The Appeal of Getting Your Ass Kicked
Back when I was a kid, in that era of willing vulnerability when we’re all sponging up ideas and inspiration to form our adult tastes, I saw something in the sci-fi genre that really stood out. In hindsight, I’m sort of proud of myself for noticing it, but maybe I’m giving my youthful self a little too much credit.
What I saw was this:
Futuristic soldiers in power armour and firing massive guns wasn’t exactly revolutionary twenty years ago when I was 10 – and these days, it makes up approximately 492% of video game sci-fi storylines. I’m not advocating that image as something outstandingly original. (I’d also be doing the setting of Warhammer 40,000 a massive injustice if I didn’t admit that the art, like the setting itself, has come a long way since then.)
What gripped me at the time though, was the fact that these guys who were obviously the human heroes of the whole deal… Well, look at them.
This has “last stand” written all over it, and that’s what clicked in my head. These guys, whoever the hell they were, were getting their asses kicked by the shadowy shapes emerging from trenches in the background. The surviving soldiers are bunched together, surrounded by the bodies of their brothers, while inhuman silhouettes stalk towards them over a scene of literal scorched earth.
In England, the concept of war is very closely associated with World War II. Our grandparents fought in it; our media makes a big thing about it; we learn all about it in school (at least, insofar as all this applies to guys and girls in their 20s, 30s and 40s.) This picture evoked that feeling in me right then and there, which was clearly the artist’s intention – despite the sci-fi elements, this is blatantly reminiscent of the brutal battlefield photos from WWII. One of the guys is even clutching a flag, trying to keep it raised as he’s cut down.
This was sci-fi that instantly felt grim, bitter, and strangely English, of all things, which made it feel curiously familiar. In turn, the familiarity made it feel more credible, more plausible, and subsequently much more immersive.
What kind of crazily dark sci-fi was this? Why was it mixing the destructive imagery and themes of World War II with more traditional sci-fi?
In short, it resonated inside my spongy infant brain, and I wanted to know more.
Obviously, that’s a retroactive explanation with a vocabulary chock full of delicious hindsight, but even though I never phrased it in those exact terms back then, that was how I started to really get interested in the setting of Warhammer 40,000.
The Panicked Case for the Defence
This is going to come across as a little defensive at first. Just bear with me, and you’ll see why.
I’m a pretty cynical guy, sometimes. I don’t mean to be, but when one of your interests is a niche within a niche, you tend to come face to face with about six million insulting stereotypes. Some of them carry some weight, while some of them have pretty much no basis in reality.
If you’ve got a double-niche interest, you know the feeling all too well. Maybe you collect tractor magazines, or something. Perhaps you race those little radio-controlled cars, or whatever. Hell, maybe you even dress up in shoe polish and pretend to be a dark elf at Live Action Roleplay. I mean, someone has to. I’m not here to judge. I empathise with you.
Well, I empathise a bit. I also think you’re a nerd, but we can still be friends.
Let’s not beat around the bush, fiction based within an established license (Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000 or whatever else) often suffers some pretty extreme criticism, and a lot of it is valid – that’s Sturgeon’s Law, after all.
But when the license itself is based on “a board game”, you’re in for a brutal ride when the bell rings and it’s time to justify what you enjoy. Games are usually seen as inherently childish, thus lacking any value as something nuanced and detailed enough to nourish the adult brain.
And, damn, painting little figures of Space Marines is about as far from traditionally cool as you can get, unless you’re also saying stuff like “Actually, I’m a blue dragon”, or admitting you know what a hundred-sided die looks like.
I guess those are way worse.
(Spoiler: a D100 looks like a golf ball, making it a charlatan among proper dicekind.)
So with that in mind, I’m going to wax lyrical on what Warhammer 40,000 actually is. Not the game. Forget the game. I mean the setting as a sci-fi universe with decades of development, and the novels set within it.
We call it “Grimdark”
There’s that World War I and II vibe again…
I’m aware that as articles go, the first one usually has to stick to a degree of setup, and it can read as a little dry. I apologise for that, and I’ll keep it to a minimum. But excuse me while I blabber just a bit, because I do freaking love this world.
Warhammer 40,000 takes its core concept and rolls with it right to the end of the universe: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
That’s the mood behind the theme, and it’s what creates the palpable undercurrent of gritty, dirty desolation.
