Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

17 Jun 2011

(Core Storyline 3049-3067) Battletech

(Reaction) Our Graves in Gallipoli: Democracy and War in the Battletech Universe by: Antonio Conejos

The Battletech universe is so rich and convoluted in its conflicts, heroes and villains that no one reaction could really do justice to its entire breadth. As such, this reaction is contained merely to the 18 novels which form the core of the main Battletech story line. These 18 novels are further subdivided into three main parts - the Stackpole Era, the Reborn Star League Era and lastly the Final Trilogy. All told these cover events from roughly around 3049 to 3067. (Yup, I'm a fan boy of a largely defunct series, how sad is that. But in its heyday, what a series it was! Btech continues with the Dark Ages storyline but I'm not well versed in this later universe.)

To some, the main Battletech story line may read merely as over the top science fiction in the vein of traditional pulp classics. Pulp here is not used derogatorily but rather as an adjective evoking texts whose narratives are action or intrigue based.

Even the authors of the novels themselves are aware of how well flavored their works are with mech combat. One of the characters in Bred for War is a writer, Ken Fox, who muses in a metafictional aside that he's sure no one reads the action scenes in his novels anyway. It's hard not to think that the thoughts of the author of Bred for War, Mike Stackpole, are voiced by his fictional character, Ken Fox. Fox himself is an insightful character, one whose thoughts of violence are not merely confined to the pages of a book.

There is certainly a lot of both action and intrigue in the main Battletech story line. I'd like to propose though that there is also a depth in the texts which goes beyond these two elements. First, that Battletech exalts individual agency over collective decisions or even consensus building. Two, that the series develops its own concept of a just war that takes into consideration the terrible destructiveness of modern weaponry.

First, Battletech favors the actions of an individual over that of the thoughts of the group. Ironically Battletech achieves this by favoring a form of government, feudalism, which is often seen as restrictive of individual liberties; while dismissing a form of government which is commonly identified with greater freedom for the individual - democracy. Indeed, the universe as described by Battletech would not be possible without two interrelated systems of government which stretch back to the medieval days of Terra - feudalism and monarchy.

Feudalism is evident throughout the series; with entire planets and systems swearing allegiance to a noble who in turn safeguards these territories in the name of a supreme ruler who is not democratically elected. A prominent example from the Final Trilogy are the peoples of the Draconis March, who are under the rule of the Sandoval family, who in turn are bound to obey the Davion family. This is medieval Europe writ large across the stars.

Atop the food chain is the monarch. Democracy is given short thrift in Battletech. The series treats it as an outmoded form of government for a time which requires strong leaders. Indeed, the only democratically led government in Battletech is the Free Rasalhague Republic. At the start of the clan invasion the head of state of Rasalhague was Haakon Magnusson while in the Reborn Star League Era Rasalhague is now headed by Christian Mansdotter. This change in leaders is significant as it is succinct proof that Rasalhague is the only state in the Inner Sphere, within the time frame of the main Battletech storyline, which changed its leader.

Rasalhague then is the most democratic of the Inner Sphere states. Yet democracy hardly brings it any benefits as it it also the worst off of the Inner Sphere states. By the time the Clan invasion has grounded to a halt, there is little left of Rasalhague, with the state described in the Final Trilogy as little more than a Comstar military camp. Democracy fares poorly in Battletech, and this point is made abundantly clear in the travails of the Free Rasalhague Republic.

The other nominally democractic state, the Free Worlds League does much better than Rasalhague. As it is untouched by the Clans it was able to profit mightily from selling arms and other goods to the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine, which desperately needed the new equipment for their respective armed forces.

But the Free Worlds League is not a real democracy, only a pretense of one. In Blood Legacy Thomas Marik is quick to use the fact that he may voted out by his parliament to initially refuse sending aid to the other Inner Sphere states. Yet this threat of parliamentary censure or impeachment is fictional as Marik is quick to agree to send such aid when Hanse Davion offers him a deal he cannot refuse. Note too that Thomas Marik is still the head of the Free Worlds League in 3067. No truly democratic state would let a ruler sit for 18 consecutive years.

Democracy is thought to be the most ennobling of the forms of government. Each individual is guaranteed an inalienable set of rights - chief of these is the right to be heard. This right to be heard takes many forms, from the freedom of expression to the freedom of suffrage. Suffrage after all is also a form of expression; one's opinion on who is best fit to lead.

Yet while democracy raises up the individual it also reduces him to the level of his co-citizens, everyone is equal, your vote is as valid, and as equal, as the next person's. Battletech though places little faith in the opinion of the majority.

Specifically, the Stackpole era and the Final trilogy describe a universe where the public at large is merely a collective pawn to be pushed and prodded, molded and told what to do. This uncritical nature of the masses, which is open to manipulation, is exploited to great effect by Katherine Steiner Davion.

