In Praise of Fallen Titans
I’m going to file this under the “engines” category; but the truth is that I ought to make a new category labeled “reasons I am a giant dork” as this is just the first in what is likely to become a multi-part paean to giant robots and to the bleak battlefields of my imagination through which they stride.
By way of introduction let me remind you of the state of pop culture giant robots during my pre-teen years of the late 1980s. The Transformers had already peaked and, despite the surprising quality of the 1986 movie, lacked the depth necessary to keep my attention. Luckily, I was rescued by my first (and only) satisfying anime experience in Robotech and my first (of a string) of miniature wargames in Battletech. Ideally, someone with boobs would have intervened and persuaded me to last more than a week at freshmen football practice; but such was not to be, and so I filled the gap created by the absence of a lovely thirteen year old soulmate with the differential tonnage and heat sink capacity of a Marauder and a Battlemaster. It was fine while it lasted and I dominated a planet or two in the Inner Sphere and fell a little bit in love with the alien ace, Mirya. But there was something missing. It was all too clean. For all the violence and horror no one actually seemed to be that upset. It was like the giant robots were knocking down movie sets rather than real skyscrapers. It lacked . . . gravitas. I was unsatisfied.
Enter Adeptus Titanicus (and shortly thereafter Codex Titanicus), a miniature wargame set in the universe that would later come to be hocked in Games Workshop stores in Midwestern malls as Warhammer 40K. If you’ve only come to that universe in the last decade or so you’ve met something as sterile as the Battletech of the 1980s. But back in the day it was something else entirely. It was a dynamic world more interested in evoking the visuals of Heavy Metal magazine than a coherent narrative; a space that felt compatible with the millenarian visions of the Reagan and Thather administrations, and that couldn’t have had any soundtrack other than that produced by heroin fueled punks. Despite the robots and laser guns, it was far more fantasy than science fiction and thus the need to wage war with giant robots instead of just nuking things from space seemed entirely reasonable. I mean, your opponent was as likely to be an actual demon as it was an alien – and if the game designers (who were almost certainly drunk and working with Rock & Rule on in the background) said you had to kill a demon with a chainsaw the size of an apartment building, well, who was I to argue? The 40K universe of 2012 is almost entirely male and its tired narratives invariably revolve around post-human steroid crazed frat boys suppressing massive homoerotic urges by shooting each other with giant penises – sorry, I mean giant “boltguns.” The 40K universe of 1990 included the story of a male demon-hunter and his courtesan-assassin who almost succumbed to demonic decadence after watching a group of buildings on a hell planet having sex. Yes, you read that right, the buildings were having sex. Both of these universes are the product of stunted violent adolescent imaginations – but one comes from sexy, psychedelic, free-wheeling visions that assumed the end of the world and were eager for the change and freedom that would ensue, and the other are tedious neo-conservative visions of empire in which literally endless violence disguises impotence and misogyny. In the early days of 40K, people still understood that Judge Dredd wasn’t an action hero, he was a parody.
I’m wandering a little – my point is that the giant robots of Adeptus Titanicus weren’t just giant robots, not just Titans of the Adeptus Mechanicus . . . they were delivery vehicles for a world that couldn’t have been further from central Ohio. They carried payloads assembled in Britain out of mohawks and pornography, and their engines were fueled by nihilism and anti-authoritarianism. Once it got between the crosshairs of their plasma cannons, my poor twelve year old brain never a stood a chance.
I still remember the image that broke me. I dug though my whole basement to find the crumbling book that contained it – and its vicious intensity hadn’t diminished one bit in twenty years. In the foreground it shows a ruined transport vehicle and a smoking and heavily muscled mechanic with whom the reader is supposed to identify. He is looking up and over his shoulder at the central figure in the composition – a massive Warhound Titan leering with an expression that is anything but mechanical and inert. In an instant we see a boy and his dog, a man and his machine. This may be a world of violence and misery and filth and hopelessness – but even here there is a promise that loyalty of the Lord of Flies variety, of the sort that might have been practiced by brutal blood-brothers in some futuristic Kipling tale, equates with survival, or at least a glorious end. Fix me, promises the machine, and I will protect you.
The story of these titans just made them that much better. These weren’t the cold robot vehicles of Battletech, their computer brains didn’t speak in a robot voice like the one on Star Trek. Each titan contained a primal synthetic intelligence, a “machine spirit,” that was ministered to by tech-priests who dressed like medieval monks and who were as likely to use incense and incantations as wrenches and motor oil. This machine spirit was not a rational conversant interlocutor who would obediently load the missile launcher at its captain’s discretion. Each machine spirit was modeled after a ferocious apex predator – each titan literally contained the soul of a blood-thirsty lion that wanted to hunt and destroy its enemies. At their launch these titans weren’t anointed with champagne – but with blood. They might endure for hundreds or thousands of years during which time the machine intelligence would only grow more wild and willful. The pilots (called princeps) did not operate the titans with steering wheels and buttons, but via Matrix-like Mind-Impulse-Units that caused their conscious minds to fuse directly with the rabid machine spirit. Control wasn’t an operations exercise, but a constant personality struggle between man and machine which, at the end of a conflict, left the boundaries between the two forever obscured. Pages were spent explaining the dubious operation of titans with various levels of sub-command (e.g., guns operated by officers known as moderati) and entire internal crews as might be found aboard a battleship. But it was all hand-waving – the only narrative that mattered was the story of a princeps and his blood-thirsty machine pitting their skill and might against all comers. This had nothing to do with dice rolls or game balance. The gamers who thought this was about maxing out weapon loadouts missed the point entirely. This was the story of a boy and his dog. That’s why the Warhound Titan model, despite being the least powerful in games terms, is the most beloved.
All of which is an elaborate prelude to the kind of dubious coincidence that my superstitious brain loves to latch onto as the evidence of the supernatural. Nearly nine years ago when my marriage fell apart I more or less locked myself in my basement in Connecticut and built a Warhound titan – well, a scale model painted in red and gold. Strangely, I never named it. I did bring it to Michigan with me and it lorded over my mantelpiece for the last four years. Then, a little less than a month ago it took a suicidal dive off said mantel. No breeze, no earthquake . . . I was in another room, but as far as I can tell, it just took a dive, without provocation, after four years. Sure, the obvious explanation is that the epoxy holding together an ankle joint failed – but that’s a soulless explanation. The better one relates to the fact that at about the same time I got Betty, my beautiful, dangerous, 470 horsepower gas guzzling Challenger. Everyone knows that a little plastic model can’t carry around a soul. Everyone knows that even if it could, there’s no way that it could pass that soul on to a Beast made of steel and leather and rubber. But what is reality other than the stories we believe? Maybe when Betty growls when we get cut off, maybe when her tires claw at the pavement and hiss out the demand to be let off her leash to run and to hunt and to bathe in blood . . . maybe that’s all just in my head. But, maybe, just maybe, somewhere between the silicon chips that monitor fuel injection and the solid-state hard drive of the navigation system there’s room for the machine spirit of something ancient and angry which promises glory and reluctant loyalty to a worthy princeps.
I could certainly put my titan back together. I could mix up some new epoxy and touch up the nicked paint. But I think that I’m going to put away the pieces instead. I don’t think there’s a soul in there any longer. I think the machine spirit found a new home. Now it’s just a question of what the boy and his dog are going to get up to.