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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Battletech

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Battletech

(or “Subverting History”)

I’m not saying anything particularly new when I say that science fiction is rarely about the actual future. It’s really more about the present, translated into an allegorical form, and the venerable “Battletech” franchise is no exception. It doesn’t even really disguise it, with the various Great Houses of the Inner Sphere being clear analogies of various Earth nations–it doesn’t really make much sense when you sit down and analyze it that these lines of sheer demarcation between a Japanese monoculture, a Chinese monoculture, et cetera would actually translate across hundreds of light years and centuries into the future, but it makes emotional sense to us because it’s a recognizable allegory for our world. It feels right that in the fall of the Star League (Rome), the Inner Sphere (Europe) would splinter into bickering, warring nation-states constantly jockeying for political advantage, with ComStar (the Catholic Church) as the primary mediator of disputes. (You could probably write a paper on the symbolism of ComStar, guardians of faster-than-light communications, acting in the role of priests, but not today.)

But having built a universe that makes emotional sense to us, complete with a sympathetic British/American heroic House as the hero (the Federated Suns sort of blend that line as necessary, much like House Marik straddles a line between American and Prussian–again, you could probably do a paper on the way that two of the major strains of American ancestry are divided up in the Battletech universe)…having set up the universe to feel comfortable to us armchair historians, Battletech deliberately subverts the audience’s expectations of how this “future history” will flow. So we see the allegorical China joining with Japan and Germany to repel an invasion by Britain and Norway, then a shift as the alliance between the latter two falters and the Japanese analog winds up allied with the pseudo-Britain, while the futuristic church of ComStar splinters along ideological lines–OK, so that bit’s fairly historically accurate, but you get my point. Having established factions that we recognize, the Battletech writers then have them behave in ways that are very different from their historical analogs, which serves to heighten the sense of surprise at every plot twist.

The ultimate example of this is, of course, the Clans. The first era of Battletech books established the legend of “the Star League”, the united and glorious nation that splintered into the various Great Houses. It felt comfortable, understandable, the kind of legend that you see a lot in fantasy and science fiction. The Star League drew upon historical Rome (which wasn’t nearly as benevolent or enlightened as its legends would indicate, but that’s what happens when you write all the history books) to create a backstory that made emotional sense to the readers. Nobody saw it coming when the lost legions of the Star League came back as ticked-off, bloody-minded Spartan-style conquerors sweeping waves of devastation through the Inner Sphere and forcing them into a tenuous alliance, any more than you’d expect to hear about the Roman legions coming back in World War II armed with machine guns. It was a complete paradigm shift in the whole concept of the Battletech universe, and yet one that was foreshadowed expertly in hindsight.

Once the Clans opened up the second era of the Battletech universe, it was even easier to generate real suspense. If something so major could change so rapidly, then surely just about anything could happen? And in some ways, it did. Several major plot twists marked the later Battletech novels of this era, as the political maneuvering reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately, many of the storylines were left unfinished as the property changed hands and jumped ahead about sixty years (to the “Dark Ages” era.) Still, that decision is in some ways typical of the Battletech line. It remains strong and vital in some ways because of the writers’ willingness to take risks. There are no sacred cows in the Battletech universe, not even history itself.


“(You could probably write a paper on the symbolism of ComStar, guardians of faster-than-light communications, acting in the role of priests, but not today.)”

Get out of my head!!!

But seriously, thanks for this write-up. I haven’t read any BT novels in about a decade I suppose, but they were a big part of my high school experience.

However, I’m curious if the novels’ historical subversions match their contemporary political situations better than you’re suggesting. In the original novels (written in the early 80s?), we have our Anglo “good guys” in the Fed Suns fighting the Japanese “bad guys” in the Draconis Combine, just as anti-Japanese sentiments were prevalent in America due to the combination of increased business competition and leftover impressions from WWII that their traditions/rituals/attitudes are outdated and barbaric. As Japanese culture became more popular in America (especially with a large portion of BT’s fans), the Draconis Combine became more sympathetic (also notably more “progressive” by Western standards).

As of the last few novels that I read, Sun-Tzu, leader of the Chinese analog, was among the more ambitious and scheming characters (i.e. “villainous”), reflecting contemporary American anxieties about the rising power of China, the ideology of which it views as incompatible with its own.

Finally, wouldn’t Steiner be Germany (especially since its the Lyran Commonwealth… the collection of states a la pre-unification Germany)? I always took the FRR for the Scandinavian analog, though that does leave Marik as America, but that makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that it’s the only one without a monarch.

Steiner was German. Marik was a sort of pan-Slavic mix.

The ComStar high-tech as religion thing comes from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels.

I really like the BTech universe. Read pretty much every Michael Stackpole novel and a few of the others. They are quite good reads!

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Spoiler warnings, in case they’re needed.

I’d like to point out, the American/Canadian analogue was defined last year as the Terran Hegemony, which bore the brunt of the initial fall of the League (and who served as more-or-less “homeland” of the bureaucracy and military of the same). Widespread use of atomics by all parties during the initial fighting makes a convenient reason for writing them out of the setting, culturally speaking.

Building on the inital comment, the Combine was initially portrayed as protagonists (“Heir to the Dragon,” “Wolf Pack”) about as often as it was the antagonist (“Wolves on the Border,” large segments of the “Warrior Trilogy”). They became almost-exclusively protagonists (along with much of the Inner Sphere) during and after the Clan Invasion in the early 1990s. So far the only real “antagonist-only” factions have been the Capellan Confederation (Chinese/Russian analogue, who’ve recently taken a “sure they’re jerks, but they’re successful jerks” route after decades spent as laughingstocks among the Houses) and the ComStar-offshoot “Word of Blake” (who, along with the current Blakist Jihad storyline, were initially created in the early 1990s as a future followup to the story of the separation of the German and Franco-British halves of the Federated Commonwealth).

I like that analogy of the Clans as returning Legions, armed with machine guns while the knighthood of the middle ages has its hands full just trying to scrape together swords and horses for knights. What’s interesting is that other, relatively-ignored cultures are starting to make appearances in the fringes of the setting (Deep Periphery states, Sol-system backwaters, there’s even some actual full-on “togas and sandals” neo-Romans that have taken a central spot in some recent stories). It’ll be interesting to see how they’re integrated into the setting, I’m sure.

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