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.
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.
GrimDark III: Warhammer Race War!
Now we’ve done the overview, let’s get into the crunchy stuff. Let’s start a Race War.
Or rather, let’s talk about the race war already in progress, since that’s the heart of 40K’s conflict.
Given the insane amount of possible detail when discussing the races that make up the 40K galaxy, you’re gonna have to excuse me for missing huge chunks out. There’s 30 years of IP to cover, and my time – as well as your patience – is a finite resource. I’ll cover what I can, though. I mean, I’m enslaved to do a job, here.
I40K’s origins reach back into the dank and fungal reaches of the mid-80s. I don’t really remember it all that well since I was about 5 years old at the time, but I’m told by many Hollywood movies that it was a time in humanity’s evolution where computers were the size of factories, and the best we could do for gaming was either playing the original Super Mario Bros., or to actually go outside and move our withered limbs ourselves, usually in some foot-to-ball scenario. That sounds way too kinetic for me. The mid-80s were clearly very dark days indeed.
I did some research into this. I wouldn’t recommend reaching back that far, myself – you’re bound to discover some truly shocking stuff, like an entire subsection of rock where you weren’t allowed to make music unless you looked like a really hot Glam Rock Soccer Mom.
Suffice to say, everything has changed a lot since then. Society’s tastes, fashions and sensibilities are completely different, and so is Warhammer 40,000. While the Grimdarkness has remained largely untouched, a lot of the core lore has changed around it. Races have changed most of all, evolving and shifting in the setting’s thematic atmosphere, like various little fish all swimming in the same sea. Fish that hate each other. Fish that have way too many teeth, and bear the scars of past wars against their aquatic brethren.
No one would ever say that 40K wasn’t derivative – at least, no one would say it with a straight face. For a long time, that was one of the setting’s main selling points: to take sci-fi and fantasy tropes, twisting them into positions never seen before. It still exists to a large degree: the taking of common tropes and warping them into something else.
A lot of the setting’s strength lies in just how far it has come from its derivative roots as flavour text to a niche hobby war game, and evolved into the bombastic panoply that we have today. (Of course, you could argue that it never surpassed its roots, and is essentially worthless as a setting. But if you do that, I’ll call you rude names.)
Either way, one of the major aspects of 40K as a setting is that ties into its origins as a board game. All of the races are playable, which means the background is tooled to present them all as credible and valid as each another, to encourage player equality. That makes each race ultimately equal, in the loosest sense, especially in that each of them has the possibility to be the Death of Mankind. Of course, the reason the Imperium stands on the bleeding edge is because each of the threats is essentially rising at two minutes to midnight, and once the clock strikes, humanity finally falls. But it’s largely a case of each race potentially being The Final Threat, limited by various reasons (i.e., the Tyranids aren’t fully in the galaxy, yet; the Eldar had their chance, and are now all explodified, etc.)
Humanity deserves a long article of its own, given the amount of depth to cover. I’ll get to that. But let’s give the filthy alien scum some airtime first, one at a time, or bunched up if there’s enough room to keep it comfortable.
This time, we’ll start with the Eldar.
II: The Eldar
I like that her helmet is designed to accommodate her mega hairstyle.
“Eldar, huh? So what are they based on?”
Well, at their core, they’re pretty obviously Space Elves. Even their name is a blatant Tolkien reference, and the Eldar share a lot in common with their source material: from their appearance to the fact they’re a dying race whose time has long since passed.
“Space Elves? That sounds retarded.”
Firstly, don’t say ‘retarded’ like that. It’s a nasty habit, and one I’m trying to break myself.
Secondly, the Eldar are characterised by the fact that they used to have it all, and now scrape by on the edge of survival. While all other races are generally seen as rising (or approaching…) threats, the Eldar are a species suffering through their last gasping breaths. Thousands of years before the end of the 41st millennium, their empire spanned the galaxy. The threats that plague humanity now were shackled and contained by Eldar influence and power back then. Everything was going pretty swimmingly.
Of course, as it always does in 40K, Something Went Wrong.
At the apex of their societal development, unrivalled by any other race in the galaxy, the Eldar succumbed to decadence above all else, devoting their lives to nothing but pleasure – be it sexual, sybaritic indulgence, cannibalism, or murderous, sadistic desires. In 40K – where a literal Hell exists behind the fabric of reality – all of that wanton foulness reflected in the warp. It gestated, ever-growing, and at last, it burst. The Eldar’s depraved culture, fuelled by billions and billions of sadistic souls, gave birth to a psychic event that annihilated their species: with their sins, they bred a malicious, soul-thirsting god of decadence. And like most newborns, it woke up hungry and screaming.
Across the galaxy, the Eldar died, their souls leeched into the warp by a psychic torrent as the nascent god gave its birth-cry. The core of their empire – those countless worlds and suns that made up the populated jewel of their interstellar crown – were drowned in madness and hate as the warp spilled into the material realm.
