Spoilers for Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and derived media.
In the last of the current series of fictional worlds we shall be examining the fantastic oddball that is the Warhammer 40,000 (40k) franchise. As the name implies, it has a great deal in common with Warhammer Fantasy Battle at which we looked (briefly) last week. Some of what is covered below applies to both to some extent and, like WFB, due to the changes between editions, we will be looking primarily at the feel of the universe as created by the core books and avoiding the spin-off novels, a statement which, handily, doubles as time-saving advice for anyone considering looking at the novels.
For those who are only vaguely aware of 40k, it can best be described as a sort of alternative future sci-fi/fantasy wargame, in which the volume is turned ALL THE WAY UP TO ELEVEN.
There are spaceships, but they are not simply means of transport. They are BARELY-UNDERSTOOD, VOID-FARING, LASER-TOTING CATHEDRALS TO THE GOD-EMPEROR OF MANKIND. Warp travel is not a means of circumventing relativity with advanced scientific knowledge, but a matter of PLUNGING THE VESSEL INTO THE BOWELS OF HELL IN ORDER TO FIND A SHORTCUT THROUGH SATAN’S BACK GARDEN. Navigation is not a matter of skill or computational power but THE SOLE PURPOSE OF A CASTE OF HIDEOUS, DEGENERATIVE MUTANTS WHO PLUG THEMSELVES DIRECTLY INTO THE SHIP. The elves are not tricksy woodland spirits or lofty, naval isolationists, but XENOPHOBIC RACIAL SUPREMACISTS OF SUCH EMOTIONAL INTENSITY AND PSYCHIC POWER THAT THEY ACCIDENTALLY BROUGHT A NEW GOD INTO EXISTENCE THROUGH THE SHEER DEPRAVITY OF THEIR DECADENCE. The
orcs orks do not live in the ruins, thriving in the dross left by more sophisticated civilizations, but WAGE ETERNAL WAAAGH! AGAINST ANYTHING THAT MOVES, BLASTING THROUGH SPACE BY THE SHEER MAGNITUDE OF THEIR FIGHTINESS AND THEIR ARDENT BELIEF THAT PAINTING SOMETHING RED MAKES IT GO FASTER. And so on and so on, until the windows rattle with every sentence, and even Brian Blessed has to take a moment to see what all the noise is about.
It must be working, though. Unlike WFB, 40k is still going strong, with many fans for its many table-top games, computer games, and novelizations of varying quality, and there has been little suggestion that the canon is about to be scrunched up and thrown into the bin. What is it that 40k does well that WFB did not?
40k envisions a fictionalized future of our own galaxy. Although it takes its cue from WFB there are important differences. Where WFB is “dark and gritty” 40k is jokingly said to be grim-dark or GRIMDARK in reference to its tagline, ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war…’
An individual known only as the Emperor – who is implied to be the psychic reincarnation of the mystics, messiahs, and yogis of our own past – unifies Earth and rescues it from the brink of destruction through senseless war. To thwart the Chaos Gods, whose power he perceives and fears, he outlaws religion and, through technological ingenuity, leads mankind to the stars protected by the Space Marines; genetically and physically altered monsters who used to be men, conditioned to serve and protect the nascent dictatorship.
But, of course, because this is Warhammer, everything goes wrong, Chaos gets its claws into the Space Marines anyway, civil war erupts as loyalists and traitors mow each other down and the Emperor is struck down by his son Horus. Mortally wounded, he is interred in the Golden Throne, which keeps him alive (but, it is hinted, also prevents him from healing because GRIMDARK). The Golden Throne also makes navigation through the terrible Warp possible, like a psychic lighthouse, by sacrificing countless psykers (psychics) to it like so much kindling. In the wake of the Emperor’s interment, worship of him spreads throughout the
Empire Imperium, giving rise to parallel ecclesiastical and governmental systems, corruption on a galactic scale, genocidal xenophobia and the stagnation of all scientific endeavours, lest new/alien ideas corrupt the Imperium, such that there are entire professions which revolve around murdering precisely the right number of people to keep what passes for civilization chugging along, and mounting the severed skulls where they can most effectively boost morale.