I use three words to describe Warhammer 40,000 at its simplest, when we’re talking terms of theme and atmosphere. Bleak, Gothic, and Baroque.
Bleak: “Without hope or encouragement.”
Gothic: “Noting or pertaining to a style of literature characterised by a gloomy setting, grotesque, mysterious, or violent events, and an atmosphere of degeneration and decay.”
Baroque: “Extravagantly ornate, florid, and convoluted in character or style”.
That sounds pretty pretentious, I’ll admit. But it’s also accurate.
See, Warhammer 40,000 is a sci-fi setting where everything that could possibly go wrong, has gone wrong. All of the optimism in science fiction; all of the hopes and tales of a brighter future with the ascension and evolution of mankind… All of that has failed. The golden age has passed, and humanity failed to cling onto the precious lore of those magnificent centuries.
Our species has an empire that spans the galaxy, but everything – everything – is devoted to fuelling the engines of our eternal crusade against alien races and the ever-present threat of heresy. The galaxy is besieged, and humanity’s empire crumbles at the edges. We lose ground, we lose worlds and star systems, every night.
The God-Emperor of Mankind was a secular visionary devoted to bringing about humanity’s perfection, but for the last 10,000 years he has existed as nothing more than a stasis-caught corpse shackled to a life support machine, using his psychic powers to scream his last breath into the endless void, in order to power our species’ space travel. Humanity worships a husk bound to a throne – and worse, to keep the Emperor’s corpse and its vestiges of power preserved, thousands of souls are sacrificed each month, their lives fed into the soul engines powering the Emperor’s life support.
We are capable of warp flight, but it’s far from a matter of speed and convenience. To make a warp jump is to punch a hole into another reality, and race through a literal Hell realm of boiling psychic storms. Daemons formed from raw human emotion claw at the ship, kept at bay by ancient shield generators.
Invention is heresy. Literally, heresy, because only the schematics preserved from our golden age can be trusted. All mechanical genius is the purview of the Martian Mechanicus, who believe machines have souls, and construct massive Titan war machines to walk the battlefields as gods, and Imperial Navy battleships the size of cities.
Humanity feeds its sons and daughters into the meatgrinder regiments of the Imperial Guard, in the keenest allegory to both World Wars (the Guard’s tanks even resemble WWI vehicles), while our greatest warriors are taken as children and genetically modified in hidden monasteries who stand eight feet tall in layered ceramite power armour; can spit acid; and their personal firearm is a fully-automatic rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
These last are the hallmark heroes of Warhammer 40,000: the Adeptus Astartes. Those are the guys that come up the moment you Google “Space” and “Marine” in the same sentence. At best, they are monastic, hypnotically-trained religiously revered warriors so genetically enhanced that they barely count as human anymore. At worst, they’re psychopathic degenerates with chainsaw swords that are barely tolerated by their own species, but are too powerful – and too necessary – to be abandoned.
And these are the good guys.
“So it’s not for kids, then.”
Kids like it, sure. It’s got war in it, and it’s a developed, cool setting. The ties to the game bring in a lot of younger readers, though it’d be a lie to say I – and, I assume, my colleagues – are writing for that age group. The setting itself is just so absolutely, punishingly dark, that it hardly rewards immature storytelling. That’d be doing an injustice to it.
To paraphrase myself, what draws me to Warhammer 40,000 is how bleak existence is. How corruption taints absolutely everything, from a peasant’s harsh life; to a hive city worker toiling 17 hours a day in a meaningless grind; to the billions destined to die in humanity’s armies; to supernatural threats most humans would never see.
Yet people still live, fight, survive… and that’s where the stories are. Degeneration is inevitable, even in the aspects that are intentionally funny. I think that’s powerful. It’s a kickass theme. Omnipresent decay is an insidious concept that makes my skin crawl, and 40K has it in spades. It’s what Gormenghast would look like if Titus Groan had an empire. It’s got the stagnation versus freedom aspect that ran through Peake’s work, and it’s got the taint of madness, misery and emotional sensitivity.
And on that note, with the dreadfully vital introductions done, I’ll leave you to digest it in peace. Feel free to hit me up with any questions, comments, or demands for any aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 setting you’d like me to rage about in the future.
