Battletech: In Space No One Can Hear The Kali Yuga

”We’re still alive and we still have friends, and somewhere to stay, and its a beautiful evening and the dunes of Neume are singing to us. Those dunes aren’t just any old dunes, you know. They’re the shattered remains of provider-era megastructures, after their culture fell out of the sky. We’re being serenaded by the twinkling remains of a dead supercivilization, the relics of people who thought themselves gods, if only for a few instants of galactic time. Now-how does that make you feel?”

”Like I am living too late,’ I said.’

~Alastair Reynolds, ‘House of Suns.’

When do you realize you are living in a dark age? Contrary to a lot of recent discourse, its not something most people tend to notice until far too late. In our current era of flat-eartherism, anti-vaxxer and anti-mask activism, and postmodern-infused reality denialism, many people seem to have missed the signs of long-running rot for a sudden all too late realization. This has happened in many culture’s zeitgeist many times before. Americans finally realizing their society is in fundamental and probably terminal relative decline to its past strikes me as amusing since I have distinct memories of realizing we had crossed a point of no return back when I was a college student in 2005. That was the year the Iraq War really went south, the government response to Hurricane Katrina was laughable and led to no major structural reforms or climate change action, and the evangelical movement was attempting to teach young earth creationism in the science classroom. All of these problems could have been overcome with rigorous political action, but they were not. They were treated as aberrations and nothing was done to structurally adjust for the problems they exposed moving forward. That is when I knew I had already seen the peak of my birth nation’s civilization.

How is this gradual entropy of states and civilization portrayed in fictional stories taking place in high space? There is a different dynamic if we managed to get sustainably off planet. Though decline and fall is common to the genre it is almost always portrayed as rapid and incredibly dramatic, with star empires collapsing in a single lifetime. High space settings are by necessity somewhat positive about human chances in the future for the mere fact that for the genre to exist humanity must create sustainable settlements outside of Earth, something that requires major periods of advancement in our own future. However, many of these seemingly positive outcomes of no longer being confined to our fate on a single planet on one world are still full of cosmic horror, devastating conflicts, or any number of potential dramatic outcomes. Even Star Trek, a vision of a human positive future in space at the highest end of fictional idealism, works with a timeline where things had to get much worse on Earth before they could get better. Some visions, such as the above quoted novel House of Suns (one of my personal favorite high concept science fiction books) present an extremely impressive future that, nevertheless, still reaches a point where it tops out and stagnates. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series explored what living through the fall of the first galactic golden age was like, but from the perspective of detached outsiders trying to mitigate its effects. Other quite popular settings simply use space to revel in edginess. Some few go for a smaller scale perspective on a distant world set apart from the main drama of humanity.

Politically and philosophically I believe that the most realistic and interesting take on the darker side of humanity’s spacefaring future is that found in Battletech. A gaming series originally designed for tabletop tactical gaming which reached the peak of its fame with the rise of the Mechwarrior PC gaming series shortly after its birth, it is, at its core, a giant bipedal robot vehicle combat simulator. Most people who play it, including myself in childhood, do so because its cool. Giant stompy robot vehicles with a ton of visual variety, combat roles, and customization. This is the core of the series and why it exists. Its lore and stories, including a long running novel series of incredibly varying quality, is supplemental to the main point of driving and commanding mechs to take into battle in the 31rst Century. And yet it is this lore that ended up, possibly by accident at first, becoming one of the most interesting elements of the franchise. After all, who would think that giant tall bipedal vehicles, surely a detrimental platform and walking target in any firepower dominated battlefield, would end up giving rise to a realistic depiction of what power politics would look like in a closed system during an era of decline.

Too put it incredibly simply, humanity a century or so from now invents faster than light drive and spends hundreds of years expanding into an area all around Earth. Outside of Earth’s influence, great conglomerates eventually begin to pull influence over distinct territorial patches out in space, eventually consolidating in multiple nations often led by hereditary royal families. War is rampant between these states over contested territory. Already, human expansion has simply led to a greater scope for conflict. Unused to campaigns taking up light years of range and battles being for entire planets, many human actors resort to nuclear warfare to expedite the process. We have the inverse of Star Trek in a way, the near future is good, but the long term trend is bad.

