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GrimDark II: Loose Canon | by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

March 10

To: Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Subject: Space Marine Power Armour

Dear Mr. Dembski-Bowden,

In your novel ‘I Remember When I Totally Puked That Time’, you said that power armour functions by X going into Y. But in Dan Abnett’s novel ‘Writhing in Unholy Chutney’, he said power armour functions by A going into B.

Both of these presentations also fail to match the example published fifteen years ago, in the sourcebook ‘Maximum Blood Justice Machine’, where it CLEARLY states that power armour not only functions by Z going into another Z, but that no suits of armour even have an X, Y, A or B.

Please justify all of this, so I can feel self-righteous about it on the internet.


Some Guy




Last time, we made nicey-nicey with all the “My name is Aaron” stuff, and the accompanying how-do-you-dos. That’s great, right? We’re all friends now. Go team.

But the 40K milieu is rife with strife (and unintentional rhymes), and much like that seedy bar in Mos Eisley, it’s packed with people who don’t agree with you. Luckily, most of the people in the real world don’t look like those aliens – I mean, really, who wants to hang out with a guy who has his junk dangling from his face? I certainly don’t. Think of the kids, man. This is a family place. You’re murdering the ambience.

Ugh. Just…. just ugh.

There’s a reason no one ever agrees about Warhammer 40,000, even within the sheltered structures of the fandom, but it’s something so obvious that very few people end up noticing it. One of those “can’t see the wood for the trees” deals, if you get me.

The reason no one ever agrees about this stuff is because of something I like to call “loose canon.”

Canon (and its incestuous cousin, continuity) is a bit of a bitch in fictional universes. It’s something a lot of fans feel ferociously passionate about, seeing it as the glue that binds it all together, bringing forth sense from the madness. It’s also occasionally considered a badge of honour to know more than “the other guy” in certain circles, and if that’s how you butter your bread, more power to you. I’m not here to tell you how to rock and roll. I’m a man of peace. I’m done killin’.

The most famous example of canon in a license is probably Star Wars, which makes the whole deal into a pyramid scheme. Behold, my skills in MS Paint:

There’s a fifth category called N-canon (for Non-canon), but, look, I already did the chart. Leave me alone.

What we have here is a rather distinct method to create degrees of canon – essentially sublevels of officialness within the Star Wars license. G-canon loosely translates as “Whatever George Lucas does”; T-canon is lore from the TV shows that Lucas has direct involvement (or favour) in; C-canon is mostly novels, comics and RPG sourcebooks in the Expanded Universe, which Star Wars’ own creator confesses he pays little attention to; and S-canon is stuff essentially considered not part of the larger storyline at all, but has canonical elements, like a video game.

All of that can be shortened. To save time, think of it like this:

“I win,” smirked Lucas, while bathing in money.

And that’s how Star Wars canon works, with its gradient tiers of varying officialness. Over the course of a bajillion movies, games, novels and whatever else, it offers a strict (albeit complex) system of what’s real, and what could be considered just “other people playing around in the same universe.”

Star Trek has something similar, but I can’t be bothered to do another pyramid chart, especially since the last one was so crap. Suffice to say, it runs like this: All of the TV series are canon, and nothing else is. None of the novels, none of the cartoons, absolutely nuffink else at all.

And yet, according to Gene Roddenberry, the fellow behind the sliding-door world of Star Trek, even his older episodes and movies weren’t always canon, because he changed his mind a lot on what he liked, in true revisionist (read: retconning) style. But the structure is there. The basic principle exists for fans to follow.

Canon isn’t a ubiquitous process across every sci-fi license, though. I’m not really a fan, and this is second-hand info from someone into the whole deal, but as far as I’ve heard, Dr. Who runs across comics, novels, audio plays, movies and TV series, and all of it is considered canon, purely by virtue of the fact the creators completely avoid any mention of canon at all.

So how does this tie in with 40K? This is an article about Warhammer, right? Focus, Aaron, focus. Take a breath.


“It’s all real, and none of it’s real.”