In a stunning break from tradition, I’m trying not to swear every three seconds.
Can I keep that up?
You are hitting the nail on the head. The setting of 40k is what makes the game fun. Humanity toiling away to build for armies that get sacrificed in countless and often needless conflicts. Untold worlds destroyed in blinks of an eye, demons, monsters, aliens! Anything you can think of is in 40k. What more could you ask for?
the thing that drew me most to 40k is how I could totally see this happening to mankind, and how in some respects, it already has.
right on the money n00bski-bowden! the best part about warhammer and warhammer 40k is the Warhammer universe and the lore writen by yourself and all of the other BL/GW writers past, present, and future. personaly, i hate playing the game, i’ve played my ork army 1 time in 17 years, and my epic army about 16 years ago. but i read all the books i can possibly get my grubby little chubby fingers on. the Codex’s, the index’s, the Omibie and the art books. all have a prominant place in my collection, and i am very very proud of them. I wish you good luck on your column, off to a fine start. 🙂
Aaron, I really liked what you had to say about the 40K universe. It’s the same way I feel about it. I love reading the novels and even the ones based on the Horus Heresy as well.
Your right that it’s dark and that there is no hope for humanity and that some psykers are sacrificed each month to keep the God Emperor’s rotting corpse lighting the way for warp travel.
I’ll keep let you know if I have anything on my mind on anything 40k even 30K even. I have a feeling you’ll do well with this column.
Its attachment to history is what grabbed me just over 23 years ago,a fine intro to a wonderfull hobby. On top of all that glorious background its the close knit gaming and social community that i would recomend to anyone and everyone!
I ate up that post with relish (and mustard.) Sums everything up.. And Khestra’s post too, was really interesting. Thanks
A great first article, ADB.
You managed to sum up the very reason that I was so engrossed when I picked up my first Black Library 40k. Everything is broken, it can’t be fixed, it can only get worse, yet it’s the struggle, the constant fall into the grimdark that makes the 40k universe interesting to me.
Hi, nerd here.
When I was growing up, and I’m only a couple of years older than you are, Mr. Dembski-Bowden, the basis of my existence was the Cold War. Growing up in West Germany at the behest of the US Army, the Cold War permeated every facet of my life, and there are few things more integral to getting on with life than the knowledge that there were Soviets living 90km away, and that they meant to do me harm if they could. As such, its culture also permeated all the facets of my life. I had GI Joe on the television along with the myriad of ’80s cartoons, but they didn’t give me the whole story, and as such didn’t impress me even back then. See, running on a life of paranoia can’t take Disney seriously, and isn’t interested in doing so. I absorbed the GI Joe comics rather than the cartoon because the comics were bloodbaths, and to my perception the cartoon (where no one died unless you were a Cobra BAT) was a cop-out to the reality. When the first push to bring Japanese anime to television screens came along, I avidly watched Mobile Suit Gundam and Robotech/Macross because in spite of the astounding heroism, they didn’t shrink from the carnage inherent in that heroism, and sometimes the good guys lost no matter what they did. Star Wars? Yes, please, especially Empire Strikes Back. Killin’ yo’ gunner, killin’ yo’ wingmen, blowin’ up yo’ base, chasin’ yo’ friends, torturin’ yo’ homeboy, cuttin’ off yo’ hand. . .all in all, a pretty bleak time for our heroes, and really good time to be a fan of the Empire.
Warhammer 40K picks at that same need, a fiction that can be taken seriously because it doesn’t hide from the fact that things die and heroes can lose. That feels more real to me than any All Dogs Go To Heaven sell, and the real allows me to immerse in it. I love that about the Grimdark, that combination of cynical realism and optimistic heroism resonates with me. An entire galaxy desperately ekeing out an existence while living under having been dealt the worst hand possible constantly? Sounds like the old party to me.
Loving this article. You’ve really managed to sum up what makes the 40k universe so engaging and special. The models are one thing, but the background is something else altogether. It’s rich, complex and full of tragedy.
I’m looking forward to the next instalment.
