The ending of Atom: The Beginning is left so that further adaptation of its ongoing source material can be made; this is not the complete conclusion of the story, and knowing this context now rather sets my initial observations about the series in context (that it was taking a very laid-back and almost uninterested approach to its worldbuilding and the ethical questions raised). It is an adaptation of a small part of a longer, ongoing work. Of course it will not provide all the answers. Before moving into the meat of this consideration of the series, it is worth considering something else. I was initially perturbed, or at least surprised, to see that the series was raising and ignoring questions about machine sentience and robot ethics. It felt like a failure of science-fiction to studiously avoid taking a stand while raising allegorical and philosophical questions.
There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.
This army has been one of the most fun wargaming projects I have worked on; I have taken the time to personalise and create custom scenic bases for every miniature, bought third-party conversion parts to add to the kits to ensure none are completely stock constructions and come up with a backstory for every unit. I have tied the backstory into my other armies for the game where possible, thus the Three-Ones and the Salamandine Incident turn up…
It is also only eight models, a truly elite force!
Atom The Beginning is a curious series; unlike the precedent it would appear to follow of socially-conscious updates of traditionally simplistic hero series like Gatchaman Crowds (which like it or not explored the obsolescence of superheroes and indeed government in an internet of things-based society) or Yatterman Night (which was an able if occasionally awkward exploration of the nature of villainy in a simple black-and-white morality superhero narrative) it has yet to properly dig into any of the moral issues it would appear to focus on. The precedent is there for something rich. Astro Boy was a universe that within its child-friendly framework played on ideas of the morality of android technology and machine sentience. But Atom the Beginning is set in that era in a time before the events that led to the creation of, arguably, one of the first super robots.
Writing the background for this army took significantly longer than the more comparatively cursory unit descriptions my Northern forces received. I came into possession of the Duellist’s Handbook, Southern Republic Army List and Southern Field Guide before writing this and so decided, as is my way, that if I was going to do this it was going to be done properly.
The immediate problem came from the fact I had just bought two Fer de Lances, and the Southern Republic Army List claimed on page 146 that only “a few dozen” of these Gears were in service, and “it is a capital offence for it to be used by any other Republican unit”. Thus I had to make a few adjustments to the background and came up with the Fer de Lance Beta (which is probably not strictly fluff-accurate, but sidesteps more awkward questions).
The only other major background howler I can think of is the move away from strict 5-Gear Cadres (something that the newest edition of the game rules and my choice of unit loadouts does not make particularly easy to do thematically).
As I mentioned in my previous post, my current miniatures wargaming project is nearing completion but still has several models unfinished. As I finished a key part of the army, the Kodiak Gear pictured above, I decided it was good material for a little longer piece of backstory, detailing exactly how awkward a malfunctioning and uncalibrated mech could be for a unit…
While not all of this army is currently built, I have taken the opportunity of using a new lightbox to get some photographs of what is currently finished, and write a little background for it. As it is a significantly larger force than would ordinarily be fielded, I decided to group the models into sample units and come up with background for the pilots within to try and give a picture of how the army might function as a whole.
After playing a couple of demonstration games of the new edition of Heavy Gear Blitz, and having painted two full 150-point armies, I had a go at playing a full-sized game – a rematch between my North (played this time by my friend Phillip Preece) and my South army (played this time by me). In a previous solitaire game to learn the rules, the South heavy units had dealt horrible damage to a Northern patrol – in this larger game, the tables would be turned!
Objectives: North: Assassinate (Shou Kyao, Hooded King Cobra), South: Wipe Out (Fire Support Unit, Quincy Piloledge et al)
Prior to watching Rurouni Kenshin I was unaware that Ryosuke Takahashi, a producer of science-fiction anime I greatly respect, had worked on it. And yet, as I watch it, I can certainly see how his experience in working within a very different genre pays off and elevates Kenshin above what I initially expected. Kenshin is ultimately a fantastical period drama, set in an interesting and real period of history and adding supernatural elements to it. Yet on a fundamental level its setup is not significantly unlike Takahashi’s science-fiction works; it is a series, behind its visual comedy and comfortable, sometimes moralistic early episodes, about a confused post-war world and someone who is no less of a supersoldier and outsider than Eiji from Layzner or Chirico from VOTOMS.
Sketch of a Gear pilot, drawn by request and reproduced with permission from ilisvela.tumblr.com
In writing this half of the story I found myself looking somewhat more closely than I ordinarily would at the mechanics of mech combat – how smaller, “real robot” type mechs like those of Heavy Gear would lead to brutal, uncomfortable battles – the pilot close to the action rather than in a small part of a much larger machine, heavy weapons deployed against what is ultimately personal armour rather than a whole fighting vehicle, and an immediacy and physicality that makes the breeziness of rolling dice on a wargaming table a little more interesting from a narrative perspective.
It is easy to get excited as a wargamer about cool unstoppable unit combinations that mitigate the probability of a dice-based system and assure you victory – my Southern Fire Support unit (which turns up in slightly stylised form here) is an impressive wall of armour and guns built around highly effective rotary cannons and laser rifles. In game terms this means I can roll a lot of dice. But as I ran some basic statistics, effectively playing a solitaire wargame to see how this scenario might play out, and then thought about how this reflected on what you might watch in a robot anime, the combat itself became perfunctory and brutal.
This ended up being, for all it set out to be a heroic army background piece for a tabletop game, a depiction of the sort of grunt mech slaughter usually reserved for an OVA like War in the Pocket.