But how did it all begin? Ask a Transformers fan and they’ll likely tell you one of two things about the beloved robot sci-fi franchise: With the eruption of Mount St. Hilary and uncovering of the Autobot Ark in 1984, and subsequently the reawakening of both Autobots and Decepticons within the ancient spaceship; or with the crash-landing of two similar spaceships, the Axalon and Darksyde, and the beginning of the Maximal-Predacon war on Earth somewhere between 3 million and 80 thousand years ago. And in a sense, that’s true, because that’s the beginning of us caring about the Transformers – when we actually started to see things happen with relation to the characters onscreen and the stories we played out in action figure form.
But as with any long-running sci-fi series, Transformers has acquired a snowballing backstory, with intricate threads of side-by-side alternate continuities and a whole expanded universe full of long personal histories and whole invented societies and cultures. It’s daunting and complicated, not just for newcomers but even for those (such as yours truly) who grew up with Transformers and have been following the series for decades.
There have been some noble but futile attempts to weave everything together, of course, but none of them as ambitious or well-executed as the latest: The Covenant of Primus, a big thick book in a big thick case by British scribe Justina Robson, released at the end of last year. The book is named after, and imitates, an in-universe work, which is a sort of Akashic record of all knowledge about Transformers past, present, and yet-to-come. The whole endeavor is narrated by Alpha Trion, “author” of sorts of the in-universe Covenant of Primus, who has translated select passages into an Earthly language for the benefit of human-Transformer relations.
In summation, without spoiling too much, we finally get to fully see the origins and lives of the first thirteen Transformers – Primus’s Primes. Among them, alongside the characters Robson had to invent to round out the specified roster of thirteen, are important characters from the prehistory of all the Transformers continuities: Alpha Trion himself; as well as Prima, canonically the first Transformer in lore stretching back all the way to 1984; Vector Prime, the guardian of time and space who appears whenever the franchise does a time-travel plot; and Megatronus Prime, later the Fallen Prime, who infamously betrayed his siblings and became the namesake of the leader of the villains in each version of Transformers so far. We get to know this ensemble cast pretty well pretty quickly, and although some of them get more screen time than others nobody is really relegated to being a bit player, and with few exceptions none of them fall into the trap of being generically and vaguely motivated good or evil.
Robson does an especially fine job with the nasty case of Liege Maximo, the supposed Decepticon progenitor who was the victim of an abandoned storyline. For years his only appearance was in the form of a splash page that ended the Generation 2 comic series on a cliffhanger, and his name was inconsistently retconned into simply being a title for the Decepticon autarch back in the day. But Robson takes the dangling thread and rolls with it, making Maximo a handsome charmer who manipulates those around him for what he perceives to be the greater good, but succumbs to pride and the sheer pleasure of subterfuge and indeed goes on to cause a Cybertronian schism and the beginning of the Decepticons. Maximo is like Milton’s Lucifer – an appealing and tragic and generally fun-to-read-about figure who is nevertheless ultimately pretty damnable.
The Thirteen Primes give way to their more familiar descendants in time, and Robson retells the familiar yarns about Autobots and Decepticons, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Starscream, Megatron, and all the rest, but it never really comes off as stale. Robson’s commitment to, for lack of a better term, human drama among the robot battles makes even the incomprehensibly ancient and epic history of the opening salvos relatable and readable. Altogether, any proud Transformers fan ought to treat themselves and their guests to a copy of The Covenant of Primus on their coffee table.