GIANT ROBOTS!

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.

AT-AT cross-section

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.

Worlds of Star Wars

Back with more examples of cool sci-fi worlds. Last time, it was the Dune universe, today it’s Star Wars! Once again, I will looking at the original movies, with some added info from the expanded franchise, but not the prequels. Sorry, but like most Star Wars fanboys, I prefer to pretend that those installments didn’t exist. Nothing personal, its just that aside from tying things up in a nice little package and providing some dazzling visual effects, they really didn’t enrich the universe any.

But this aint a spiel on Lucas and his lost sense of direction. This is about cool Star Wars worlds! And here are the top contenders:

Alderaan:
This planet was apparently the soul of the Republic, much in the same way that Coruscant was its capitol. Renowned throughout the galaxy for its peaceful inhabitants and unspoiled beauty, Alderaan was also a cultural capitol that produced many of the universe’s greatest artists, poets and performers. As the home to Princess Leia Organa and her adopted father, Senator Bail Organa – both of whom were members of the Rebel Alliance – it was also was the first planet to be destroyed by the Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope.

In the expanded universe, Alderaan is depicted as a lush and fertile world covered in oceans, grasslands, mountain ranges and canyons. In order to preserve the planet’s beauty, Alderaan’s cities were built directly into the landscape, either within canyon walls, on stilts along the shorelines, or underneath the polar ice. The planet’s capitol, Aldera, was situated on a small island in the center of a caldera.

In terms of government, the planet was ruled by House Antilles, a constitutional monarchy, of which the Organa family were the last surviving members. Jedi master Ulic Qel Dromo, who’s name comes up in the game Knights of the Old Republic, was also from Alderaan. The popular Star Wars creature known as the “nerf” (which I believe was inspired by Herbert’s “slig”) also comes from this planet.

The name is clearly inspired by the Arabic name for for two pairs of stars alpha and beta Canis Minoris (currently known as Procyon and Gomeisa) and alpha and beta Geminorum (Castor and Pollux). Translated literally, the name means “the two forearms” or “the two front paws”. I can only surmise that Lucas learned of this disused astronomic name and decided to use it in his franchise because of its esoteric appeal.

Corellia:
A bustling world of spacers and traders, Corellia is also the home planet of Han Solo, Wedge Antilles and Garm Bel Iblis. It is also the location of the Corellian shipyards, a series of orbital factories that produce such ships as the famed Millenium Falcon, the Corellian Corvette and the Imperial-class Star Destroyer. In terms of ecology, Corellia is lush world with several highly developed urban centers, resulting in a great deal in trade. Little wonder then why Corellia is famous for its spacefaring culture, smugglers, pirates, and roguish personalities.

During the time of the Galactic Republic, Corellia was the capitol of the system and chief representative of the “Five Brothers”. This refers to the five habitable planets in the system, three of which were home to their own indigenous species.  Being the closest planet to Corel, and the most developed, Corellia was seen as the senior brother in this arrangement.

Another interesting feature about the Corellian system is Centerpoint Station, an ancient installation that was built over a million years before events in A New Hope. Built by an insectoid species known as Killik, the station was apparently a massive tractor-beam array that was capable of towing entire planets from one point in the galaxy to another, which is believed to be the reason why Corell boasts several worlds with their own indigenous inhabitants.

During the reign of the Galactic Empire, Corellia became an imperial mandate, but maintained its fierce spirit of independence until the arrival of the New Republic. This spirit of independence is evidenced by the fact that the Rebel Alliance was founded here when the founders convened to agree on a declaration of principles. It was also shown in the way the Corellians resisted Imperial rule, both through its production of smugglers and pirates and its anti-Imperial demonstrations.

Although it never appeared in the original series, the planet is featured in a number of novelizations and video game adaptations (particularly the Corellian Trilogy and Star Wars: The Old Republic).

Coruscant:
The capitol of the Galactic Republic and Empire in the Star Wars universe, this world was essentially one massive city. According to the expanded universe, approximately one trillion humans and aliens live on the planet, of which humans make up the majority, and the planet-wide city is multitiered, reflecting a sort of class system. Whereas the upper levels are occupied by the wealthiest citizens and members of the Republic’s bureaucracy, the native inhabitants of the planet are largely extinct or live on the lower levels while the planet’s surface is inhabited solely by outcasts and indigents.

