 5:One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.
But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.
The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.
According to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.
Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.
The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.
Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…
As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.
The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.
However, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.
In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!
Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.
Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.
One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.
To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.
As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.
A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.
Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:
Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.
Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.
Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”
Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.
However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?
Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.
However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!
Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.
In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.
Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.
Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!