1. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest

    Mech Suits-overdone?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Artist369, May 11, 2015.

    I am just about to start a YA steampunk/cyberpunk novel set in the future. One of the featured steampunk elements will be a mech suit of sorts. For context:

    It's six hundred years after the great war (WWIII). The planet was scarred by nuclear fallout and most of the world's population was decimated. The survivors in western hemisphere coalesced and decided to ban advanced weaponry and technology to prevent it ever happening again. This resulted in a new dark age, as well as a totalitarian country desperate to maintain power. 200 years before the story starts, the country undergoes a civil war and freedom is won for the southern half of the continent. Once again allowed to discover and invent, the people of this new country are embracing a new industrial revolution. Technology is progress, the solution to poverty and disease. Optimism is everywhere steam technology can be found, but things aren't what they seem. Soon there is talk of war, rumors of politicians in league with the mother country, stories of spies being sent to steal their inventions.

    The 17 year-old protagonist, eager to follow the footsteps of her brother, has joined the military border patrol. There hasn't been an incident in decades, until a routine inspection uncovers a devastated border town.

    Now here's where the tech comes in, my protagonist, as well as her battalion, all use steam-powered mech suits--the logic being that the rough terrain necessitates it, seeing as the trains can't come out that far and airships aren't allowed along the border. Later, we learn that the culprit responsible for the destruction is using one of these suits. It's also one of these suits which later allows the protagonist to disguise herself.

    My question is this: is the bipedal mech suit too gimmicky? Too transformers, pacific rim, gundam wing? My hope is that the suspension of disbelief will cover it. There is always an element of science fiction in steampunk writing after all, but I still worry about how well it will be received. It's a major element, and if I don't do it convincingly I could kill the story.

    I am open to other designs--quadrapeds with a lower center of gravity, etc. I also realize there is the quandary of self-contained steam engines, and I should add that rediscovered technology will come into play later on (it comes to their attention that their suits are fitted with advanced systems beyond their current scientific understanding). Certainly there is a lot of scientific issues that might need explaining, so my question would be: do I even attempt to? Or do I give an overview of how it works and rely on the fantastical elements to prevail over forced-rationalization?

    Also if you have any feedback on the world-building thus far, I'd love to hear it. Just to be clear, this will NOT be a reenactment of the Victorian age. It will feel much more modern and Americanized, seeing as I am American I doubt I could do anything else justice. It's not going to be a tale of cutesy gadgets and fashion either, but a coming of age story with life and death consequences, betrayal, and overtones of man vs. technology. I want to explore the morality of technology--how far is too far. When have we crossed that threshold? Is it something you would read?
     
  2. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    1,347
    Hi Artist,

    The problems I'm seeing with this are:
    1/ Just how dark is this dark age?
    In a world where agriculture isn't mechanized, most of the population is working the fields, and wars typically only happen when harvest is over. Or you end up with a Viking-style economy (this really only works when populations are relatively small and scattered), where raiding and plundering your hard-working farming neighbours is far easier and more profitable than doing the job yourself.

    2/ How is "advanced weaponry and technology" defined?
    Is there some sort of UN to enforce it? Look at how successful those weapons inspectors were in Iran.
    There's also the fact that if the Southern states secede in order to resume the technology race, they'll rapidly gain a sufficient advantage in arms capability that would enable them to conquer the North.

    3/ How would a totalitarian state maintain power without advanced technology?
    The history of Europe (the only model we've really got to examine what has happened, thus what is likely to happen in a similar scenario) is littered with strong leaders who maintained power in a pre-industrial era, with minimal technology, but they were generally the exceptions. These strong leaders were followed by an heir who hadn't got the ability, and didn't maintain the strength of control - Edward I was a strong leader; his predecessor, Henry III wasn't, and neither was his successor, Edward II. And you're trying to get it done with a government? Have you ever seen a horse designed by committee?

    The actual OP, about the mech-suits, isn't an issue. It's what you do with them, and I can see that they would work.
     
    Artist369 likes this.
  3. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest
    This would be a total wiping of all electronics. Anything that can be fried by an EMP is gone. The war was so bad that yes, most of their time was literally spent surviving, farming, etc. So much so, that generations of knowledge was lost. Once the mother country came to power, they first had good intentions--they wanted peace over chaos. They banned advancement to protect the planet and prevent the injustice that was done to all those who died, but over time, they took it further. They culled any dissidence--scientists, historians, anything that might lead back to the great age and their follies. This did make them weak as you suggested, hence the uprising that led to the split. I should add that guns do not rely on electronics, thus they do have a form of enforcement.


