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…
On the third world of the Ferngully System…
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.
Here’s some really old art of one.
“Avast ye, laddie,” said the Space Dwarf Viking Pirate Cyborg.
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.
– originally published 4/20/2011
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.