Eventually, humanity does get a golden age of sorts. For an all too brief period a resurgent Earth under an ambitious royal family of its own uses politics, diplomacy, and war to unite The Inner Sphere (the major empires closest to the core worlds) and expand territory by taking over the far flung and more renegade factions of the periphery, on the edges of human settled space. For the first time since initial colonization, technology begins to advance again. The battlemech, star of the series, is popularized and expanded in numbers and a new elite class of warrior takes the place of mass warfare, the mechwarrior. But this is still the prequel to the setting. After an all too brief period of success (which came at great cost to the periphery who were exploited to fuel it), the Star League is brought down from internal intrigue, usurpation, and civil war. The major houses divide once again, and begin a series of debilitating wars against each other to divide the spoils of the old empire between them. The old Star League loyalists either retire to Earth to run the FTL-network company Comstar as a ‘neutral’ for profit corporation, or fly out into deep space to go into self-imposed exile, founding a new civilization out beyond settled space. Meanwhile, the great houses in their combat gradually begin to lose technology. Warships become rare and then almost nonexistent, being replaced by drop pods who can only defend themselves and disgorge land forces. The over-use of nukes makes many planets worthless, and so a switch to mech (and other vehicle) based combat around specific objectives returns space warfare to the ground. Computer technology backslides and far flung regions are not even networked and rely on a literal physical postal service connected to the nearest place where FTL drive ships can disgorge information. All of this happens over the course of generations, gradually, and no one really notices it except to feel nostalgia for the Star League days, now passed into legend and heavily mythologized. The introduction to the 2018 squad based tactical Battletech game, summarizes the tragedy of humanity’s brief expansion and long drawn out decline incredibly well with only visuals and music.

That game in particular really captures the ramifications of this setting better than any other. Mercenaries, the only people free of clan or royal house fealty, live in precarious existence through salvage. Repair and upgrading of mechs is most effective through scavenging battlefields. Industries can no longer keep up with demand, especially outside of core established military channels. Some of the same companies around today (GM, Chrysler) are still in existence as defense contractors, but their output isn’t what it was. Older mechs tend to be better, the technology to make them as well as they once where is now lost or prohibitively expensive in this new dark age.

One of the funnier (and almost certainly unintentional) signs of this process of humanity just repeating its past on grander and grander scales can be found in the art of the earlier books. The ‘Tex Talks Battletech’ series on the BlackPantsLegion youtube channel does a phenomenally funny job going through the 80s era original art of the game books and postulating on how many of the people were clearly copied out of then-contemporary fashion magazines and photography. This is utterly hilarious commentary on dudes with handlebar moustaches and mullets drinking in 80s style bars in the 31rst Century…but think about it for a moment. In this setting of perpetual decline what makes more sense than every fashion aesthetic that has ever existed coming back again and again over the next thousand plus years? In this way, personal aesthetics mirror the politics of Battletech, where the successor states of the Star League all constantly jockey for position over the same territory over and over again, their alliances shifting, but their overall stability and living standards barely moving if not outright declining.

When innovation does come back into the setting, its not for fun reasons. Those Star League exiles I mentioned before? They spent centuries going insane out in deep space and developing unhinged caste-based societies obsessed with war. Ironically, these neo-Spartas called The Clans were consumed with highly ritualized combat and were proportionally quite peaceful when it came to the scale of internal conflicts, enabling them to actually expand upon Star League tech and grow human material capabilities for the first time in centuries. But then they proceeded to squander much of this in an ill-advised invasion of the Inner Sphere. The Clan Invasion would jump start a complacent Battletech setting with new technology and tactics, but also wreak immense destruction over certain regions of the Inner Sphere. The Clans were often fanatical and bizarre, and they could only offer perpetual serfdom to those they conquered. Their initial victories were impressive and against the odds, but they didn’t have the numbers, the logistics, or, most ironically, the experience in mass conventional warfare to win in the end. To quote Tex’s video on the clan invasions, ‘The Clans had spent centuries playing at war, the Inner Sphere had practiced it.’ And within a short amount of time, many clan technologies and mech designs had been integrated into Inner Sphere militaries. Not just that, but for a brief period the clan goal of recreating the Star League did in fact occur-but not under Clan leadership as they intended but rather in a brief military unity of the feuding houses *against* the clans. Much territory was recaptured from the clans, and an entire clan, Smoke Jaguar, was successfully obliterated by the alliance before, like all things in this setting, this new coalition too would fall apart. Meanwhile, back in the sticks, the clanners faced massive unrest and rebellion as a result of their failed re-engagement with the rest of settled space. And the unity of the clans against other powers disappeared as they turned blame on each other.