The uppermost levels were made up of skyscrapers that dwarfed even the planet’s natural mountain chains. These were lighted regularly by the planet’s sun and a series of orbital mirrors which ensured that shadows cast by the massive structures did not overcast the surrounding environment too much. At the lower levels where natural light could not reach, holograms and artificial lights provided most of the illumination. These regions were often known as the “entertainment districts” due to the availability of bars, gambling halls and other distractions. People who lived in these regions were known as “Twilighters” because of the areas seedy reputation and appearance.

Coruscant is also home to the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Order, the Jedi Temple, the Republic Archives, and the Imperial palace. All trade routes cross at the planet’s galactic coordinates, ensuring a constant coming and going of trade and transport ships in and around the planet.  In addition, several artificial satellites and shipyards were placed in orbit around the planet, especially during the reign of Emperor Palpatine. The massive output of garbage and the need for food and water meant that most of the planet’s needs had to be handled from offworld.

In addition to ejecting all of its non-recyclable garbage into orbit and importing most of its food, huge feats of engineering were required to meet its daily need for water. This was accomplished by piping in freshwater from the planet’s glaciers and underwater aquifers, which were created when the planet’s vast oceans were drained to create room for more urban sprawl. Just about all buildings on the planet also had their own semi self-sufficient ecosystems built directly into their buildings, where water, like most other necessities, was recycled.

Although it did not appear in the regular series, Coruscant was a focal point in Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy and made numerous subsequent appearances in novelizations and graphic novels (most notably, the Dark Empire series). The name is apparently derived from the Latin coruscant which translates as “vibrating” and/or “glittering”, referring to its opulent appearance from space.

Dagobah:
A planet in the outer rim of the galaxy, and the home of Jedi Grand Master Yoda during his long exile. Composed of swamps and forests and teeming with life, the planet was devoid of cities or infrastructure. It was the location of Luke Skywalker’s training in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and also the last known location of Yoda before he died of natural causes.

Long before events in the original trilogy, the planet was also the site of a major battle between Jedi Master Minch battled and killed a powerful Dark Jedi. As a result, the cave where he fell absorbed his dark powers and became, according to Yoda, a place that was “strong with the dark side”. It was here that Luke confronted his demons and gained the first hints as to his true ancestry.

Because of its uncharted nature and its resplendent nature, Yoda chose this world for his exile, knowing that the presence of so many creatures and dark side energy would mask his force signature.

Dantooine:
An Outer Rim world, known for its mild climate and resplendent system of grasslands, rivers and lakes. Though far from most galactic trade routes, Dantooine was a popular destination for people looking to escape the crush of the Core Worlds. Nevertheless, its population was largely made up of farmers and small communities.

Being a remote and peaceful world, Dantooine was also home to the Jedi Academy. During the Sith War, most Jedi Masters were stationed here and conducted the training of Jedi Knights. Towards the end of the war, the Academy was destroyed by the Sith during an orbital bombardment. However, the academy was quickly rebuilt as soon as the war was over and a new crisis loomed.

According to the KOTOR series, the planet was also once part of the Rakatan Empire. Remnants of this occupation were demonstrated by a series of ruins which apparently contained the first of several Star Maps, the purpose of which was to safeguard the location of the Rakatan Star Forge. It was here that Revan began his descent to the dark side when he began investigating these ruins for hints as to its location. Exar Kun was also trained here, another notorious enemy of the Republic who began as a Jedi.

Endor:
Also known as the “Forest Moon of Endor” and “The Sanctuary Moon”, Endor was a small moon that orbited the gas giant of Endor. The homeworld of the Ewok race, and the location of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. It was also the site of the Battle of Endor, where Rebel forces engaged the Imperial fleet and army in both orbit of the planet and planetside. Though intended as a trap by the Emperor, this battle became the turning point in the Galactic Civil War and led to the Rebels to their eventual victory over the Empire.

Due to the fact the the second Death Star was supposedly incomplete, the Rebels were forced to put down on the world and locate the shield generator that protected it. In the course of their search, they came upon the indigenous Ewok people and were recruited by them. This alliance allowed for them to locate the generator and, when the Emperor’s trap closed around them, overcome the Imperial forces guarding it.

According to Lucas, this world was inspired by his original ideas for Kashyyyk, the home of the Wookies (see below). Here, the surface of the planet was lush and green, covered in massive natural forests and filled with tons of natural predators. In order to survive, the Ewoks live in villages built above ground, anchored along the sides of the massive trees where land-based predators cannot reach them. These same characteristics would be recycled later in the franchise where descriptions of Kashyyyk came up.