I think in describing the GrimDark, you’ve made me realise why, at a similar age to yourself Mr DB, I am still an avid gamer, painter, and devourer of 40K fluff. The simple aspects (mini’s, super soldiers, cool aliens) got me hooked at an early age, and the developed harshness and… GrimDark of 40K has kept me hooked.
You nailed it on the spot! Couldnt have explained this much better myself. Im not sure what draws me into the game. At first I was a strict IG-player, loyal to the Emperor.
But further I read and the deeper I get into the hobby, Im leaning towards Chaos. They are more interesting somehow, and I would say Im corrupted. Damn I so wish I would become a writer on this hobby like yourself, but my english is lacking as well my pontetial. 🙂
Bang on, the three words you use are each insightful.
I’d like to see a similar article about Warhammer 30,000, a background you are also familiar with. I’d be interested to read some of your thoughts about that. Especially if you held it up against the soiled light of the grimdark.
This is the most mature post I’ve read at this blog. I hope you can keep that up.
The 40K universe is satire. It’s a marker of what we would probably want to avoid. Words are only words until the reality they describe is felt, but I’d hope enough of us 40K players, modellers, painters and readers sense the horror of that reality that we help keep it pure fiction.
“Niche within a niche”
That’s the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe my geekiness all this time, thank you!
Also, great article.
Excellent first article, chap.
40k really is one of those unique IP’s that can’t help but keep giving.
Despite having some rules set in stone, when you look closer, you realise that there is almost limitless scope to what you can do with it, and no matter the particular subject, there is always something interesting about it, some extra level, there are always rough edges, dark sides to everything..
Star Wars, despite being a love of mine that will never die, has started to suffer from ultra-retconning and over-saturation of stories for stories’ sake.
I like to think that 40k has avoided that pitfall.
I would almost want to say that it’s not quite tie-in media, that despite a healthy fanbase, it’s not a huge global phenomena that has spawned the need for additional items alongside the main product.
Black Library has spawned fairly naturally from the body of ideas that formed around the game. Sure, at initial conception everything was a bit of a mash, but I doubt anybody can say that individualising the various parts and building upon first ideas is a bad thing.
Can’t wait to see what you do with your new soapbox Aaron, it’ll be nice to see your take on some of the unwritten parts of the 40k/30k universe, all power to you!
“Well, I empathise a bit. I also think you’re a nerd, but we can still be friends.”
I love it when nerds reveal the levels of nerdiarchy we all follow. Reading Warhammer 40K lit isn’t really that far from LARPing.
I liked this. I think we’ve had a discussion like this before where you said many of the same things to me, but in a much more condensed form, when I showed an initial curiosity about 40k.
This should be the new front page of the GW site, and be printed out and tacked up on the wall of all hobby stores (not ‘booby’ stores, although my iPhone insists it be so).
Loved the article. For me, 40k has always been a world where humankind’s god is dead. It’s not only a terrific game, but also a great meta-commentary on human depravity.
Great first post Aaron, welcome to BSC Review…can I now call you m’colleague? 🙂
It is the tragedy of the setting which creates such a mystique. The customary ideas of good vs evil have been smeared. All sides are flawed and use any means necessary to further their cause, which may be a greater parallel to the past and current world we live in. The Gothic and Baroque overtones give the the stories such richness, culture, and texture that is missing from other SciFi genres, all the while giving contrast to a far future where there is only war.
You and your colleagues at Black Library keep doing an excellent job fleshing out and giving breath to the 40K universe and history.
Memory lane for me this morning, i remember saving up my pocket money an gettin on that Victoria Line after school, shit if my mum knew she woulda gone mad like,… thinkin back she probably knew after all Gw stuff appearing in the house kinda gives it away. The Plaza store was my destination and to me it was the finest place to be in the world , there was games goin on an painted minis on display and the walls were covered in models..hundreds and hundreds of models, so many in fact i spent about 2 hours browsing an fantasizing about which one was the toughest which army was gonna be the best hahhahaha man the innocence of youth!…Thanks for the trip down memory lane Aaron!
I wouldn’t even say that 40k lit is tie-in fiction anymore or won’t be in the very near future. It’s had such explosive growth over the past 5/6 years with the DOW series and BL really taking off that the formerly ancillary BL is taking on a life of it’s own.
No longer is it just something that churns out tie-in books to sell off the back off the tabletop game but it’s attracting large numbers of people that don’t and never will play the game.