    Anything with electric circuitry in it as I said. And venturing above or below into the ruins would be expressly forbidden. They don't want anyone discovering old texts that might lead to further discovery. At least in the mother country, they watch your every move and dictate every facet of your life. Once that system is in control, it's not hard to keep their citizens in line.

    And that is where we find ourselves at the start of the story. Since the split two hundred years before, the mother country has invested in technology out of necessity. Their ideals are slowly evolving to not so much prevent another Armageddon, but maintain control and conquer what was lost. This makes it entirely stifling for the people that live there. Meanwhile the free country are getting steam-powered trains, tanks, airships, etc, and the mother country must infiltrate and acquire as much of it as they can. During that time, they have had some treaties, cessations of conflict, etc, but it's always been while the north accumulate as much as they can with the ultimate goal of taking over. In fact, we later learn that protagonist's father was actually a defector from the mother country, a scientist. This shows that their lofty propaganda they preach to their citizens is nothing more than talk. Behind the scenes, they are spending all their resources on weapons instead of helping the living standards of the people in their care.

    Now the free country wants to prevent war, or so that's what they say. Again, we slowly learn that what they say to their citizens and what they want are two different things. And there is great money in war, great money for the military industrial complex. There is a blurring of lines over motive.

    I can see it happening, at least at first. Then slowly it creeps back in like poison, like anything that gets banned. Bans only last so long. But when you have everyone fenced in with guns in their faces, you kind of have to submit. That's the reality for the people there now. That's what they resort to after the split. They learned from their mistakes.

    Thanks so much for your input. It's always nice to sit down and reorganize one's thoughts. Your questions have been great.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2015
  4. Unit7
    Offline

    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2009
    Messages:
    1,151
    Likes Received:
    59
    Mechs? Hmm well I have always been a fan of them. So I guess my response is going to be biased.

    Though I do kind of wonder how a steam powered mech would actually work... But I am also one of thosepeople who can turn that part of my brain off. Because you know... Mechs.

    Sounds like a book I would want to read. Any eta on when it's done?
     
  5. wellthatsnice
    Offline

    wellthatsnice Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2015
    Messages:
    186
    Likes Received:
    101
    i wouldn't worry about the basic idea being overdone, pretty much everything today is overdone. The difference between the good stories and the bad is that the good has enough original components, plot, character, and conflict to keep it new. So write your mech loving heart out.

    That said, i would put some serious thought into the questions posed by @Shadowfax. It sounds like the society in your books has taken an awful lot of steps back, so make sure it still seems real that they would be able to use this technology. Dont give me this tech, but then show me that they havent figured out steampunk running water or industry. If they make a mech suit move, they can make machinery move to create textiles and run a printing press. They'd also have trains. So you are going to need to accept a certain level of mechanical tech in your story or it will lose authenticity.
     
  6. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest

    Absolutely. There will be all of those things. It's an industrial revolution, as I said. It's basically mankind having to relearn everything, albeit with some variations. Old texts are being utilized by both sides to develop tech that we have today, hence the steampunk meets cyberpunk vibe, though most of it is kept under wraps for the benefit of the good old military industrial complex.

    When I was first thinking of this story last year, I had thought about doing time travel, but I realized I wanted something more real, more likely. And it's not hard to imagine any of this happening for me--not really. Except for the mech part because honestly, it's impractical. But if I write it as practically as I can, I think I can make it work.

    Knowing me, probably a year. It's my first ever actual novel and I'm likely to redo it a thousand times. But I may need a beata reader later if you are interested. Thanks.

    Yeah, my husband likes mechs too. He was biased as well, which is why I asked around here. Said something about giant robots just being cool, versus some other quadraped design.
     
  7. wellthatsnice
    Offline

    wellthatsnice Active Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2015
    Messages:
    186
    Likes Received:
    101
    Unless you have an amazing concept that hinges on it, avoid time travel at all cost. Its amazing how much you can complicate everything, and how many huge plot holes you add simply by having time travel.

    Anyway, i like your concept, could be a very interesting read if done properly. Good luck in your writing!
     
  8. Michael Pless
    Offline

    Michael Pless Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2014
    Messages:
    211
    Likes Received:
    62
    Location:
    Australia
    I have no issue at all with the "mech suits" as a concept, although I do wonder at the power source: you said steam-powered? Where is the steam generator, water and fuel supply, and venting of used steam? With the hissing and moving of parts, stealth would be out of the question, I think. Steam needs heat to create, and that means insulation, preferably some distance from the wearer, which could mean balance issues. A gyroscope (or perhaps series of them) would help with the latter point. These are things that as a reader, I would question and need answers to if my disbelief was to remain suspended.