Hoth:
The sixth and furthest planet in the remote Hoth system, this planet is a desolate and ice covered world renowned for its extreme cold and harsh climate. Because of its remote location, it was also the home of the Rebel’s Echo Base for a time during the Galactic Civil War, shortly after the Rebels destroyed the Death Star and were forced to relocate from Yavin 4. The Battle of Hoth, during which time the Empire discovered and destroyed this base, was a focal point in the movie Empire Strikes Back, where Rebels fought a pitch battle to cover their evacuation from the planet.

Beyond the planet was a large asteroid belt which apparently wreaked havoc with navigation and sensors, another reason why the Rebels chose the location for their base. The cold climate resulted in a relatively small amount of native life forms, which included the tantaun and the predatorial wampas. During the events of Empire, Luke Skywalker was attacked by a wampa and forced to flee its lair after cutting off one of its arms with his lightsaber. This encounter and his subsequent near-death experience on the icy plains led to a vision in which Obi Wan instructed him to go to Dagobah and seek the training of Jedi Grand Master Yoda.

From what I can tell, this planet is named after Hermann Hoth, a German General who is best known for his command of the 4th Panzer Army during Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) and his subsequent defeat at the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Known for his cunning and icy temperament, it seems fitting that an ice-planet would be named after him!

Kashyyyk:
Also known as “Wookiee Planet C”, “Edean”, “G5-623”, and “Wookiee World”, Kashyyyk is a planet in the Mid Rim. It was the lush, wroshyr tree-filled home world of the Wookiees and the home planet of Chewbacca. During the time of the Sith War, the planet was a source of slaves, all of which were exported by the Cserka Corporation. After slaving operations ceased, the planet became a member of the Galactic Republic, only to be reduced to the status of a slave colony again during the time of the Galactic Empire. With the fall of the Empire, the planet were once again liberated and became a member of the New Republic.

Much like Endor, on which it was based, Kashyyyk was a lush word covered by forests, the greatest of which was known as the wroshyr tree. Due to the presence of natural predators, the Wookies made their home high up in the trees branches, constructing large villages that are anchored to the trunks and connected by bridge ways. Though primitive by Galactic standards, the Wookies demonstrated great ingenuity, especially when it came to adapting and using advanced technologies for their own purposes. In addition to constructing landing pads from the tops of large trees, Wookies are also known for their use of bowcasters, a blaster modeled in the shape of a crossbow.

The forest floor is considered sacred to the Wookies and off-limits to off-worlders. This area is known as the “Shadowlands” due the fact that very little light penetrates the forest canopies and reaches the forest floor. In addition, it is populated by many species of predators that are large and fierce enough that even the Wookies are wary of them. In Knights of the Old Republic, it was revealed that the ancient race known as Rakatan’s once used the planet as a source of slaves and even terraformed it, resulting in its lush forests, as well as its powerful and diverse species. The only remaining trace of the Rakatan empire, aside from the stimulated environment, is a Rakatan Star Map that is hidden in a corner of the Shadowlands.

Korriban:
This planet was the homeworld of the original Sith species, and over the course of many generations became the home of the Sith Order. According to the KOTOR series, the original Sith Lords who defied the Jedi Order and embraced the dark side traveled to this world and subjugated the native species through their command of the force. Seeing them as godlike creatures, the Sith Lords were elevated to the status of divine leaders and were interred here after their deaths.

The tombs of original Sith Masters – Naga Sadow, Marko Ragnos, Ajunta Pall and Ludo Kressh – were all built in the Valley of Darkness. The inspiration for this was clearly the great Pyramids of Giza where the Pharaohs were interred. Each master has their own story, but it is apparenly Naga Sadow, the leader of the Sith during the “Great Hyperspace War”, that is most significant. Shortly after arriving on Korriban, the original Sith Masters began to turn on each other out of jealousy and mutual recrimination. In order to bring unity to them, Sadow took advantage of the arrival of a Republic survey team to convince his people that they were being invaded and needed to go to war.

The war took place roughly 5000 years before events in A New Hope are depicted and resulted in the total destruction of the Sith Empire. Korriban was devastated in the final assault, hence why the climate of the planet is desolate and rocky with little to no native flaura or fauna. In addition, Naga Sadow fled to Yaving 4 where he built a temple to himself and left a trace of his dark spirit, which in turn led to the rise of Sith Master Exar Kun (see below).