@irregular_Joe 40k isn’t adverse to some fairly bad retcons at times. The fate of Fulgrim is one that springs to mind but on the whole you’re right. It certainly hasn’t reached the silliness of comic book retconning or Star Wars.
I’d just like to back up this…
“Kids like it, sure. It’s got war in it, and it’s a developed, cool setting. The ties to the game bring in a lot of younger readers, though it’d be a lie to say I – and, I assume, my colleagues – are writing for that age group.”
Mr ADB’s spot on. As a studio games developer of 8 years and an author and freelance rpg writer for the last 2, I can say I’ve always written for myself, and that’s always been the brief. The thing is, when we were kids, we didn’t want to play or read what the cool kids were playing or reading – we read above our reading age and aspired to what we perceived as cooler, more adult pastimes. For me, that’s what made Rogue Trader so cool, and hopefully the tradition will continue for many more years to come.
And then there’s that other retcon – the complete switch of the Tyrannids from the squishy odd things of the Big Blue Book ™ to the Giger-esque creatures of later editions. One of the BL authors at the recent SFX Weekender alluded to others during the session on “Tie-in novels”.
I always was a fan of the various flavours of Warhammer – through WFB2, through the RPG and Rogue Trader to the present day – and somehow I always preferred the setting to the actual painting and moving the figures (I’m better at imagining than I am with a brush). I’m glad that the people handling the related imagining these days have the same love of the grim dark. It always struck me how the Space Marines carried that dual role – being both the final heroic defenders of mankind and the oppressive (power)fist that is the last resort when humans attempt to choose their own way.
(It probably says something that the other games I’ve recently been re-immersing in are SLA and Dark Conspiracy, which also share the air of crushed dreams and rearguard actions against destroyed hopes.)
Aaron, you’ve done a wonderful job describing my own feelings about the universe as well. i played it as a kid, and have grown to love the evolution of the system as a game and a universe. it’s been glorious to watch it grow up with me. I’ll always be a diehard, and writing in the universe will continue to be my passion for some time.
Mr. AD-B, I have tried to explain the 40k universe to my friends and family for years and I have never and probably will never be able to deliver it as eloquently or effectively as you did in this article. On a side note I hope you are allowed to write “Sevatar’s Bad Day”. Cheers. Death to the False Emperor.
You are completely right, what makes the Warhammer 40k universe so appealing is that in most Scifi franchises, such as Star Trek, Star-wars, Andromeda, etc. they show the universe that we all hope for, where as in the Universe of war-hammer 40k, god has completely abandon his children. Its very interesting.
I take that first sentence back, with apologies to the people behind this website – I thought this was AD-B’s blog. This is the most mature post by AD-B I’ve read, and I hope he can keep this up.
I think you nailed it on the head, pretty well. There are times when I wish the story would have a happy ending, or a sense of hope, but after thinking about it, that would just muck things up abit, wouldn’t it.
Nothing like a heroic last stand to stir the blood.
I dont. I love Aaron’s hatefull in-you’r-face ravings. Not that this was’nt spot on 🙂
I was obsessed with WW2 in my youth, and my long suffering girlfriend still weathers the occasional documentary or three when I catch one on the telly. The influence on 40k tech is obvious as you note, but I really agree with you that the sense of dread and desperation that permeated the two wars from a british perspective IS grimdark.
I’m an avid Iron Warriors collector [although I dabble with small Night Lords squads hence my interest in your books] and the sort of battles they engage in are in the vein of WW1 siege and trench warfare which we don’t really see these days.
I think the finest point in your books so far was when it was noted that the night lords in their drop pod were now so few in number and their armour scavenged in pieces which showed that Chaos are suffering the same sort of decay as the loyalists, if not worse.
N.B not sure how it works in terms of ‘oh ADB has monopoly on night lords, mc neil has monopoly on iron warriors etc’ in the Black Library/Lenton, but it would be nice to see you tackle some other chaos legions too.
Also, how did you feel about tackling serious fluff that had remained untouched, for example, without giving any spoilers away, why the title ‘soul hunter’ was given by kurze. Somewhat brave to give one’s own character such a prestigious honour. Then again whoever dreamed up Zho Sahal was also content to make them head of 1st company and the inventor of assault squads I guess. Thoughts?
