Why do we love mechs?
It’s something I’ve asked myself a few times. Most recently the question came up during a conversation with colleagues as we here at MECH*SPECTRUM were discussing our beloved and unique genre within science fiction. The easy answer is that mechs, and all their variant names, are cool. That really doesn’t do any justice to the massive volume of enjoyable games, books, movies and even toys available for consumption though. So I wanted to go a little further.
It is easy for me to answer the same question about Science Fiction in general, as I’m sure it is for most of us. Science fiction isn’t just an escape or a break from reality. It’s an entire destination, and hints at the collective hopes and dreams, as well as fears of humanity. Exotic and beautiful frontiers are contrasted by burning or frigid wastelands and unspoiled nature can exist in the same reality as the toxic decay of entire worlds devoted to industry. In Science Fiction we can explore our idealistic hopes for utopian harmony at the same time that we receive a warning about the consequences of totalitarianism bureaucracy. Freedom abounds in Science Fiction. Any character, or participant in a story can live in any setting we want them to and take off to flee from danger or rush headlong into it on whim. Science Fiction, like human imagination, has no limits.
“So what?” you ask.
Well, when you think about your favorite Science Fiction movie, book or game, what is it that you love about it? For me, and I suspect for many of us, it’s not just the massiveness of the universe and limitless possibilities we get to explore, but it’s usually one or two snapshots that summarize the experience of this extraordinary alternate reality for us. All of that endless possibility needs an anchor. Considering Star Wars for example, since we are all so well acquainted with that story, one of my favorite scenes is in (the original untainted version of) A New Hope. Han casually shoots Greedo, the hapless lackey and “wannabe” bounty hunter of Jabba the Hut, under the table of a dirty and rough cantina.
For me, that scene, with all its flavor, sets the stage for the entire Star Wars universe. Reinforcing that believable grittiness is a scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Chewbacca is frantically trying to repair the Millennium Falcon and Han is yelling at him about the extremely bad timing. It’s real, it feels like the frustration and aggravation of a real world, but it has nothing to do with the awesome scale of the universe. Again in Return of the Jedi, an encounter with imperial biker scouts that results in racing through a dense forest at suicidal speeds is my favorite scene. Despite all of the awesomeness of the greater struggle in that movie, that relatively minor scene is what I most enjoyed and am able to identify with. Smaller things taking place in a much larger universe, just like our own.
Mechs provide a tangible and relatable focal point to Science Fiction. Regardless of what franchise you consider, it’s the tactile elements that draw us in and make us feel at home, believe and even share in the experience. Who hasn’t been in a fight or at least sat in a scuzzy bar once or twice? Okay, so maybe not a few of you, but I bet you’ve all had a vehicle give you trouble at the worst possible time. Perhaps not ‘stuck on a frozen planet while the empire is breaking down your door’ bad timing, but late for an interview or when you finally get to take the kids on vacation. There’s always that one infuriating event you’d rather just forget about. I may never have raced for my life through a magnificent forest, but I can empathize with the excitement from my experiences hiking and turning a motorcycle over on myself (not at the same time). My point is, Science Fiction tends to be so big, so expansive and limitless that sometimes it’s hard to engage in. If you’re like me you want to be immersed in another world or a possible future, not just teased as to what might be out there.
By their nature, mechs immerse us in the details of the narrative they are bound to. Regardless of where you live or the environments you feel comfortable in, mechs in almost any franchise, have waged war across those familiar landscapes. Not so much for the Millennium Falcon, Galactica, or the U.S.S. Enterprise, love them though we do. For me the high points of a science fiction experience are when I’m able to be immersed in believable details. The simple fact that mech stories and games take place in environments we can typically experience in our real lives makes them that much more believable and meaningful.
If that weren’t enough the realities mechs have in common with heavy machinery, in one form or another, are so much more practical and relevant than warp drives and other more fantastic science fiction concepts. Have you ever operated a tractor, or excavator? If you weren’t one of the dwindling number of kids who grew up in an agricultural community than you might not have had that particular pleasure, but deep down inside, you want to. You want to feel the strength of a ridiculously powerful diesel engine moving the earth to your will or tearing into the side of a derelict brick building. Those of you who are familiar with that type of work know what I’m talking about. It’s a simple pleasure. Machinery, like mechs, enable mankind to perform work and withstand opposition on a physical level that so greatly exceeds the ability of our anatomy that our minds draw some form of deep satisfaction from the experience.
I was fortunate enough to be an Army Infantryman in my slightly younger years. Specifically, I was a Mechanized Infantryman, commonly abbreviated as MECH INF. I get a kick out of idea of the army having Mech Infantry sometimes (how cool would that be?), but it’s appropriate despite being coincidental and ultimately meaningless. At my first unit I was assigned as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle driver to my platoon leader. If I’d been light infantry that would have been a reason to complain but in the MECH INF we don’t drive many vehicles with wheels so I was happy.
Words fail to describe the euphoria of being 20 years old and having your hands on the controls of thirty three tons of tracked and armored combat power. The noise, dust, smell and jarring movements and vibrations will be fresh memories for me as long as I live. Driving through dense pine tree forests as if they weren’t even there and climbing near vertical embankments (that caused some panic in the turret) were empowering and exhilarating experiences in ways that most people only get to imagine. Which brings me back to mechs. They feel real if you can appreciate or even just enjoy the ideas of anything I’ve described above. Let’s be honest, you want to go climb in the cockpit of a Timberwolf right now.
Yeah, me too.
In other words, mechs are cool.