In addition, the planet became the home of the Sith Academy during the events of KOTOR 1, after Revan reestablished a base there. This apparently had much to do with the presence of a Rakatan Star Map, which was located within one of the tombs. The presence of this device, which are known to have dark side energy, may have a lot to do with why this planet was sought out by the original Sith Lords in the first place and became the locus of such dark powers. After events in KOTOR played out, the planet was once again left desolate when both the academy and its initiates were all destroyed.

Nar Shaddaa:
Also known as the “Vertical City”, the “Smuggler’s Moon” and “Little Coruscant”, Nar Shaddaa is the largest moon of the planet Nal Hutta, the homeworld of the Hutts. Like Coruscant, it is covered by a planet-wide metropolis. But unlike the galactic capitol – which is only seedy and dark at the lower levels of its sprawl – Nar Shadaa is known for being dirty, dangerous and seedy just about everywhere on the planet.

Nar Shaddaa began as a stopover for merchants and smugglers who are traveling to and from the outer rim. In time, however, cities grew between the refueling spires and loading docks and began to be permeated by illegal activities of every kind. Often serving as entertainment for merchants, bounty hunters and privateers, gambling halls, race courses and seedy establishments quickly sprung up which were either run by organized crime or paid dues to them. Most syndicates have a home on this world, including the Hutts themselves who are known for being notorious gangsters.

Because of its reputation, a great deal of technological research and development also occurred on Nar Shaddaa. Companies that wanted to avoid restrictions and regulations that were commonplace elsewhere would set up shop on this planet, knowing that certain “fees” were the worst they could expect. Hence, in addition to being a place famous for gambling, smuggling, and assorted illegal activity, it is also a technological center of sorts.

Nar Shaddaa makes appearances numerous times in the Star Wars expanded universe, notably in the KOTOR series, the Force Unleashed, and other novelizations and games. Repeatedly, it has served as a hiding place for Jedi exiles or anyone else looking to disappear.

Tatooine:
Possibly the most well-known planet in the Star Wars franchise, appearing prominently in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, Tatooine is a desert planet that orbits the binary Tatoo star system. Tatooine is sparsely-populated, mainly by moisture farmers, scrap dealers and the indigenous Sandpeople. However, the planet was also a focal point for events during the Sith War and the Galactic Civil War.

In the former case, it was the location of one of the Star Maps, and hence was visited by Revan twice. It was later the ancestral home of Luke Skywalker and the exile home of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, both of whom became involved in the Civil War when princess Leia’s Corvette was boarded and her droids  – R2D2 and C3P0 – were forced to jettison in orbit of the planet.

Tatooine has historically been controlled by Hutts, the most notorious of which was Jabba. During the events of A New Hope, Han was indebted to Jabba and took on a contract with Luke and Obi-Wan in order to pay him back. However, due to the demands of the Civil War, Han was unable to pay off his debt and wound up becoming a fixture in Jabba’s palace. His rescue, which was carried out by Luke, Chewbacca, Leia, Lando, R2D2 and C3P0, led to Jabba’s death and the majority of his crew.

In addition to its mixed population of colonists and transient inhabitants, Tatooine is home to two sentient races of people: the Sandpeople and the Jawas. Although not indigenous to Tatooine, the Jawas had made a permanent home on the desert world, salvaging droids, ship parts, and assorted electronics for resale and repair. The Sandpeople, who are indigenous, are a fierce, nomadic people who have adapted to desert life and are hostile of outsiders. The native bantha creature is apparently sacred to them, serving as a mount and a beast of burden. Native species also include the elusive Krayt Dragon and the fearsome Rancor.

Legend has it that Tatooine was once a lush, ocean covered world which was ruled by the Infinite Empire (i.e. the Rakata). During the decline of the empire, the indigenous people rebelled and forced them off the planet. In response, the Rakata subjected the world to an orbital bombardment which devastated the planet, turning the surface to glass and rendering it inhospitable for all time. This is apparently how Tatooine became the desert world it is by the current time of the franchise.

Yavin 4:
One of three habitable worlds which orbit the gas giant Yavin in the system of the same name. Known for its lush climate and jungles, this remote world would also play a pivotal role in galactic events. After the Hyperspace War ended, it served as the exiled home of Sith Master Naga Sadow and his followers. Before his death, many temples were built in honor of him and he himself was entombed in a sarcophagus where he waited in a comatose state until the day when a renewed Sith Order would find him.