Humans now call it the Eye of Terror, in that classically overblown “Here Be Dragons”-style cartography of Ye Olden Days.
Behold this rather attractive galactic bruise: literally a divine afterbirth.
So what are the Eldar now? Well, mostly, they’re dead. The descendants of those that survived still suffer a pretty dreadful curse, because when an Eldar dies, their soul gets swallowed by Slaanesh, the god that rose from their ancestors’ decadence.
Really, they’ve not even escaped their ultimate fate, they’re just working on ways to delay it. And that’s pure raw 40K, right there, with “last hope” written all over it. It’s as Grimdark as it comes. Every Eldar soul burns bright in the warp, as every single one of them is psychic to some degree (in most cases, latently).
The Eldar have two ways to defy their fate as delicious morsels to the monster their great-grandparents accidentally spewed forth. The first is to prevent their souls from drifting into the warp by mystical containment. The second is to simply not die, which is a pretty hardcore way of doing things, no matter how you slice it.
This was the first Eldar artwork I ever saw.
At the time, I had no idea who David Bowie was
Unsurprisingly, even in survival, the Eldar are a shattered people. The Exodites are the rarest culture in the remnants of the species, and are largely found on agricultural worlds, living difficult, primitive, simple lives to keep themselves free of their ancestral decadence.
The Craftworld Eldar are the largest subculture in what remains of the species, living aboard colossal cities of enchanted bone that drift through space. They follow stringent Paths (the Path of the Warrior, the Path of the Seer, the Path of the Artisan, etc.) in order to focus their lives completely on the pursuit of one such discipline, until they’ve mastered it.
A follower of the Path of the Dreadlocked Badass.
It’s like a cross between Bushido and some really harsh monastic abstinence. After all, when Eldar get down and funky, bad things happen. Birthing an evil god of soul-eating ultra-destruction is certainly proof, so you can see why they’re a little bit careful about trying not to sin.
But warrior-monk abstinence, and the dirt-grubbing purity of being a farmer (guess which one is the playable army…) only covers keeping your soul clean in life. Slaanesh still waits in Lovecraftian hilarity, chuckling away in the darkness between worlds, counting down the seconds until each Eldar croaks. So how do they keep their souls from becoming after-dinner mints for an evil god?
Simple. They cheat.
The Eldar’s crystal-based technology allowed them to capture their souls within spirit-stones, which are then connected to their communities’ Infinity Circuits. It’s a classic sci-fi trope (uploading personalities to cyberspace), coupled with an eerie graveyard vibe (it’s a network of thousands and thousands of dead people’s souls), mixed in with the fantasy genre concept of communing with ancestor-spirits, either as ghosts, or even in magic trees…
Not all Eldar are so passive about how they preserve their souls from being eaten and digested by a nexus of absolute evil. Like I said, some get out of the problem entirely by simply choosing not to die.
If you just read that and thought “Well, this 40K jazz is a bit grim, so I bet immortality comes with a real big price to pay”, then you can pat yourself on the back for being on the ball. I’m proud of you. Hell, we’re all proud of you.
The Eldar that avoid death are called (in a humbling display of staggering originality) the Dark Eldar. They don’t call themselves that, of course. I think they just consider themselves Eldar, the same way all the best villains are really just doing bad things for (their own) greater good. Heck, maybe even Darth Maul didn’t realise he was just being an ass to people. Maybe he thought that was a cool way to behave, and it’d all work out well in the end.
Look, I don’t know, okay? I’m not his biographer.
But I’m willing to concede that he probably knew he was a bad guy.
The Dark Eldar suffer from the Thirst, which is a pretty grim need to suck up the life force of other beings. This seems to be because Slaanesh leeches their essences bit by bit while they’re still alive, and they need to either sacrifice other souls either to keep their hungry god quiet, or to fill up the empty bits of their own souls, like some kind of spiritual Tetris.
To cheat death – and therefore cheat the insanely evil god waiting patiently to crunchy-munch on their souls – the Dark Eldar do some pretty terrible things. They’re big on raiding for slaves, they’re absolutely huge on torture, and they think siphoning the souls of their captives is a really cool way to pass the time.
Ultimately, they’re only adding to the foul emotions that bleed across the warp, making Slaanesh and the other Ruinous Powers that much stronger, but that’s not really something they’re concerned about. They’re far more focused on drinking souls through weird, scary alien rituals, which effective regenerates them and keeps them tick-tocking on their way to murderous immortality.
“So, that’s the Space Elves. Please tell me there aren’t any Space Dwarves.”
…uh, actually, they really were a thing for a while.
But they’re not anymore. They were basically retconned out existence, by virtue of being considered really, really, really, really lame by the top brass. I mean, even their name was whacky. They were called Squats.
The official explanation is that all their worlds were overrun and devoured by an alien race called the Tyranids.
I like that. I dig how in a setting where giant, muscled fungus men ride Mad Max cars and use their own teeth as currency, the concept of little engineering dudes with beards was considered a step too far down the aisle of silliness.
But more on that next time.