Mechanical Design – The Overlooked Key to Science Fiction (Part Ia – Mecha Part I, or Why Roland Barthes Would Probably Like the GM)

Part of the joy of science fiction in visual media is the technology. The spaceships, futuristic weapons, and the general look of the future. While I’ve, in my Travels in Genre Fiction series, talked about how exposition, “front-loading” a SF setting with flashy technology and gimmickry and so on can often be detrimental to its success when writing a novel, I think it’s time to redress the balance by talking about how to do it well. Film, animation and computer games are very different media to books; they are, for one, visual. You do not need to break the flow of the narrative to depict something; it arrives, and the viewer can immediately see it. Some argue this is a weakness of visual media over written, that the act of seeing one fixed vision of something is less rewarding than that of imagining how something looks as you read about it, but I disagree.

The visual is a very effective shorthand; it is not for no reason that a picture is worth a thousand words has become so well known. To give a science fiction example, a description of a spacecraft in a novel may need to get across the shape and size of the thing, how it moves, what it is armed with, and so on. A visual depiction of the same thing can convey much of this information immediately; it is why even in SF, guns look like guns, and spaceships tend to be ship-shaped. Take the now-iconic Star Destroyer from Star Wars. It is triangular in shape, giving it an obvious front and back, and there are engines at the back (because the viewer expects a spaceship to have engines at the back. It has turrets modelled on modern warship turrets, because a battleship’s gun is an instantly recognisable visual shorthand for weapon. Simply looking at a picture of one, even if you haven’t seen Star Wars and you don’t know what it is, is enough to give you the idea that it’s a warship.

This concept of visual shorthands carries on; to give an idea of how big something is, put it in a picture next to something that the viewer is familiar with; a person, usually. Or a planet. If something is significantly bigger than a person but significantly smaller than a planet, its size is defined without a single number being given.

Now I’ve introduced the idea of visual shorthands (to find out more about this, I recommend Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes, found in Image Music Text), onto my main point. What makes a sci-fi design effective? If it’s as simple as just hitting the visual cues that make us think “weapon,” “engine,” or “ship,” then surely there’s no scope to do anything interesting? Indeed, designs which deviate too far from what we expect can be less effective because we can’t immediately relate to them.

Let’s move away from spaceships to instead talk about mecha; SF weapons in the form of humanoid machines. The very idea of a truly humanoid machine is the purest kind of visual shorthand; the human form is instantly recognisable. In 1979, Mobile Suit Gundam aired, arguably the first series with “military” mecha to really become popular. This is the GM, a mass-produced military robot from late in the series. The picture here is a slightly cleaned-up CGI rendition of the original 1979 design, but it clearly shows all the things that make it iconic and effective.


Its proportions are obviously human-like, and immediately call to mind a space suit. An army of spacemen is instantly comprehendable as a SF element – you could show anyone a clip from Mobile Suit Gundam featuring the GM and people would have no trouble in understanding what is going on. Much like the Star Destroyer calls on the instantly recognisable elements of naval architecture, the GM is how you would expect a spaceman with a gun to look. Its weapons are clearly recognisable; two swords, a pistol, and a shield. Everything about the GM is intended to instantly get across three things: first, that it fights and acts like a human, second, that it is armed with a gun and a shield, and thirdly that it is a footsoldier as part of a larger army rather than a single hero. The third part is the least immediately obvious from a contextless picture, but it is still evident.

Looking at the details of the GM’s design, its rank-and-file status becomes more obvious. Firstly the head, with a single large visor. A visor of this type is impersonal and inexpressive; something intended to be a way of visually recognising the protagonist in a battle scene would have a more clearly-defined face or some form of ornamentation. It is harder to form an attachment to something with no face or “eyes” as such, from which one can reasonably expect that it is something that will be one of many. Secondly, its armament, a single small gun and a shield, with swords on its back. Again, this is too unremarkable to be something elite; it is purely functional. The more innate association of functional design is mass production; so even without seeing anything of the series itself, it is very possible to get a good idea of what the GM can do and what role it fulfils in the narrative just from looking at it. Watching the series gives the rest of the picture (that the GM is quite large, and its gun fires lasers, and its sword is a lightsaber) but the design is sufficiently easily understood that it is an example of great SF mechanical design.

Next time in this series I’ll go on to explain how relying too heavily on shorthands can harm a design.

(source of image:


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