Several centuries later, he would be awakened by Freedon Nadd, a fallen Jedi who sought knowledge of the ancient Sith. After learning all he could from Sadow, Nadd turned on him and killed him, in true Sith fashion. He then took Sadow’s place as the Dark Lord and died shortly thereafter. After several centuries, another fallen Jedi named Exar Kun came to Yavin and destroyed Nadd’s apparition. He then used the children of Sadow’s followers to build new temples and locate Sadow’s ship, buried beneath some old ruins.

In time, other Jedi began to join him, the most noteworthy of which was Ulic Qel Dromo. After allying himself with the Krath and the Mandalorians, he began waging war against the Republic. In time, the Jedi Order and Republic defeated him, but Kun managed to seperate his spirit from his body and would remain tied to his temples for centuries to come.

During the Galactic Civil War, Yavin 4 served as the Rebel alliances main base after they abandoned Dantooine. The Battle of Yavin occurred shortly thereafter when the Death Star, in pursuit of Princess Leia and the Millennium Falcon, arrived in the system and attempted to destroy the planet. After destroying the Death Star, the rebels were forced to abandon the planet and relocate to Hoth (see above). The moon remained relatively uninhabited and untouched for over a decade when Luke Skywalker chose to build the new Jedi Academy there.

Some Final Thoughts:
Okay, think I got them all. Or at least the ones I could squeeze in without going incredibly, incredibly long. But I’m not sure the datum, as collected from the various sources that make up the Star Wars universe support any conclusions. This might be because there are so many contributing authors, writers and conceptual artists. But I do notice a few things which should be plain to anyone who takes the time to sort through these worlds and the universe which encompasses them.

1. Borrow early, borrow often!: For one, Lucas and the franchise he created borrowed heavily from many sources. One can see without much effort inspiration from such franchises as Foundation, Dune, and various other science fiction serials. He was also not averse to taking from classic cinema, literature, and history. In addition to the familiar notions of galactic empires, an ecumenopolis (worldwide city), ancient alien empires, and multicultural, racial hierarchies, there was also plenty of gun-slinging, swashbuckling, duels, and underworld elements. All of this combined to create a universe that is quite rich and appeals to both the adult and kid in us, more often the latter.

2. This universe be big!: After looking through all the background, details, side stories and spinoffs, I could only feel that the Star Wars universe is expansive and packed. This goes for material happening both before and after the original movies. Long before Lucas and Lucasarts began tackling the pre-history of the franchise, there were writers and graphic novels makers who were writing sequels to the franchise. And while most of the novels got repetitive and cliched after awhile, some of it was pretty gutsy, proposing the fall of the New Republic and the resurgence of the Sith Empire once again.

And when it comes to the prehistory of the Galactic Civil War, it seems that the Old Republic was not as peaceful and boring as it was previously made out to be. In fact, the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith appears to be a regular feature in the pre-New Hope universe, happening periodically whenever a new Sith Lord emerged and recruited people to their cause. Sure, here too, things seem repetitive, but at least they’re not boring. And it also raises some interesting questions, like is this an ongoing fued that will never end, or is there some ultimate purpose behind the battle between the light side and dark side?

Stuff like this makes me both more sad and indifferent to the existence of the Star Wars Prequels. On the one hand, they seem all the more disappointing when held up to a franchise that is as detailed and diverse as this one. On the other, they seem dwarfed by the contributions of so many other creative minds, almost to the point where they can become irrelevant. With this in mind, it kind of makes sense why Lucas has become so jealous and bossy with the franchise in recent years. Perhaps after seeing how others could enrich his creation so much, he realized just how superfluous he could become. Hence all this “I am the CREATOR” talk! Seen this way, it could very well be that this is his way of reasserting ownership over a universe that is outgrowing him.

That was fun! Join me again for another installment in the “Conceptual Sci-Fi” series! And look for my review of Hunger Games and more chapters of Data Miners too!

Of Galactic Empires

Galaxy1Hello 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:

An artists rendering of Trantor

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:

Arrakis (aka. Dune), the main setting of the story

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.

Dune_MapBut 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.

Star Wars:

Coruscant, capitol of the Old Republic and Empire

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.

Urban sprawl on Coruscant
Urban sprawl on Coruscant

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.

Star Trek:

Star Fleet Command, in orbit above Earth

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.

Negh'varThe 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:b5-eps3One 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.

B5_destroyerAccording 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.

B5_season2Based 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.

B5_shadow_warHowever, 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.

Battletech:

mechwarrior_1Here 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.

inner_sphere_wars_battletech_01As 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.

Key Features:
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.

Final Thoughts:
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!