    As someone else said (and me too, I guess) the suits have been done before, but if you have a great story and a wonderful telling of it, everything will come together and work well.
     
  9. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    I think after you've worked out the mechanics of the suits, they're definitely a nice addition to the story. Sure, they've been done before, but maybe in a much more futuristic environment? At least I'm more familiar with Gundam and Appleseed type of settings. Your vision, while post-apocalypctic and fairly dystopian, sounds more steam-punky right now. I mean, they haven't re-conquered the space or built androids, for example.

    I have a few questions, but you don't have to answer them here. They're more like food for thought as you plan the setting, society, etc. :)
    Is this like the Dark Ages in Europe, that are left quite obscure to us 'cause there aren't that many written records that have survived from the period? And there's, like, an intellectual darkness going on now in your world, kind of like the somewhat fabled notion of superstition, irrationality, and stringent church control in the "Dark Ages" in Europe?

    How do they do this if they haven't got modern technology? Steam-powered surveillance system? Spies everywhere? Do they know how to take photographs? Since you mentioned industrialization, I take it e.g. Nazi Germany / Gestapo style control isn't entirely doable in your world. I'm guessing 'cause they weren't able to monitor people as closely as they can nowadays, the industrial revolution II could start happening?

    How advanced is their weaponry? I'm thinking back to the shock of WW1, or later, Nazi Germany and Wehrmacht, and the devastation the new weaponry caused.

    I take it the good guys find a way to arm themselves? I mean, when you disarm the people, you have them fully under your control. If they get their hands on weapons, the status quo is threatened. I've always liked revolution stories, to be honest. Not sure how big a part it will play in your story, but nonetheless, they're cool.
     
  10. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    1,347
    The "Dark Ages" were from around 400 A.D. to 1000 A.D. - you've got about 4 written sources (for G.B.) - this also coincided with the "Church Militant" rather than the "Church Triumphant".

    What I mean is that the church was converting the heathens (e.g. St. Augustine converting the heathen English, then King Alfred persuading Guthrum to accept Christianity as one of the terms of his surrender after the siege of Chippenham) and consolidating its understanding of what Christianity was all about, with the eradication of congregations that disagreed with the central tenets.

    By 1066 the church was powerful enough that William the Conqueror felt it added to the legitimacy of his claim to the English throne to be able to fly a papal banner, but not so powerful that Harold felt compelled to yield to it.

    Stringent church control sounds more like the period from 1000 A.D. until the protestations of Martin Luther in 1517.
     
  11. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    I'm not a historian, but there seem to be different time periods described as the Dark Ages, so I generalized by bringing in the force of the Church, be it militant or triumphant, as I felt it applied to a fairly long period in European history. I don't know how relevant this is to the OP, in the end, and whether she's even seeking some previous model that may have taken place in the past to use it in her own story.
     
  12. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest
    Well after some research, I am thinking something like the modern cyclone steam engine:

    http://www.cyclonepower.com/works.html

    This type of system would be ideal, because if I am reading it right, there is no steam ventilation needed in a closed system. This would also be great because I wouldn't have to worry about the logistics of stopping for water every few miles. I was thinking maybe bio-fuel for heating, like wood chips or sticks, or even corn kernels. I realize other fuels would be more efficient, but I wanted to stay away from gasoline or kerosene just because of the background story--after the nuclear war, the push for green living becomes almost religious in nature. Harmful fuels are heavily regulated. I could see powdered coal as a possible alternative, but that would mean the southern country has once again returned to fossil fuels. Also, it would be practical to use wood seeing as they will be patrolling rural areas with an abundance of plant-life.

    Well the idea is to squash all inventions that would harm the environment that could lead to another nuclear holocaust. This would mean suppressing science and invention during those centuries. Overtime, this movement for planetary protection evolves into an almost church-like organization. It's all done for the "greater good" of course, but that means that yes, humanity suffers. The standard of living plummets for the masses, and the survivors live in the equivalence of third-world country squalor until the country splits and industry is once again allowed to flourish. So yes, scientists were systematically targeted, like they were ages ago. Tenants of this belief system are still alive and well in the new, free country. People are politically split between the industrial progress and planet conservation party systems.

    No steam-powered surveillance, no. Though there would be rudimentary photography. In the north country, there would be systems in place to spy on your neighbor and report anything one saw. Again, mainstream firepower would not be inhibited as they are not electric in nature (guns, cannons, etc.)
     