Now, the clans are part of the balance of power much like the Inner Sphere and periphery nations are. Tech got a bit of a boost, but the dark age did not end. Humanity’s future of a space fairing Kali Yuga continues. Arguably, with events stemming from the rise of the Word of Blake techno-fundamentalist movement in the core worlds and the incredibly costly methods it took to defeat them, it might even be accelerating.

There is something melancholy about this universe built to have fun with stompy combat robot vehicles. But its not aggressively in your face. The processes that have unfolded in this setting have taken centuries. Many people accept them as reality. They may not even know they live in a dark age. Historians and scientists might be the only professions where everyone is fully aware what is happening, but being beholden to the interests of powerful nobles and militarists means their capacity to construct an independent voice is limited.

Where could a new black swan event lie, and thus contain the kernel of potential upending of this order? Such things may not exist in this setting. But if they do I am going to pick the region that holds my personal loyalty: the periphery. It figures that the only people who do not idolize the Star League and wallow in its nostalgia are the societies one who value some independence would most want to live in. Their living standards are lower on average then the Inner Sphere (mid 20th Century at best) but they lack the social rigidity of the those nations while also lacking the militarized edginess of the clans. I suspect that were it not for their small populations and economies that they would be outsized players in affairs. All they need is some nearby great houses to collapse in order to rush into the vacuum left behind…something that remains a very real possibility. The ruthless yet affluent and educated Taurian Concordat is probably the top contender for a future new dynamic great power, needing only for those pesky Federated Suns to take a major hit to get get going. But as in the Inner Sphere, their ambitions will go only so far before the periphery gets locked in and counter-balancing coalitions clip its wings before it gets too big. Still, in my personal opinion, a refocusing on the periphery for future events would be a great new territory for the franchise.

No matter what happens though, there could well come a time when galaxy has a new golden age (albeit unlikely to be a unified one like the last time), but certain structural cores of the setting would have to be upended. Decline can lead to revival, but in this setting it is hard to see how that is coming anytime soon. So we are left with a space fairing humanity. It hasn’t yet met any sentient aliens. It topped out its tech 500 years of so before the core of the setting today, and the thousands of inhabited and terraformed worlds only seem to have accelerated preexisting trends in human history. It is not an ideal future, but it sure as hell is a possible one for us. One we should consider being sympathetic too as a concept as so far our experience with the 21rst Century has itself been one of decline, decay, and stagnation despite (and perhaps indirectly because of) the greater expansion of the electronic era and globalization. And much like today, Battletech is a livable universe. Most places are not warzones, the average standard of living is similar to what we have. Its just…not going anywhere and has no constructive vision of alternatives which it could presently pivot towards. That could change for us, of course, but we have to make the space for new ideas and new elites to even fathom that first. One imagines many in the Inner Sphere think the same when they have the ability to reflect beyond their immediate circumstances.

Anyway, be sure to check out the excellent remixes of old Mechwarrior music on Timothy Seal’s channel while you ponder how to get by while driving your giant combat machine through the battlefield in a galaxy where the best you can do is survive this battle, this war, and the next societal breakdown long enough to build a retirement fund and cash out.

Grendel: The World’s Best Comic Series on Memes and Media

grendel hunter rose

The title of this post is deceptive and overly specific for this really is the  world’s best comic series of all time, no matter what theme you want to go with. Yup, I will die on that hill. There is no fictional property that has influenced my creative conception so much and for so long. From my discovery of the series through the first Batman vs Grendel crossover when I was around ten years old through to today’s currently published Devil’s Odyssey series, I don’t think any other single fictional tale(s) has exerted such influence in my fictional writing, drawing, and everything else. This influence is not direct but it is in the background, always.  However, I could be here all day gushing about it if I do not limit my topic so let us focus on two things the Grendel series does particularly well: Memes and Media.