Whereas WFB cultures refuse to co-operate because they are petty and bigoted, however, the Imperium of 40k is actually technically justified because, no matter how awful their civilization is, the universe is out to get them and deviation from the norm can cause things to become so much worse, and perhaps even precipitate dæmonic possession and the doom of entire worlds. Moreover, because it is generally easier to replace the people than it is to replace the technology, for the Imperial Bureaucracy, the choice is rarely hard.
Human society on a galactic scale is hard to make realistic in detail, and so most of the effort goes into explaining certain unifying characteristics (e.g. the Imperial Creed, the oppressive dystopias, the fear of and reliance upon psykers) and interstellar institutions. The Space Marines and Imperial Guard are the chief military forces and enforcers, for example, but there is also the Red Priesthood of Mars, whose ritualistic obsession and empirical, rather than theoretical, understanding of technology owes much to the scientists of Asimov’s Foundation series, even if their æsthetic… does not.
The æsthetic is an important part of the character of the setting; barely understood technology, blurring the lines between science, religious iconography, and magic, has centre stage. Forcefields, machine-guns, and modes of transport alike inspire awe and reverence in the benighted masses of the Imperium, and then things start to become very weird.
The Adeptus Mechanicus itself arises out of a technological stasis not unlike that of the Dune series, and the solutions to that stasis also have more than a hint of Dune about them. Navigators and psykers, although feared and even despised are essential for the Imperium’s function because only their connections to the Warp can overcome the limits of human technology; navigators make travel over the vast, interstellar distances possible, and psykers can send messages even more rapidly across those same distances. Some can even be trained to fight the forces of Chaos, although most end up torn apart mentally and/or physically in the attempt.
Naturally, there are some plot holes and oddities which arise, some of which may be due to the presence of multiple writers, and some of which are clear consequences of the genre, sharing as they do a kinship with WFB’s problems. Firstly, there is a lot of bad Latin around. The Latin is a placeholder for the fictional High Gothic tongue, but there are enough classicists around that it should not have been hard to keep all the nouns and verbs in agreement. Yet, GW never seems to bother.
In-universe, how can the tech-priests remain ignorant of so much of the theory required to do their jobs? Why are there only ever as many
elves Eldar or Space Marines as there need to be? Because it is a game! Unlike WFB, however, the Imperium’s prominence in space is rather more justified than the Empire’s prominence in the Old World: there are no other human cultures, for they have all been absorbed either by the Imperium itself or by the Imperium’s enemies. The sheer scale of the Imperium allows for a certain amount of verisimilitude when ordinary humans are being shot/exploded/disintegrated/eaten, because there really could always be more. These believable details help to cover up for all the ludicrous fictions about magical mutants and space zombies.
Space Zombies and Star Vampires
The peculiar fusion of fantasy and science-fiction that is 40k allows for all sorts of inventions and re-inventions. In addition to the aforementioned space-elves (who, of course, come in different flavours: in this case, tutti-frutti and Bloody Mary) there are the
Mulhorandi Nehekaran Egyptian-themed Necrons, robots inhabited by the consciousnesses of a long-extinct race of aliens uplifted by colossal “star vampires”, whose true, non-corporeal forms we never see. Fantastically advanced compared to most other civilizations in the setting, they remain contenders rather than a dominant faction only because so few are currently active and even fewer have much of a mind left after their epoch-spanning slumber.
The Orks return from WFB and are even more bonkers than before: each one exudes a weak psychic field and, in groups, this field is enough to make their scavenged technology work even though it clearly should not. Said technology consists of steam-powered bionics, ship-board cannon which fire
goblins gretchin across empty space to land with soundless splats on enemy ships… sometimes, and they also have the most powerful red paint in the universe.
Two newcomers without any clear fantasy ancestor are the extremely omnivorous Tyranids, a swarm of constantly-evolving extra-galactic monsters who want only to devour everything, and the Tau, who are lovely and peaceful and egalitarian and who definitely would not resort to mass-sterilization and chemical coercion of dissidents in their Glorious People’s Republic.
Each civilization is also full of factions with their own agendas; even the Tyranid hivemind sends out genestealer infiltrators with a degree of independence to make the “main faction’s” job easier. The result is an illusion of many forces at play and, because of the huge distances and numbers involved with the galactic stage, it is easy for plans to come to fruition or be thwarted and never risk altering the status quo. Thus, the setting’s tone and character remain stable despite the illusion of change.