One of the great mistakes made by almost every fan of Warhammer 40,000 is to take the canonical rules of another license, and crowbar them into 40K. Usually, it’s an unconscious assumption based on a mix between common sense and Star Wars, which is a combination you don’t expect to see everyday. It also works about as well as you’d think.

Part of the problem is that 40K lore is essentially divided into 3 sub-companies all producing material, and as with all things, quality, themes, perceptions and intentions can be completely different. Games Workshop produces the games and core setting lore, with 30ish years of history, releasing a couple of sourcebooks a year. Black Library is the publishing arm, mostly centred on novels, and still very new in terms of producing canon. The third is Forge World, an allied design studio and miniature production company.

Note: An even more recent addition is Fantasy Flight Games, who produce the 40K roleplaying game, but even now, I’m not sure just where they stand. Like I said, this is a complicated hellhole of treachery, madness and deceit. As it stands, the official line is that there are three factions empowered to “create IP” (an exact quote), and that’s GW, BL and FW. Given that the 40K RPG is mostly made by folks working in or around the main three companies, I think it’s fair to say that its lore counts as canon, too.

I got it wrong myself, right up until I was in a meeting with the company’s Intellectual Property Manager – a situation I find myself in several times a year, as part of the Horus Heresy novel series team. When I was specifically asking about canon, he replied with something I’ve tried to take to heart: “It’s all real, and one of it’s real.”

It was a bit of an epiphany, to tell you the truth. It also reminded me of that rather cool Qui-Gon Jinn line: “Your focus determines your reality.”

“I sense a disturbance in a once-great franchise.”

Incidentally, Qui-Gon is one of several sci-fi characters on a list of guys I really wish had been my dad. Then I’d have grown up being told really wise and awesome things, and I wouldn’t be the severe life abortion that sits here now, typing these words to you while nursing his seventeenth cup of coffee in trembling fingers.

Admiral Adama is another.

“I love you, son.”

I love you, too, Space Dad.

Uh, where was I? Oh, right, 40K canon.

In short, the belief is usually that the design studio has precedence, and everything else isn’t canon. That’s actually wrong, but several aspects reinforce the misjudgement, not least that a few top brass quotes have been poorly phrased or taken out of context; some novelists wildly diverging from the source material for reasons apparent to no one but themselves; and the fact that the design studio has 30 years of history where it was essentially the sole source of canon. Its products are the foundation for the whole license – it’s the source, the core, the chewy nougat centre at the heart of it all. With the weight of history and its place as by far the most widespread, its published lore reaches the most eyes and ears.

I don’t begrudge that. In fact, in 98% of situations, I do my level best to cleave to whatever design studio sourcebook ties into what I’m writing. I’m an unashamed fanboy (you should see me fall to gleeful pieces in Horus Heresy meetings…), and I’ve spent 20 years loving the 40K universe. I’m in this to add to it, to explore it, to tell stories within it – not to change it to Hell and back on some sneering authorial whim.


But the novels never agree…

Black Library can suffer more than most when it comes to terms of what’s official and what isn’t, for two reasons. Firstly, at its inception and during the first few years, it seemed unapologetically non-canon, and from my (limited) perception, it didn’t seem to try to be anything else. It was separate from the design studio, and that was that. Times have changed, but we’re lingering in the aftermath. Like hotel room stains of dubious origin, bad things can stick, and stick hard.

Secondly, like any publisher, Black Library releases work from a host of different people, each with their own perceptions and preferences. Because of the sheer amount of material released, conflicts arise between what seem like established facts. One author has a weapon firing one way, and another author describes its mechanics completely differently. Is there an official stance? No, on a lot of in-universe stuff, there’s usually not. Interpretation and imagination within the framework is the name of the game. The issue is when people consider that a flaw, not a feature. It’s supposed to be an open invitation to creative freedom, but instead it’s often disparaged as a way to hide mistakes or lore clashes.

(Don’t get me wrong, I know mistakes do occur. Having loose canon is no excuse for crappy research or poor writing, and I would never suggest otherwise.)