Indeed much of the suffering of the Inner Sphere (aside from that wrought by the Clans) is due to how gullible the faceless masses are depicted in Battletech. This gullibility in turn is set upon by a superior force, the greed for power of an individual, which propels Katherine to power.

A flourishing of what an individual can accomplish, alongside the rejection of democracy, is found outside the Inner Sphere as well in the form of the Clans. In the Clans, individual prowess is exalted above all and succeeds above all. There are occasional instances where a vote is required, such as in the election of an ilKhan or in the decisions of the various Houses or Clan councils. Yet ultimately these votes, the fruits of democracy, may be nullified through the martial prowess of the warrior who contests them.

Vlad Ward in the Stackpole Era is indicative of what a truly motivated individual can accomplish without being restrained by the equalizing forces of democracy. His Wolf clan is beaten and absorbed, its best warriors having chosen to not participate in the battle. Yet in the span of one novel, Malicious Intent, Vlad is able to create a new clan and then resurrect his old one; all through his skill as a warrior. His rise to Khan is achieved not through the democratic courting of votes but through the agency of annihilating all his enemies until only he is left. In Vlad, Battletech examines how far an individual's actions can shape his fate and tow those around him to follow his lead.

Battletech is a series which emphasizes the possibilities of individual agency to shape the world. I'd also like to suggest that the main story arc calls into question the limits of war and whether any conflict can be truly justified.

The basic justification for the constant strife in Battletech is that each aggressor is trying to rebuild something that was broken. Each of the Successor States claims they are the trying to reunite the Inner Sphere under a new Star League. Thus, paradoxically they attempt to gain in war what was achieved in peace. Violence then is justified as an ugly means to a beautiful end, ie. political unity and peace.

Liberty is also bandied about as a beautiful end to the ugly means of war. Victor Davion, in the Stackpole Era, was quick to point out that Hanse Davion genuinely believed his Fourth Succession War was for the good of the citizens of the planets conquered. Never mind that millions of people were reported to have died during the Fourth Succession War.

The beautiful end via ugly means is a common refrain of colonizers and conquerors and holds very little water as an argument for war. The end often results in a mess even uglier than the means.

Aggressive war merits very little accolades in Battletech. Yes, the proponents of such wars are generally feted well. Hanse Davion, the Fox, was universally feared and respected. Yet the states ruled by such leaders rarely benefit from such conflicts (case in point, the Federated Commonwealth, even before it was dissolved, lost many of the important worlds it gained in the Fourth Succession War). Battletech then sees aggressive war as hardly justified by the benefits it purports to bring.

A defensive war is seen by philosophers as justifiable. Battletech too sees defense as a legitimate area for martial involvement. Indeed, the basic thrust of the storyline is vaguely reminiscent of World War II.

The aggressor styles himself as a superior form of man who looks down on the conquered as inferior and barbarians. The motley defenders at first fall quickly to the advancing juggernaut. In time the defenders band together in an unprecedented alliance and beat back the invaders. This paragraph describes the Axis-Allied conflict but just as easily describes the Clan invasion of the Inner Sphere and the subsequent war against the Clans.

Yet in World War II, which appears as a cut and dry justified war, all out warfare was authorized and encouraged. Yes, there were brutal atrocities by the Axis forces. However there were also horrendous acts of warfare committed by the Allies. Carpet bombing in Europe may have dealt more death to civilians than it did damage to the Axis industrial base. Similarly, the incendiary bombing raid against Tokyo in WWII, killed scores of Japanese civilians; mainly due to the fact that their homes were easily flammable. Manila (the second most damaged Allied city after Warsaw) had to be practically rebuilt as the Americans destroyed it while liberating it.

We need only look to Hiroshima and Nagsaka to affirm that unrestricted warfare was employed during WWII.

Yet ironically, in a series which is based on weapons which could render entire cities desolate within minutes, Battletech does not endorse all out warfare. In fact the principal characters take pains to avoid collateral damage to civilians whenever possible. Tukkayid, the most famous of Inner Sphere planets, was chosen for battle in part because its civilian populace could be easily relocated.

Task Force Serpent, while charged with the destruction of a Clan, ensures that this destruction is not equated with genocide. Factories are destroyed, monuments are effaced, but the tech of Battletech is used surgically, not wholesale. Particularly in the conquest of Huntress, in the Reborn Star League Era, the leaders of the task force make a conscious effort to impact civilian lives as little as possible.

This ethos of the restrained warrior is articulated by Victor Davion (going through his Bushido phase) in Grave Covenant and Prince of Havoc. Ultimately while a warrior draws his sword in response to anger, he does not use it in anger. This need for restraint in warfare is a constant refrain in Battletech, a refrain which is only paid lip service to in the real world.

Even in a fight for survival, Battletech does not see unlimited or unrestrained warfare as justified.