  13. MilesTro
    Offline

    MilesTro Active Member

    Joined:
    Sep 5, 2007
    Messages:
    1,062
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Springfield
    Hell no! As long as they are interesting and a little different, mechs are awesome. However, they are only tools for your character to use. What truly matter are your characters.
     
    Artist369 likes this.
  14. Michael Pless
    Offline

    Michael Pless Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2014
    Messages:
    211
    Likes Received:
    62
    Location:
    Australia
    Outstanding! It looks very compact, too, so could be used - linkages to get power to the arms and legs will probably be complex, although you could postulate something similar to a speedometer cable or what they use in a bent-head whipper-snipper (used in gardens to trim stuff - not sure if your country uses that terminology) with a simple clutch system to engage. I think it could work - it certainly seems possible in the universe you're creating. Fuel... maybe some form of oil extracted from plants - palm, canola, etc. Diesel engines can run on recycled cooking oil, I am led to believe.

    Sounds like you've got a good handle on things - all the best.

    Michael P
     
    Artist369 likes this.
  15. uncephalized
    Offline

    uncephalized Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 11, 2015
    Messages:
    111
    Likes Received:
    58
    I had not come across that Cyclone engine; I've never seen a closed-loop Rankine before. It looks like a brilliant design--and I'm an ME so I have some basis for that opinion. :D

    The more pressing issue would be the control systems--considering that we are still working out how to build powered exoskeletons with the advantage of modern electronic controls and multiple independent motors. Off the top of my head I count 14 essential degrees of freedom to make a mobile humanoid body--flexion/extension in the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows (10); and abduction/adduction in the hips and shoulders (4). Less essential but still important to agility would be pronation/supination of the ankles (2) and rotation of the hips (2), bringing the total up to 18. And if you want any kind of dexterity in the arms you also need rotation of the shoulders (2), which makes 20. And that's just for gross limb movements; if you're wanting powered mitten-hands you need to add, at my count, 10 more degrees: 3 for each wrist, 1 for the thumb and 1 for the fingers. And that's for a crappy stiff mitten. Full articulation of individual fingers requires 4 degrees per finger, then there's palmar motion--which is complex and 'squishy'.

    With a single central plant for power, you'd have an unbelievable number of gearboxes and clutches and shafts and chains and cables to get power to all those joints. Much more effective would be a hydraulic pump with a complex of valves sending power to each joint. Then the last tricky bit would be how to actually control the valves. My solution would be a governor system that senses the torque being applied by the operator's body and seeks to return it to zero. Say you want the suit to extend the knee. The operator extends his/her own knee, which puts pressure on the interior of the suit in the shin and thigh areas. This pressure would actuate the valve that sends power to the extension piston in the knee, and vice versa for flexion. This principle is in use electronically in the modern experimental power suits but I don't see any reason a mechanical version couldn't work as well.
     
    Artist369 likes this.
  16. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest
    Oh good, a mechanical engineer. I shall have to pick your brain some more.


    Mind if I bounce some ideas off you? I like the idea of hydraulics. Just curious how would you solve balance issues on rough terrain? Also the higher center of gravity? I'd like it to be bipedal, as it works well for some of the current exoskeleton designs and the governor system you describe (plus, it looks cool), but I worry about the guns being too heavy on the arms. Also, what kind of metal should it be made out of? Something hearty enough to protect, but light enough to move, and something that won't rust preferably.
     
  17. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    1,347
    1/ Yes, you can run a diesel on cooking oil - one of my colleagues did. You could always tell when he arrived at work by the odour of a mobile fish and chip shop!

    2/ I'd not heard of this Cyclone engine, sounds pretty good. It looks as if they've got it down to the size (and weight) of a regular car engine. You've still got the problem of cooling - "The efficiency of the Rankine cycle is limited by the high heat of vaporization of the working fluid.... steam turbine entry temperatures are typically around 565°C"

    3/ The logic of a church that suppresses knowledge is in conflict with the "Dark Ages" metaphor - during that time it was the church that was the repository of such knowledge and learning that there was.
     
    Michael Pless likes this.
  18. uncephalized
    Offline

    uncephalized Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 11, 2015
    Messages:
    111
    Likes Received:
    58
    Not at all. This is fun.

    I would use the highly-developed balancing mechanisms factory-installed in the middle ear and visual system of every human operator. An actively self-balancing bipedal machine is not feasible without electronic feedback control IMO. The operator would have to learn to balance the machine himself, the same way you balance your body when you stand and walk. The suit, properly designed, would mirror the bodily movements of the operator in a natural way (limited in speed by the power capacity of the joints), allowing operators to use their natural balancing instincts to stay upright.