As a personal example, when describing the retinal/eye lens displays in Space Marine helmets, my ideas for what a soldier can see and do with his HUD are fairly divergent from most other authors’ descriptions. I can show lore to back my viewpoint up, and they can bring lore to highlight theirs. I can also wax poetic on why I think my version is better, and makes for a better touch in a story, blah blah blah. I don’t see it as a problem, but many fans loathe this kind of thing. Luckily, I’ve never had any complaints about this exact example, but I’m being nice and not naming any authors who do fall prey to that kind of feedback.

Essentially, any difference is immediately considered a deviation. Any contradiction is automatically seen as a mistake. Although I’ve been intensely fortunate with fan feedback, and my reviews are most definitely on the kinder and more favourable side of the wall, I’ve seen a few mentions where someone flat-out says I’ve got a specific detail wrong, purely because they’ve chosen to cite a variant source as canon. It’s, shall we say, “frustrating,” but I don’t blame anyone for thinking it. It’s a complicated situation.

Riddle me this, Batman. How does this armour work? Good question.

A suit of armour powered by happy thoughts and unicorn kisses.

I’ve read 40K novels that categorically violate my opinions and perceptions of how 40K works, and I have no trouble ignoring them afterwards. Similarly with some design studio sourcebooks, if I come across an idea that I find patently, uh, “in conflict” with my views (there’s some diplomacy for you), I’ll just ignore it and try not to write about it.

Interestingly, as creators in this setting, we’re under no strict obligation to reference one another, and cooperation is usually self-driven. (The exception to this is the Horus Heresy series, which is extremely well-organised, and all of us are in constant communication.) Sure, editorial prefers it when stuff ties in together, but it’s not a mandate. Everyone views the setting differently, after all.

I still have an email in my inbox from my editor, asking “Why didn’t you reference X in your novel?”

I also have my reply. It says, quite simply, “Because X sucks, and so does the guy who wrote it.”

That’s show business for you.


So, is there a consensus?


There really isn’t.

On one hand, that’s a bit of an emotional kick to the balls. I mean, everything you do will be seen as incorrect by Some Internet Guy, and they have as much right to enjoy 40K stuff as me, you, or anyone else. I don’t sit at my desk, rubbing my hands together, delighting in the fact that I might’ve annoyed Fan #3,974,910 because I said Commander Dude Guyman zigs instead of zags. I sympathise with that irritation. I felt it myself for long enough, and its bitter taste is familiar to me as all the photos of Lily Cole I have on my hard drive.

Forget her. She never, ever replies to my stalker emails.

But on the other hand, loose canon is one of the keys to why 40K has evolved into something so completely awesome.

I’m being dead serious, here. Yes, it can be considered a mark of IP laziness, and yes, I’m not blind to the fact that 20-30 years ago, a lot of 40K’s core concepts were referential half-jokes thrown around by amateur game designers, rather than the underpinnings of a more classic sci-fi setting “envisioned” by ivory tower artistes. But the loose framework has allowed three decades of fresh canon to flood in, filling in the details without necessarily feeling too constrained by what came before. Even as someone who fiercely cleaves to canon at every opportunity, I’m constantly surprised by the sheer amount of white space left open to explore and set up shop.

Within the possibility of endless interpretation lies the potential for freedom. What matters is respecting the source material, contributing to it, and sticking to the theme. And that ties right back into my first column, because no matter who’s writing the details, 40K has some unalterable themes, etched in the stoniest of stone. They’re the key. They’re what matter most.

Get the atmosphere right, and you’re halfway there.

  1. You know, if all the other authors in the world except you, Pratchett, Dan and Phillip Reeve were to simultaneously die tomorrow, I could handle it.

    Joyous article to read as ever man.

  2. I find myself agreeing with with a lot of what you have said. Looking back at all the 40k material I have read over the 20 plus years I can see how some fan boys go ape shit at perceived canon flaws. I have always looked at it as another glance into the future, maybe looking through a different window than last time, but a glance none the less. Of all the hobbies I had when I was a kid, this is the only one that has survived into adulthood and I believe the reason it has is its wide and varied canon that makes 40k what it is.