Review:

I'll admit my bias up front - growing up I loved Btech. In grade school I had a good friend who had been to a Virtual Worlds Center in Chicago and he told me all about it when he got home. Despite many years of growing up and travelling I have yet to make it to a Virtual World Center and the little kid/dork that makes up a good part of my personality still yearns to visit one. As I was, and still am, effectively dispossessed, I let my imagination play instead in reading Btech novels, playing Btech computer games, the CCG and occasionally the board game.

Before we get to the novels, I'd just like to say a favorable word (or two) about the Mechwarrior PC games. In particular, Mechwarrior 2 was a revelation. From it's opening cinematic (Alpha Assualt, this is HQ. What is your situation?) to the complexity of piloting and firing a mech in combat, Mechwarrior 2 was a classic simulation game. Further iterations of the series added bells and whistles (the ability to disable legs, more lance/star-mates) but the fusion engine which runs through any mech simulation game was built in Mechwarrior 2. Also a standout was the Mercenaries series (in Mechwarrior 2 and 4) which combined strategic variables of cost of the outfit versus the tactical demands of choosing which missions to accept. Great, great games.

No matter how great the games though, none compare to how spry and innovative mech combat can be, as depicted in the novels. At first this was probably a technology issue, it would have been difficult to render an arm being blown off or smoke billowing from a ruptured heat sink. However with present day systems IMHO it would now be more of a control and play balancing issue. For instance, it would be difficult to come up with an adeuqate control system for mechs to post-up against other objets, which they do quite often in the novels. Moreover, while blasting a leg off a charging Ryuken would bring it down in a novel; in a computer game it would probably be frustrating to lose a leg and have to start a mission from scratch.

And of course the computer games (except for the Mercenaries series) fail to capture the political intrigue which lie at the heart of the Battletech series. No one does this intrigue and suspense better than Michael Stackpole. Attention to detail is what allows Stackpole to paint a vivid picture of this constantly paranoid and violent universe. From discussing how clandestine messages are encrypted to the intricacies of assassinating Melissa Steiner Davion, Stackpole is able to present plausible scenarios to the reader. It is through this plausibility that the characters in turn begin to inhabit the Battletech universe.

The Stackpole Era of novels are great introductions to the Battletech universe and are fun reads. They are compelling not just for a dorky pre-adolescent but for a dorky late-twenties guy as well (I recently reread the entire Battletech Core Storyline for this reaction). The plots are engaging and the mech combat creative, both on the tactical level (small scale actions such as lance to lance or mech to mech) as well as on the strategic plane (regiments versus galaxies).

For combat, Stackpole excels at mixing things up, whether it be Phelan Kell's surprising defeat of an elemental in one of his bloodname battles or Kai Allard Liao's desperate maneuver on Twycross. Stackpole is especially good at coming up with imaginative set piece battles where the grossly outmatched Inner Sphere forces must use terrain, decoys, artillery and luck, creatively in order to survive.

Sadly, the realistic use of terrain for battles is lost during the novels in the Reborn Star League Era where much of the combat seems to be just a mere head-on rush between two opposing forces without any tactical finesse. As such it is curious how Task Force Serpent was able to win on Huntress as General Winston's strategy seemed to boil down to pointing her troops in the direction of the enemy and letting them have at it. (That never would have been the case if Morgan Hasek Davion had been in command.)

There's a lot of talk in the novels of the Reborn Star League Era of mechs forming lines as if they were civil war infantry. Units in rigid formations such as set lines get decimated rapidly, given the superior weapons and piloting skills of clan warriors. Thus, the battle plan of drawing up lines, used extensively in the Reborn Star League Era runs counter to many of the lessons learned in anti-clan warfare in the Stackpole Era. I would go so far as to say that General Winston used the same disastrous tactics that the disgraced generals of the Draconis Combine used on Teniente. Again, it is a wonder that the Task Force Serpent managed to win the day on Huntress.

The Final Trilogy also had the tendency to think of mech battles as units in lines but this is forgivable given that both sides of the civil war were armed similarly. Davion vs Steiner, Suns vs Commonwealth, each side had weapons with could hit at roughly the same range; making combat lines feasible. Yet against the clans, forming up in rows would be close to suicidal.

My main criticism of the Final Trilogy is how badly it serves to conclude the Core Storyline. There is literally no conclusion for many, if not all, of the main characters. This probably isn't Loren Coleman's fault, FASA or WizKids or whoever was in charge probably wanted an open ended conclusion which still left the door open for many more stories about the various characters.

That's fine, I can appreciate the desire to further mine a rich universe. But there should have been some kind of an emotional conclusion (not a narrative conclusion) to these characters who have spent the past 18 years being thrown from one conspiracy and battle to the next.

