GrimDark II: Loose Canon | Aaron Dembski-Bowden Guest Blog

Aaron Dembski-Bowden

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.

– originally published 3/10/2011

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is the author of the Horus Heresy novels The Master of Mankind, Betrayer and The First Heretic, as well as the novella Aurelian and the audio drama Butcher’s Nails, for the same series. He has also written the popular Night Lords series, the Space Marine Battles book Helsreach, the novels The Talon of Horus and Black Legion, the Grey Knights novel The Emperor’s Gift and numerous short stories. He lives and works in Northern Ireland.