  3. I have always ignored people talking about canon. I justify contradictions in that the Imperium has no clue what it is doing, never mind what the other guy is doing.

    Good article.

  4. One such example is whether night lords’ power armour is indeed warp lightning as is stated in the original codex CSM if I recall right, or that it is painted on as you maintain. I thought it was fairly clear that the night lords’ lightning was actual lightning so I was a bit confused as to why you had your guys with just a paintjob. Care to elaborate mr. dembski-bowden?

  5. That’s actually a perfect example of what I mean. For almost every edition so far, and in various sourcebooks, it’s been painted on. The “real lightning” was a largely unpopular development mostly highlighted in the newest edition of the codex, and one that has earned more than its fair share of gripes for a lot of people. Ultimately, I went with the one that made more sense to me: the Night Lords are a Chaos Legion, but rarely truck directly with Chaos. Them having warp-lightining rippling over their armour a bunch of the time is thematic poison. Note, however, I did have the Daemon Prince ripple with the stuff, because he was excessively tainted.

    But it’s a perfect example of loose canon. Several sourcebooks and novels conflict, vocal fan forum opinion goes one way, but your perspective is that it’s always been another, and I was the one to change it.

    Couldn’t have picked a better example, my dear sir/madam.

  6. I love the name of the pic of Lily Cole comes up as ‘My future wife’ when you leave the mouse over it! lol Does your actual future wife know about this sir?

    Yeah good article. I think you have it spot on with the evolving canon. It has to adapt to the new ideas brought in with the new faces simply to keep it fresh to the loyal fanbase who have been with the hobby for donkies years.

  7. I assumed that it would be dependant on how long any particular warband was in or around the eye or alternatively if they were willing subservient to a daemon prince that would determine if the ‘new canon’ warp lightning would be in effect.

    For example in Lord of the Night [written by some other chap whom I forget] the purist zho sahaal saw how different the daemon prince led night lords were to his heresy era brethren [who are much like your own warband] So I like to think that there is a big division in the legion between purists and those that don’t mind a spot of warp related tomfoolery. I think the canon has changed again but I could have sworn that the night haunter’s palace where he was assasinated was made of ‘living flesh’ which certainly catered more towards the latter. Thanks for your reply, keep up the good work.

  8. On the other hand, all those other authors could handle it if you die.

    Speaking with some authority here . . . but nothing personal.

    Since none of us have any idea who you are (except for me, and I will have forgotten you by the time I wake up tomorrow).

  9. Im sure what Aaron means is that the picture just represents his fiance since he does not want to share her actual beauty with trolls. Or I could be wrong.

  10. Another genius article.

    I think ‘the warp did it’ is 40K’s equivalent of ‘A wizard did it’.

    Or the way that the transporter in Star Trek could be used to solve almost any problem…..

  11. Thanks for the interesting article! Personally, I think you are extremely brave frequenting the forum community, and I remember thinking when you first appeared, “I hope he realises what he is letting himself in for”! While 98% (99%?) are on an even keel, there are some who will just not ever be able to see the wood through the trees, and would disparage God himself if he rode down on a cloud and wrote the words in lightning and onto stone directly in front of them. And I wish in those situations you would stop replying and move on ^^

    Anyway, I think writing new material must be a difficult thing to balance, on the one hand making it exciting, while at the same time not contradicting what someone has previously written. I though Dan Abnett managed this wonderfully with Prospero Burns, transforming their character into something far more dark and thought provoking than they had previously been. The same too with your treatment of the Word Bearers, who have now been lifted firmly out of the cackling, white cat on lap brigade, and into deeply evocative and really quite tragic figures.

