You’re probably too young to remember how great this poster was. / copyright Hasbro, i’m guessing.
David W. Brown
Feb 1, 2013 · 5 min read

or: The tragedy of an Autobot victory

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s is familiar with the costly war that played out on television every Saturday morning. In half-hour blocks, the hopelessness of a military resolution on planet Cybertron became increasingly obvious to everyone except the combatants. Nearly thirty years later, perhaps it is time to examine the obstacles to a lasting Transformers armistice. If you’re looking for a thesis statement, here it is: The ongoing conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons is the result of a broken political system that champions the blind obedience to divine impositions over the obvious need for general competence.

ON CYBERTRONIAN CLASS MOBILITY

The Autobot system of promotion is wholly incompatible with the nature of Transformer existence. This stems from a fundamental problem of immortality. Transformers live for millions of years, so if you’re a would-be leader waiting for Optimus Prime to die of natural causes, you might want to bring a good book. Essential to an enduring society is class mobility and the circulation of elites.

In short, there are only a handful of sufficiently ambitious leaders on Cybertron, and they are all of the same general age and social status, and work alongside each other for a timespan millions of years longer than the entire existence of hominids, for example. (Optimus Prime is somewhere around 9 million years old. Sahelanthropus tchadensis only came around 7 million years ago.) It would thus be pretty difficult for a new leader to come in and start rearranging the furniture, or even recognize the need for rearrangement. How would such a hypothetical new leader even begin to persuade his or her followers to go along with change? There would be a strong temptation to simply maintain the status quo. Strategic, social, and intellectual stagnation is inevitable.

Compounding this problem is the so-called Matrix of Leadership, which seems to be a religious artifact with characteristics of sentience. Its relationship to rank is something like this: Transformers choose their leaders, but if that decision conflicts with the will of the Matrix, tie goes to the Matrix. That’s why Optimus Prime chose Ultra Magnus to succeed him, but Hot Rod ended up running things. Magnus seemed happy to hand over power, but it stands to reason that this would likely irrevocably disrupt the chain of command.

To wit: If you follow Ultra Magnus into battle and he gives a really lousy order, how could you not think: The Matrix already decided this clown can’t run things. Why should I risk my neck for this little patch of ground? Likewise, once the hapless Rodimus Prime took over from Ultra Magnus, how could the latter not experience the bitter tinge of resentment every time the new Prime gave an idiotic order? And not only is Magnus obliged to carry out the order, he must do so knowing that he’s consigned to an eternity of this shit with no hope of advancement.

Lastly, the next-ranking officer behind Ultra Magnus has an actual shot at one day taking charge, and everybody knows it. In the event of conflicting orders—and over a span of millions of years, that’s going to happen—would there not be the temptation to follow the Transformer with a lower rank, but who is also possibly chosen by god?

THE DECEPTICON ALTERNATIVE TO THEOCRACY

Should the Autobots win the Cybertronian civil war, it’s unlikely that any of this would change. Unless the Matrix is subordinated and placed in a museum, it’s impossible for any kind of democracy to take hold. At best, the entire planet would fall under the principate of the Primes; at worst, it would become an autocracy. The leader of a unified Cybertron would hold positions ranging from commander-in-chief to religious head. His or her closest approximation on Earth would be a Roman emperor, holding the robot-equivalent distinctions of divi filius and imperatus.

Maybe that’s what the Decepticons are so angry about. As theorized by Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist and social scientist, insufficient mobility of the classes inevitably leads to violent overthrow. In the case of Cybertron, the ingredients are certainly there, and the outcome—millions of years of war—is the observable result. The stated causes for the war are various, simplistic, and nebulous at best, but inevitably reduce to a dispute over governance, with one side transforming its plowshares into swords as a means of finding resolution.

For what it’s worth, the Decepticons seem to have a much simpler system of accession. As evidenced first by the death of Megatron, and then by the death of Starscream, once a leader dies, there is a battle royal. The victor takes charge, and everyone gets in line. This would logically have the side effect of choosing inferior leaders. (See: the stark raving mad Galvatron.) If Ravage, for example, were the most capable Decepticon, but Scorponok wanted to run things, all Scorponok would have to do is step on Ravage and then take charge.

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the results. The Decepticons have produced no fewer than three highly effective commanders: Megatron, Shockwave (who held the line on Cybertron for 4 million years following the exodus of Megatron), and Cyclonus, who held the Decepticon army together following the presumed death of Galvatron. The Autobots, on the other hand, have produced only one credible leader: Optimus Prime. It should be noted that despite starting from a vastly superior position, under Optimus Prime’s leadership, the Autobots have managed only to fight their way to a stalemate even with help from the Matrix (which is itself a very literal deus ex machina).

THE TRAGEDY OF AN AUTOBOT VICTORY

Ironically, in the extreme long term, the Transformers would be much better off if the Decepticons won the war. With the Matrix (and its chosen immortal holy warrior despot) out of the picture, Cybertron would finally find itself with true social mobility and the accompanying political reforms. Even with the continued Decepticon system of acquiring power by way of violence, things are likely to go a lot smoother than they did during the war. Autobots—a presumably more fair-minded crowd—are now also competing for the crown. (In this case, Omega Supreme can simply step on Scorponok.) It wouldn’t take much turnover before everyone realized that a show of hands would be preferable to all this stepping on one another.

All of this assumes that the Autobots and Decepticons are not rigid ideologues. While the first few years that follow the war would probably look a lot like France after the Revolution, and the first few governments would break along red and purple lines, Transformers at the margins would soon find common ground. (We know, for example, that Blitzwing and Thundercracker have Autobot sympathies, and that Grimlock shares an awful lot of common ground with the Decepticons.) Ultimately, the two sides might find they can accumulate energon faster if they’re not wasting it on weapons of war, and that the long slog toward eternity is easier when the ruling class can be replaced once incompetence presents itself.

—David Brown, January 2013

    David W. Brown

    Written by

    Writer. Next book in progress: Europa and the story of how NASA missions move from PowerPoint to the launch pad (for Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins).

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