Truncated summary: A guy named Matt Wagner decided to invent an protagonist villain in the 1980s who was very much supposed to be a dapper inverted reflection of many of the popular comic hero characters of the time. This was the first Grendel, Hunter Rose. A dissafected ex child prodigy who moved to New York City to kill his way to the top of assassins and the top of the best sellers list to boot. Yes, Hunter Rose was a famous author. But he was also a brutal anonymous mob hitman hidden behind a mask known as Grendel.  There was a monstrous wolf who was the antagonist hero and the story ends up with Grendel cutting a bloody swathe through the underworld and law enforcement until he is effectively the mafia lord of the east coast. Then, he is brought down at the peak of his power due to hubris and his underestimation of others.

You might think that for a niche independent series, this might be the end. But Wagner kept going. Soon we had stories in the near future as Grendel’s step-grandaughter and biographer picked up the mask for vengeance, followed by her alienated lover. So far, this was a series about what in Wagner’s own words was ‘a spirit of aggression.’ It was already a great comic book, but to become the greatest it needed more than lone alienated individuals fighting the world until their last dying gasps. This was when Wagner made Grendel a meme. Not to sell comics in our world, but a meme in his own fictional one. As the future moved ever further from these original stylistic criminal figures, Grendel became a media figure and underground cult icon. He was now the star of trashy slashers and lurid soap operas. The detective Wiggins, who investigated two of the three Grendels (killing one of them himself) decided to write stories about the first, the one he never met. His novels became a big hit winning him fame and fortune. Grendel would enter the collective future consciousness as a pop figure and even as the name of a deadly and highly addictive intravenous drug. The notoriety would only increase when Wiggins became a deranged murderer after his success. His cybernetic eye, he claimed, possessed by Grendel.

Humanity eventually stumbled (or perhaps was pushed) into a nuclear third world war. Out of the ashes came only a few surviving powerful nations-with the ones in the Americas and Europe meeting current tradcath resurgence trends by being effectively ruled by a Catholic Church more powerful and monstrous than ever before. The church used media saturation techniques not dissimilar to present day cable news to solidify its control-along with torture and the inquisition. It also had a new word for the devil and all things satanic: Grendel.

grendel eppy thatcher

But in a world so dominated by Christian tyranny, is it not inevitable that the devil goes from The Adversary to The Liberator? Indeed, when God and the Devil, my personal favorite arc of the Grendel Saga, gets going…we get exactly that. One mad prodigy takes up the mask of Grendel once again as he humiliates and sabotages the church and the unveiling of their new tower. Meanwhile, a reforming politician and oligarch, Orion Assante, fights the legal battle against the tyrannical Pope using his family’s massive media empire for subversion and the leaking of secrets the Church doesn’t want found. By the end of this truly masterful and complex arc, the best (I would say) in comics history so far, not only is there one antihero with the mask of Grendel, but Orion and his immediate circle have adopted the attitudes and iconography of Grendel as well. The cat is out of the bag and now the return of lone weirdos is replaced by a movement.

Following the destruction of the church and the humiliation of international Christianity, Orion Assante comes to take over vast swathes of the world with this now ascending ideology-that of Grendel. Adapted and repackaged for the masses, Grendel justifies war and profits off of legalized drug consumption in exchange for protection from the postwar worlds mutants and monsters as well as powers hostile to the Grendel movement. Some of Assante’s conquests have little to no military force, however, and often rely on psychically imprinted subliminal messages in the mass media he puts out. Eventually, after a series of struggles and conflicts, Orion Assante has the entire world in his hand. He is the first Grendel Khan, and this world that has been shattered for centuries is finally unified into peace and some form of prosperity. Grendel is still a force of aggression and elitism, but now it is more than that. It is a force of power and protection as well. Elite warriors sworn to uphold civil codes are now Grendels. This is still a dystopian horror show of a world, but it is a much better one than it was right after the bombs fell.

Like all things, this doesn’t last forever. There are some codas, the action packed War Child showing a succession dispute/civil war that breaks out a decade after Orion’s death and the role the cyborg Grendel Prime played in restoring the correct heir to the throne. Other series since have explored the gradual decline and fall of the Grendel world-empire. The newest current series seems to imply that the some rump element of the state survived on even further only to fall in the first issue of Odyssey. Grendel Prime himself becomes a sort of symbol of this entropy. His constantly upgrading and tinkering cyborg nature prolonging his life but alienating him further and further from humanity. He shows the Grendel-future. Having reached the apogee from villain to hero, Grendel is now degenerating back to villain. Then again, the currently running series might just be moving to a redemption arc of a sorts-but its too early to call that yet.