    Regarding one of your points, if fan reaction to a particular book can be a measure of how much a writer has upset the applecart, can I ask why you think something like ‘Angels of Darkness’ generated such a furore? Really there hadn’t been that much background written for the DA previously, and that which had been had made a point of focusing on their dubious background. In terms of atmosphere it was an easy fit for 40k (the ‘fallen hero’ being a good chunk of it’s bread and butter), and the book was also written so that you questioned the motivations of it’s central character (it wasn’t a codex entry). Yet the rather shocking revelations in that book I’m sure prompted at least one heart-attack by an enraged forumite, and numerous “I refuse to acknowledge the existence of this book” posts across the internet community. Echoes of it’s passing still resurface from time to time, causing passions to be reawakened. I would be interested to know what you think of it, and whether you have ever worried that something you are writing will generate a similar reaction?

    Anyway, thats enough rambling, please keep up the good work! And please keep the focus on the story and bigger picture (the important parts), and not worry excessively about whether a marine should be vomiting through his face plate or not! 😉

  12. A fantastic article about a really contentious issue. I think you’re spot on when you say that if you can get the atmosphere down you’re halfway there.

    One classic example that I’ve spoken of in some of my BL book reviews on BSC is the whole “Do Space Marines feel fear?” issue. I’m actually okay with that being unclear, I see the lack of clarity as reflecting the legendary nature of the Astartes and the shadowy nature of any legend. It’s legendary, who the f*** knows?

    As long as the author conveys the grim darkness of the 40k universe, if they then take some liberties with the gears and cogs of the universe I’m okay with that; I mean let’s face it, their invention may well be an improvement!

    Having said all that, I’m still troubled by Chaplain Carnak’s Crozius in Ultramarines 🙂

    More on that here at BSC soon…

  13. I like your example about the “feel no fear” thing. To take a stand on this, you first have to define the word fear, and define what it would mean to “feel” it. I can’t imagine a more boring 40K novel.

    Like you, I’m perfectly fine with the ambiguity. If a 40K author is spending time defining minor junk like this, too many bolter rounds are being unused.

  14. I thought it was funny when, after getting the “my future wife” caption from Lily Cole, I scrolled up so that the mouse cursor was resting on the Chaos marine. The caption took a while to change…

  15. Spot on, again. As they say in the Inquisition, “Everything you know is a lie.”

  16. Dr Who has the best approach to canon ever- both Davies and Moffat have declared that *any* story about Dr Who is canon. TV series? Yep. Movie? Yep. Games? Yep. Books, audio books, magazines? Yep. Fan fiction? yep. Playground games? Yep.

    Dr Who is a time traveller. He’s been in every possible situation.

    In addition, the Dr himself said that all “stories” are true. Every work of fiction ever written, even Hagrid/Vader/Horus orgy fanfiction, is included in Dr Who canon.

    Except Noddy.

  17. The very fact that W40k universe is “loose cannon” has enabled it to evolve and improve over time as more and more very creative people get to stir in some of their own ingredients to make a very tasty little dish!

  18. I think the “loose canon” of 40k (and other GW IPs) is more to do with the primary function of the IP rather than anything else. These are table top wargames the IP exists to inspire gamers to make and paint models and play games, it provides the narrative frame work for them to fight little plastic (and in the olden days metal) figures over a tabletop for kudos, fun (and in the olden days women). Unlike say Star Wars and Star Trek where the principle reason for the IP existing is that stories were being told often on a televisual medium which is the medium for idiots in the first place anyways.

    So long as the tone and flavour of the IP in 40k is observed and respected as a fan I can handle whatever is thrown at me, like you I can ignore it if it doesn’t jive with my personal vision of the galaxy (or “the true vision of how the galaxy is actually like” yes my vision is that one) or more likely butcher it and take the useful cooler elements of whatever was done and add them to my vision or think of the coolest way possible to allow for the change.

    A single line comment in The First Heretic is now a contributing factor to “how the cursed founding happened.” I’m not surprised that people can’t just think “look at all this information for me to play with” and get caught up with the contradictory details and get upset about it rather than inspired to work around it but I am disapointed in those who share my fandom. They’ve let me down. They’ve let themselves down. I wouldn’t even want to consider what their mothers think of them.