Read Soul Hunter again. Talos Title is explained
jack: Read my comment again.
I’ve read soul hunter -_-
My point was ADB gave his character a sizeably important part of the fluff, and I was wondering how he felt about making a character he created have an important role in the estalished 40k background. Up until recently it was left somewhat up in the air as to if even curze had been killed or the fate of the assassin. Authors in the black library don’t often do that – plenty have their stories not impact of the history of the chapter or legion.
ADB – absolutely on the nail! It is the sheer hopelessness that makes it all so appealing. Personally I hate the “swish spandex cleanness” of things like Star Trek. I grew up with (original) STAR WARS (what a heap of junk – a heavy dose of 70s cynicism), DUNE (fantasy religious feudalism) and ALIEN (dirty space truckers) and W40k is the logical conclusion to this.
The BL authors already invent new characters and fit them into the existing fluff. In many ways they’ve taken over from the codexes in being the main way for new fluff to be introduced.
Hell 90% of the Horus Heresy line is newly invented stuff or retconned such as Fulgrim’s story. I don’t really think Aaron has done anything out of the ordinary.
Besides everyone knew that Curze had died, otherwise his final words would have been utterly pointless. The doubt was put there in classic 40k style just to create a debate
Aye there was alot of it in the heresy books, after all the intention of those was to flesh out the background. I simply found it interesting as I still maintain that its not often done.
Big fan of your novels, currently building up a Night Lords warband after reading Soul Hunter for the 3rd time.
I quite like your overall view of the 40k universe, it’s great. I guess it really shoves the fact in your face that this story of the galaxy is hostile, and no matter how much you want your favorite army to win, it will probably die almost unremembered in the gritty, bleak existance of humanity.
I’d love for you to shoot me a message sometime, if you don’t mind. Just to discuss things such as existing novels and all (obviously not what you have in mind as that would be a breach of your job).
Thanks for your time! Hopefully you read this!
Looking forward to your new NL novel! As well as potential books in the future!
Aaron, if I were as eloquent as you I could have written thin piece, right down to your age and the picture from the first ed of WH40K.
I’ve only just picked up Horus Rising after years of thinking ‘tie-in? Hpmuh, no thanks’, and am kicking myself for waiting this long. well, no, not true; I now have a dozen novels to be read one after the other. No waiting between books for me!
Sir, you are a talented writer and I, among the others here, love your work and share your passion. Write on, good man, write on.
This is what makes 40k unique is through the lavish background (through novels and codex) and your description is the boldest way of putting it.
Another aspect of 40k I particularly enjoy is that anyone can create their own little piece to the universe by fighting battles (with miniatures basically) and writing stories which for some turn out to be great novels.
Your works are particularly fantastic (The first heretic, which you signed for me so thanks for that, soul hunter, which I can’t wait to continue with when blood reaver is released and Helsreach, currently reading).
Keep up the good work and all other authors of novels/codex who fill this universe with much more stories for people to read upon to get inspiration and/or to enjoy some good old action
Hmmm….from these replies, it seems like your sermon’s mostly gone to the choir. That said, being a member of said choir, I really, really must echo the absolute wave of “nail, head (hitting)” comments that have been made. I don’t think that any other author from BL (apart from perhaps Mr. Farrer) has captured 40k in a vision so close to what I hold in my own head as you have.
There’s only one thing I can say against all written above. ‘If it’s all that bad, why bother?’ Being all grim, dark and black is good when you’re 14, your father grounded you, you love a girl who doesn’t notice you, your friends are jerks and you the world to go crashing down, not knowing that you don’t have even the smallest idea what a real life is.
But as one gets older and gets that not too plesant experience, stories consisting only of black don’t appeal that much anymore. And that’s where WH40K is different from many other stories – there is a brighter side. Despite all degeneration, all that death and misery, people still have hope and there is still something greater and bigger in the world rather than ‘you work 25 hours a day at the foundry your whole life and then you die’. After all, soldiers making their final stand, make it for someone – be it Emperor, their family back hope or something else.
Or maybe I’m just imagining things.
This is going to be my “explanatory link” from now on, which I will send to anyone asking about what do I see in w40k, great article ADB.