There is nothing so majestic, and yet so terrifying, as a giant robot. Towering structures of metal, built as high as a skyscraper, bristling with weapons and sporting designs ranging from “heavily armored samurai” to “gigantic golden godhead.” Recently, a confluence of events (a Pacific Rim sequel, a new game in the long-running Battletech franchise, the final book in Sylvain Neuvel’s Thermis Files trilogy) has brought giant robot action back into the public consciousness (or at least, the consciousness of those members of the public who are reading this). There’s a vast variety of towering metal titans out there in sci-fi literature.. Here are six of our favorites.
Gonquin Empire Battlebot (“A Lonesome Speck of Home” by Beth Cato)
Beth Cato’s inspired sentai/Power Rangers riff begins humorously, with cranky old man Victor Lynch haranguing the military to help him deal with the two gigantic robots fighting in front of his house, and bugging his tech-savvy son to help him learn to pilot the giant alien robot permanently parked by his home. As the story goes on, Cato looks deeper into the lives of Lynch, his family, and the teenage pilots of the Mega Robot, fleshing out their lives and stories. By the end, when Lynch finally hops into the cockpit of the alien fighting machine for a final duel with the Mega Robot, the result is a battle equal parts melancholy and triumphant, as the old man and his unwilling teenage opponents pull one last desperate plan to stop the invading alien force and save Lynch’s home. This is a fantastic story: thoughtful and heartfelt, when it could’ve settled for simple parody.
King Steam (The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt)
Stephen Hunt’s first novel is a sprawling, overstuffed affair. Its pulpy pages run rampant with superheroes, genetically modified adventurers, air pirates, spies, a horrifying cult, and an entire race of theocratic sapient robots led by a golden android named King Steam who reincarnates like the Dalai Lama. But Hunt holds all the best cards until the climax, when an eldritch abomination erupts from its slumber in the depths and is opposed in two consecutive giant robot fights. While the second fight might be the battle between a gigantic divine-relic mecha (the “Hex Machina”) and the villains that the book has been building towards, it’s the first that’s far more impressive. Clad in a gigantic battle version of his own chassis, the mostly pacifistic King Steam takes the field against a massive, tentacled scourge, attempting to stall the abomination’s approach. While the Hex Machina gets more of a buildup, King Steam’s towering, golden war-form, and the uncertain stakes he faces, make his fight the more memorable one.
Themis and Lapidus (Only Human by Silvain Neuvel)
A thousand-year-old robot left by an alien civilization, Themis (or part of it, anyway) is initially found buried underneath Deadwood, South Dakota—a gigantic hand unearthed in a cavern covered in weird, glowing writing. Once Themis awakes, however, numerous robots from the distant civilization known as the Ekt dhone in on Earth, and lay waste to almost a hundred million people, causing incalculable destruction. By the time of Only Human, the Ekt fighting vehicles have become somewhat commonplace, with the United States and Russia simply patching them up by bolting bits of metal to the places where they are damaged damaged,and sending them back out to do battle with one another and annex territories as fast as they possibly can. In Neuvel’s hands, and via the interview/”found footage” style of narration he employs, the mystique of the ancient alien robots is sacrificed for an unnerving atmosphere of dread, as it is revealed in a matter-of-fact manner how much destruction humanity has wrought with robots we only barely understood in the first place.
The Construct Council (Perdido Street Station by China Mieville)
As Mieville’s Bas-Lag series is one of the codifiers for modern weird fiction, it only stands to reason it’d have some kind of unconventional gigantic robot in it somewhere. The Construct Council is a massive, sapient steampunk robot that serves as a kind of gestalt for all the numerous automata littered throughout the city of Bas-Lag. The Construct Council does help the heroes, true, but for selfish reasons: the consciousness-eating moths that have been released on the city are a threat to all humans, including those who unknowingly maintain constructs. And help or no, it’s still presented as a nightmarish god hiding beneath the city, and is about as benevolent as any of the other godlike creatures in the book (hint: not really). (This might also be a good time to mention that it speaks to our band of anti-heroes via a reanimated corpse.) It’s a figure both ominous and incredibly powerful, and in keeping with the tone of the book—the gods of this world operate out of a weird sense of morality, and even those working for the common good are never entirely trustworthy.
The Musasabi (United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas)
The gigantic robots of USJ will be explored more in depth in the upcoming companion novel Mecha Samurai Empire, but Tieryas’ atmospheric spiritual successor to The Man in the High Castle does have a sequence in which its protagonists hop inside a gigantic robot known as the Musasabi to face down eight of the Imperial Governor’s personal robot legion. It’s a tight, dynamic sequence that, while it doesn’t last long, shows a great range of tactics and a wide variety of robots, quickly ratcheting up tension as Kujira, the pilot of the Musasabi, fights using the terrain to his advantage. Tieryas dreams up some excellent mech designs, from the way the Musasabi can transform to act as a submersible; to the way each pilot is wired into the machines by their muscles, allowing for instantaneous instantaneous control; to the giant purple plume on the helmet of the enemy mech commander’s robot. Because when we’re talking giant robots, looking cool is almost as important as packing a punch.
IMAGINE-NATION Combatrons (Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm)
Zanesville is a novel that features a fight involving a giant robotic Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps we should clarify. The climax the book takes place in IMAGINE-NATION, a coast-spanning amusement park in which park guests can pilot giant fighting robots made to look like celebrities. In the midst of chaos caused by memetic messiah Elijah Clearfather, the robots go berserk, thrashing each other even though there are no pilots controlling them. They proceed to destroy IMAGINE-NATION, as a gigantic, fire-breathing Tom Jones judo-tosses metallic Wayne Newton and that robo-Oprah clobbers opponents with the world’s largest (artificial) burrito. Zanesville is a vast, chaotic book, but the image of giant robotic celebrities clobbering each other in the ruins of an amusement park as the humans assembled around them experience a simultaneous religious epiphany provides the perfect end to Saknussemm’s saga of secret gods, divine messages delivered through cultural memes, and world-changing apocalyptic events.
What’s your favorite giant robot story?