  19. We were talking about this the other day as the character bio for Typhus in the 40k Codex doesn’t quite jive with his representation in Flight of the Eisenstein.

    I think when a universe becomes big enough you run into numerous contradictions. For example, in Star Trek they have said that you cannot beam through the shields. In one episode? Beaming through the freaking shields! The teleporter can beam weapons away while people are going up to the ship but more often than not people beam aboard with all manner of weaponry! (futile geeking out continues)

    In the end I think that if something is written well enough that it is entertaining, it pulls the reader in, and it makes even just the loosest sense it tends to override all the little things. Space Marine armor works by X going into Y or A going into B because it’s motherfucking space armor with a genetically enhanced god killer in it.

  20. Space Marine HUD display – I think this one is really silly to argue about. Given are current tech, we can change HUD to personally suit our tastes. There are tons of cellphones and non of them are exactly alot but they all serve, basically, the same function which is to keep on “connected” beyond their personal sensory.

    Now, why in the warp would anyone think an Astartes helmet can’t be personalized?

  21. The thought of an Astartes with a Lily Cole wallpaper or “theme set” for his HUD is now dancing in my mind… Thank you for this the both of you!

  22. It all stems from the assumption that there’s a binding contract between author and reader to adhere to some nonexistent subjective construct or ‘true’ representation of the setting. There is no such contract, and no such objective truth.

    I understand that Tolkien took decades developing his setting before publishing the stories set within it, and still made mistooks. 40k is an ever-evolving setting designed first and foremost to house a really cool game, and as such things don’t always mesh or translate, or they (actually very occasionally) get changed outright. I know which I’d rather be reading and writing 🙂

  23. But the problem is, there’s almost no effort in comparison to many other things, including wargames, to maintain the setting. When you have things like the much-missed Squats being taken out of fluff entirely, with only the ‘eaten by Tyranids’ line to justify it, you have a problem. And while I must admit that it has gotten better, i.e. no half-eldar Chief Librarians, it still is a prevalent problem. Also, while it is a setting designed to house a really cool game, as you put it, the game is designed to house a model industry.

  24. Nice article.

    Another advantage of the “loose canon” principle, as applied to 40K, is that the Imperium is a very oppressive regime. The sort of “historical revisionism” that is a natural result of “loose canon” fits perfectly in with the totalitarian Imperium, where presumably literal historical revisionism occurs on a regular basis.

  25. Hey mate – I’ve never read (or indeed written) that Squats were eaten by Tyranids. I know the idea was played around with in a Black Library re-issue of an old Ian Watson book some years ago, but other than that it seems more a case of urban legend…

  26. It was just a single line stuck in somewhere of little importance, but that just serves to illustrate my point. Surely the Squats were not all on-world when the Tyranids ate everything, and if they were, a little description would be nice.

  27. [/tg/-mode on]
    In one of your short stories, you had young chaplain only 7 years active as a marine! Impossibru! :@:@ [/tg/-mode off]

    I got hit hard by the fact the Clone Wars animated series got considered more solid canon than the many books in the expanded universe. I agree with you, Aaron. Good Paintskillz.

  28. I don’t want anyone to die.
    I just want to write that BL should ask Mr Stover to write one day a book in Warhammer 40k universe. I swear I would even learn Braille to read it.

  29. Good call! I always accept differences across 40k cannon as an indication of how mahoosive and mad the universe is in 37,000 years time. Even during the crusade power armour was 4 (loose) marks made for 20 very different end users across hundreds of forge worlds and a 200 year span, so I imagine there to be a colossal range of functionalities, features and interfaces.

  30. Oh my no–god, yes! I adore Matthew Stover and would love him to put as much pure badass awesomeness into a #40K novel as he did with Magic: The Gathering.

  31. Good article. Personally the thing I like about 40K canon, or the lack of, is that it’s a big universe and as a player I am free to embrace, ignore or imagine pretty much anything I want in the context that I relate to the setting.

    For example I am personally convinced that Abbadon has small-man syndrome and Khârn the Betrayer is actually a pretty cool guy.

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