Reams of Chaos
Just as the Imperium is, in many ways, the default protagonist for the setting, despite how generally awful it would be to live there, Chaos remains the primary antagonist. As in WFB, the cast is comprised of Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, and Slaanesh whose realms of influence roughly correspond to battle and violence, scheming and magic, pestilence and decay, and pleasure and excess respectively. The Chaos Gods were all born from the psychic echoes which living beings imprint upon the Warp, and so there are two themes occasionally touched upon as narrative possibilities. Firstly, that the Chaos Gods depend upon living beings for their continued existence and so need them to survive despite benefiting from their suffering. Secondly, that to some extent, these gods represent, or at least draw upon, some form of corresponding virtue, (e.g. valour, hope, affection, and desire) even if only a little bit, although this latter point is generally more Aristotelean pretension than cosmologically significant. Like the Dragonlance setting, the writers seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid doing some basic philosophy, with the end result that any attempt at subtle ethical discourse has all the nuance and aplomb of a custard pie to the face.
One of the many problems left over from WFB is the Khorne paradox. Khorne hates psykers and sorcerers and witches and all their psychic/sorcerous/witchy ways, and so he grants no psychic powers, nor does he have anything to do with such craven scum. Except that the only way for dæmons to enter the material realm is through psychic phenomena or sorcerous conjurations. So… how does Khorne extend his influence into this realm? Answers on a postcard, please.
Similarly, the Eldar, like the Slann, can see into the future, a power which, allegedly, they use to keep their race alive, manipulating events in such a way that countless human lives might be lost to keep a handful of Eldar safe. The fact that these human lives only end up being fuel on the Chaos bonfire, or that these futures inevitably come to pass anyway, simply demonstrate that the only thing worse than not being able to predict the future is being able to predict the future, which raises the question: why bother? This, at least has the obvious answer: because it is a game. The budding writer, however, should be very careful about incorporating divination into a story: there must be some point to it, some vital clue, however obscure, that makes the whole process worthwhile. Otherwise, it is nothing more than scenery.
Plotting of Course
Of course, as with any ongoing franchise whose narrative is subordinate to the game, the composition of the world can always be shaken up a little, in much the same way that defenceless children can be held upside down and shaken until all the change falls out of their pockets.
To this end, 40k falls victim to a certain amount of gimmickry and pandering. For a civilization that has subsumed all pre-existing nationalities into an interstellar whole, the Imperium sure is full of very white people. Not only that, but the women of the future are even more bosmatic than their WFB counterparts.
I suspect that the horrific dystopias of the future would not have ethnic representation or the safeguarding of human dignity as high priorities, but surely we could have moved beyond this, now? Did all those pixels give their lives to the Hawkeye Initiative for nothing?
Not all of GW’s cynical schemes need to be held in contempt, though. The original Dawn of War games – consisting of the base game, Winter Assault, Dark Crusade and NO OTHERS BECAUSE THERE WERE NO OTHERS; TO SUGGEST OTHERWISE IS A SIN – were not only great fun but gave us such fantastic characters as Gabriel Angelos, whose ham-fisted moniker we can just about overlook because of his excellent voice actor, and Sindri Myr, whose hammy acting was so good even Khorne temporarily forgot his ‘no sorcerers’ policy long enough for Azariah Kyras to pull the same stunt in DoW II. The same thing might have happened in DoW III but no-one has ever completed it so it remains a mystery for the ages.
Of course, the presence of Sindri and Gabriel and a handful of others serves to highlight another problem: although the setting is full of character, many of the actual characters are not. Despite the dozens of names associated with each faction, in the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium, there are only vacuous, scowling weirdos in fabulous outfits.
Much like WFB, 40k has narrative weaknesses because it is not, primarily, a narrative exercise. Unlike WFB, the potential for all sorts of spin-offs and suspensions of disbelief is made possible by the truly immense scale of it all. Were it not for some impossibilities arising from the underlying structure of the setting, and the haste with which the novels are routinely churned out, there could be some engaging story telling. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the Gaunt’s Ghosts series bridges the gap between the broad picture and the needs of a focused narrative very well, and the success of the adaptations of Battlefield: Gothic and the Mechanicus PC game show that there is enough depth applied to a wide range of developmental facets within the 40k universe to appeal to audiences across diverse media and formats. Perhaps this is a testament to those who adapt the mechanics as much as those who interpret the lore but primarily, 40k as a setting owes its success to the triumph of its character over its coherence.