In short, I wanted a happy ending for the characters - a space wherein they could be at peace for even a brief respite. Such an emotional conclusion need not have been cheesy or tawdry. Moreover, it would have been fitting as catharsis for the reader who has also been embroiled in the upheavals of the Inner Sphere.

Simply put, the characters deserved to know they made a positive difference in the world. It need not have been a conclusion but merely an acknowledgment that their pains for the past 18 years were justified, that their sacrifices had born some good fruit. Instead, Omi Kurita was asassinated (I disagree 100% with this plot development, in large part because I've always had a crush on Omi.), Comstar losses Terra, the Federated Commonwealth splits up and Vlad gets to sleep with Katherine (don't look at me like that, I know you were all thinking about it).

Despite everything the characters have done, the Inner Sphere has hardly changed for the better. In fact, it gets a lot worse thanks in large part to the Word of Blake. This is another plot twist which occurs after the main Battletech storyline that is unbelievable for me. How could a break away sect populated by quasi-religious dolts, only feeding off the scraps of the Free Worlds League, manage to pull off the destruction attributed to the Word of Blake? I mean the Blakists are supposed to have decimated Wolf's Dragoons! Really? Blakists?

It just seems that after everything that everyone's been through, it would have been fitting if they had received some reward for their pains.

Having begun with stating how enamored I am by this series, I'd like to end with some short notes, as a fan:

Exodus Road: I don't buy Trent's motivation for becoming a turncoat. If you're a disgruntled clanner then centuries of culture will dictate that your failure was due to your own fault. No excuses, your failure to rise in the clan was due to your failure as a warrior. The romance between him and Judith in the end seemed horribly forced. Yes, they were in a high stress situation together for many years and a romance was a possibility. Yet, there's absolutely no grounding in the novel for such a romance. Lastly I think Trent as a character was unfairly treated, basically cast aside, in Prince of Havoc.

Task Force Serpent: The attack on Huntress is mostly chronicled by Thomas Gressman. I've already discussed above my difficulties in the way he chose to present mech combat. I do give him props though for making Warship/Dropship combat interesting. Gressman's novels present the first serious naval warfare in the Battletech series and he handles such combat with a steady hand which keeps the reader engaged. The Voice of Kerensky was a nice touch too.

Horse/Joanna/Diana: I appreciate that Twilight of the Clans tries to get all the fan favorites involved. That being said I think Freebirth seemed particularly forced. Galaxy Commander Howell is clearly nuts which doesn't give the novel much room to grow. Yes, he's crazy, where do we go from there, LAMs? Crazy. Falcon Rising was much more interesting for me. Crazy old ladies in mechs (the Black Widow and Joanna), as opposed to crazy old men in mechs, kick ass.

Clan Ghost Bear: In the Stackpole Era they are consistently described as being Warden. Yet in the Reborn Star League Era everyone is surprised when the Ghost Bear Khan gives a big speech announcing the Clan's decision to adopt the Warden philosophy. What gives?

The Final Trilogy: Loren Coleman takes over from Mike Stackpole. I still prefer the latter's books but to be fair Coleman does a good job with the plot of these last three novels. Minor irritations are that the dialogue of the characters' sounds interchangeable at times. Particularly in Patriots and Tyrants they say things which don't sound like themselves, especially Precentor Martial Focht who sounds like a child at times. Aside from that, these last three novels both seem too long and too short. Too long in that essentially nothing happens except that Victor finally liberates New Avalon. Too short in that the reader does not get a full sense of the destruction caused by the civil war. We only hear about the rest of the war in the abstract, reports from various planets, many references to colors on star charts. I understand that such a common man's view would have been difficult to work into a narrative which was mainly focused on the crusade of Victor Davion. Still, I would have appreciated the attempt.

Sun Tzu Liao: It was a mistake to have settled for him as First Lord and while he is a peripheral villain most of his actions enable the machinations of Katrina. Victor should have never let him remain in power. It's curious that even in the Final Trilogy, where the FedCom is severely weakened, the novels still point out that the state still has sufficient military might to conquer the Capellan Confederation. They've been saying that since before the clans invaded. Many of the woes of the Inner Sphere would have been avoided if Kai, not Sun Tzu, were Chancellor.

A lot of the really cool Btech fan sites from the late 90s are, sadly, no longer around. Sarna though still lives and has morphed into the Battletech wiki. You can find more Btech information there than in a Castle Brian or Comstar HPG station.

Main/Core/Canon Battletech Storyline (3049-3062)

Stackpole Era
Lethal Heritage
Blood Legacy
Lost Destiny
Natural Selection
Assumption of Risk
Bred for War
Malicious Intent

Reborn Star League Era (officially known as the Twilight of the Clans)
Exodus Road
Grave Covenant
The Hunters
Freebirth
Sword and Fire
Shadows of War
Falcon Rising
Prince of Havoc

Final Trilogy
Patriots and Tyrants
Storms of Fate
Endgame
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