When the series (for the most part) came to an end Wagner stuck true to this media and meme theme and left his ambiguous Grendel-dominated future in the hands of other writers. Hence forth came the ‘Grendel Tales’, all of which were great. But I have to give special credit to ‘Devils and Deaths’ which was written in real time by a Croatian living in a then disintegrating Yugoslavia entering its full breakup bloodbath. Many of these themes can be seen directly in his far future story of what was going on in the Balkans during the succession dispute crisis of War Child.

While it never quite predicted the force the internet would become, Grendel’s 1982-1996 main run was remarkably prophetic when it came to the role memes and media would play in the future. Specifically in how media would determine the consensus of the masses while memes-as symbolism or in their general image macro form-would become a counter-culture of sorts used as a medium of communication outside of the mainstream media itself. And its hardly like the comic’s conception of future technology is really odd or quaint considering that most of the future it depicts is post-apocalyptic. Some things are more advanced, others less so, and some things are about the same. The comic also showed, despite the Nietzchian superman trappings of its first main character, that all of its successful villain-antagonists (or later antihero protagonists) did not get to their heights alone. All have a remarkable eye for talent and hiring subordinates. The ones that don’t are the ones who amount to far less in their stories. So in a sense, Grendel is also about networking and organization. The more organized the vessel for a Grendel becomes, the more the aesthetic and ideology of Grendel marches across the world. It shows how the esoteric mutants into the mass movement as historical trends call for a constant replacement of old establishments.

grendel orion assante

While Grendel is remarkably pessimistic by comic book standards, it also gradually becomes more balanced as it shows the often disturbing main characters in complex and even heroic lights as the greater meme-concept matures. We end up with a kind of Ibn Khaldunian cyclic rise and fall of a ruling elite. Jilted outsider becomes a society of outsiders which then replaces the establishment and becomes the new order…only for its gradual decay to once undermine what made it successful and open up space for others to do the same. The difference from our past and present I imagine, is that the Grendels of the future would be honest about this being an acceptable way to winnow the right to rule.

Even with the current series seeming like a true ending to the saga (but I certainly don’t know if that is the case myself) I always felt like the truly final Grendel Arc would fit this cyclic view of history. I saw in my own mind’s eye a new anti-Grendel movement rising to challenge the various Grendel-warlords with new iconography and stated appeal. Perhaps it would have the symbols of the wolf Argent, a call back to Grendel’s first and most effective foe. This too would rise and topple the complacent Grendel establishment and its leader would promise a new and different future…But there would be a final scene, a private one where this leader turns to the reader and reveals in some subtle way that they themselves are the new incarnation of Grendel, perhaps closing with the refrain seen through every arc of the saga: ‘I am patient. I am directed. I am Grendel.’

Feel free to disregard my own personal fanfiction take there, but I have seen that ending in my mind for at least a decade now.

If you want to know more about the series you can check out this guys video series on it, Part 1 focuses on Hunter Rose and Part 2 the rest. I don’t endorse everything he says and have some disagreements with him (the sun gun was meant to change Earth’s atmosphere to block out sunlight not to ‘destroy the sun’ per se, he also disdains the excellent War Child arc) but this series is niche so its not like there is a plethora of fan content to choose from.  If you want to read the series which I of course strongly recommend, its best these days to do so through the omnibus Dark Horse reprints-though those might lack the issues released between the Brian Li Sun arc and God and the Devil as those are supposedly very difficult to find and replicate. I don’t know for sure as I’ve been a holder of the old issues for all the main cycles since I was collecting all this stuff as a kid in the 90s (sorry comics code Tipper Gore wannabes, those NOT FOR CHILDREN stickers on the cover made it all the more appealing and my dad was into the series too so you couldn’t stop me). Nevertheless, the omnibusses are the easiest way to get your hands on pretty much everything and the beginning of God and the Devil gives you a brief catch up at the start to bridge the gap from the near future to the far future stories.

So thanks for everything Matt-even if you don’t end up using my *brilliant* idea for a final ending. Twenty-five years after I discovered it, its still my favorite comic book series. And outside of its excellent world building, writing, and diverse but always fitting rotating artists, it is also a damn good take on media (powerful and outsider alike) and the evolution of memetic culture.