    A question: how big are you envisioning the suits? Are they essentially a bulky suit of powered armor, or are they stories high? The principles are similar in any case but the control systems would be different if the operator's limbs are not physically inside the limbs of the suit--and the physical proportions and movement characteristics of the machine itself would be very different due to surface area/volume ratio considerations.

    A high center of gravity is less of an issue with active balance--in fact it can make balancing easier in some cases (weight higher up causes the whole body to fall more slowly than weight lower down, but also requires higher correction torques and increases the impact energy of a fall--it's a tradeoff between reaction time, strength/power and durability). Is it particularly difficult for you to balance while holding a heavy weight on your shoulders? Not generally, as long as you are strong enough to bear the load. Similarly balancing a tall bicycle is not harder than balancing a short one, but it hurts more when you do fall.

    I would worry more about the distribution of mass from the center axis of the body, which affects agility--and yes, putting a heavy weight far out on the limbs is not a great idea. There's a reason your limbs get skinnier as you move out from the center--saves energy, increases agility and control. Shoulder-mounted guns seem like a better plan--the barrels could still be aimed with the arms, but keep the mass inboard!

    As for metal, a good high-tensile steel would be adequate structurally, but rust is an issue as you point out--not so much if you coat/paint/oil all the surfaces. Aluminum is harder to produce but lighter for the strength--something like 6061-T6 is a good all-purpose structural metal but would be hard to achieve without modern techniques. More exotic alloys of aluminum, magnesium, titanium, nickel, etc. can have very good properties, but again are harder to attain with limited metallurgy and no modern computer-controlled machinery. It's a question of how advanced their metalcraft is. Good, strong steel is much easier to attain than good aluminum with more 'primitive' techniques AFAIK. A decent cro-moly might be feasible. Materials science is not my strongest suit.

    They are claiming increased efficiency due to regenerative heat exchange. What they're doing is essentially running a two-stage engine by taking heat out of the exhaust stream to pre-heat the input, recycling some of the combustion energy that would otherwise be vented as waste heat. I can't speak for how well they're accomplishing it, but the concept is a good one. It's similar to something I read about BMW trying a few years back to increase MPG--they were actually running a small steam turbine off exhaust heat. But this combines those stages into one device in a clever way. And it also reduces the cooling load as a bonus effect. Pretty neat.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2015
  19. Artist369
    Offline

    Artist369 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2014
    Messages:
    166
    Likes Received:
    50
    Location:
    Pacific Northwest
    If you look at the diagram of the actual engine it has a cooling fan--at least from what I can tell. But I will have worry about it warming up the suit.

    I'm not looking to make a metaphor per se, just a viable scenario. An oppressive group that stems from the effects of uncontrolled, unchecked technology. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction, as they say.

    Cool idea. How would an inner-ear balancing system work without electricity? Or are you saying there is no way to do this? Just operator balancing? I am thinking you mean that it would be cool if it were an electronic system, but since it's not, it's not feasible. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    Based on my research on Victorian era steam robots, I am thinking no more than 7 feet high. This would give the wearer some buffer for the leg area and sufficiently cover the average-height male soldier. So yes, more bulky armor, not so much Pacific Rim gargantuan monstrosities.


    I like the idea of shoulder guns. How would the arm aim the shoulder?

    Even if it's not your strong-suit, you certainly have my knowledge beat.
     
  20. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    1,347
    1/ The engine in my car (I'd assume yours too, but I don't know whether you've got a car or not!) also has a cooling fan. It also has a bloody big radiator, and I wouldn't want to be too near to either of those components when the engine's running - or the engine block either.

    2/ The shoulder guns...they're mounted on the shoulder, but pivot to point wherever you point your arm.
     
  21. uncephalized
    Offline

    uncephalized Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 11, 2015
    Messages:
    111
    Likes Received:
    58
    All engines need cooling. You will definitely still need a radiator or heat sink of some kind. You want the engine mounted on the back, probably, with good insulation between it and the person inside, and the radiator on the outside as far away from the body as possible. Might also be smart to have an air space circulating between the engine firewall and the operator's back, vented to outside. Otherwise it's gonna get mighty hot in there.

    Right, the operator would be the control system, using his own senses to balance the suit. I'm saying without electronic control there would be no way to have the suit balance itself.

    I was imagining something like a bazooka or RPG. Reach up and grab the barrel, point and shoot. I assume the hands are covered in heavy gloves/gauntlets so barrel heat is not an issue.
     

Share This Page