In the grim dark of the future, there is only war…
That’s the tag-line for anything from the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and it basically summarizes everything in the universe in 10 words. You’d think that’s bad…but its not. What the bloody Brits from Games Workshop have created is a black, singular Universe (Capital U) riddled with bloodthirsty traitors, super-human soldiers, terrifying aliens, and a host of other horrors that are solely devoted to exterminating human existence. While it sounds quite nerdy (and it is) the appeal can’t be denied. It’s easily the biggest licensed prose section in any Barnes and Noble (outside of graphic novels…and maybe Star Wars). The Horus Heresy series has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. You can buy Ultramarines:The Movie (special edition) at Best Buy, in the sci-fi section. There’s a Space Marine video game available on major consoles (PS3 and 360) and wilidly successful, albeit older, computer games in the Dawn of War series, and even a few mobile games with fair reviews. In the less mainstream there’s a Role-Playing game, Collectible Card Games, and of course, where it all started…tabletop miniatures.
I digress: back in 1987, the Warhammer fantasy tabletop miniature game got a sci-fi brother in Warhammer 40K. This is the basis: you pay oodles of money for resin/plastic/metal pieces you assemble and then paint, all in order to play a rules-based tabletop game where you try to kill your opponent (or opponents) by rolling dice, casting spells, and using templates for bombs, flamethrowers, etc. The nerdiest of the nerdy, maybe outside of LARPing, yet it resonated.
The universe itself is all about survival. I tried the tabletop, and it was fun, but the universe to me is more enticing than the game that spawned it. I consume the books like they’re crack, basically. Any video game they release, I attack. I’ve played all the Dawn of War‘s, repeatedly,and Space Marine. I could dive into all of the things that make it awesome to a geek, like the 4 chaos gods, the general grudging acceptance of short, violent lives, the menacing aliens and vile traitors. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you why you non-40K geeks should try at least reading some of the books.
1) “Abandon All Hope” – The scope of WH40K is huge.It quite literally encompasses an entire universe. And in this universe, all human life is expendable. You’re one of trillions upon trillions. If you die, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme. And its kind of a nice change. Yes there are characters that play a bigger role, and maybe aren’t as disposable, The lingering spector of death, however, is always there, and you never know if your favorite character is going to survive, They usually do…but you never know.
2) Visual Emphasis and Settings – Part of what the Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing company for all of its books, looks for in its writing is a penchant for lush visual description. The settings of WH40K fiction are key components to most of the stories, and are generally epic and beautiful in scale. From giant hive cities stacked upon each other for generations and gothic, immense starships lined with statues and bristling with weaponry, to verdant death worlds intent on killing and deep jungles lined with indigenous life and hiding dangers in the shadows. They strive for visual scale in their writing, and its one of the most consistently strong pieces of Black Library fiction.
3) There is Only War – If you’re looking for romance, it’s not here. Any kind of humor (except maybe gallows) for the most part, not the focus. Excepting one very notable and awesome exception which I will discuss later. The very vast majority of Black Library 40K fiction is solely focused on all facets of war and conflict, and many do it very well. Not all, however, are based around the direct, shoot-at-each-other and then eventually hack at each other with swords. Some of the best things I’ve read from Black Library follow the espionage, cloack-and-dagger type storylines, where they fight behind the scenes of major conflicts to root out the underlying cause.
4) Characters – As with most war and spy-based fiction, the characters matter more than the setting. You get attached to the well-developed ones as they struggle to make a difference in their tiny pocket of the universe. It can be gratifying to see a lowly human triumph in the face of world-crushing warp entities and gigantic super-human warriors. Some of the better writers also paint very vivid pictures of just how incredibly, incomprehensibly powerful some of these super-soldiers and chaos gods are, and yet still make them relatable to a real-world reader.
5) Continuity – For the most part, there’s a great bit of continuity in the WH40K universe, not as a whole but in self-contained galaxies, or corners of the galaxy, where whole series of books take place and you see how the characters shape the balance and outcome of a long-term conflict. This probably appeals to nerds mostly, and sci-fi war nerds more exclusively, but its a cool facet of the fiction that should appeal to all readers. In particular, Dan Abnett is the prime example of this, as he has several series of books, some 10+ works long, that occur in the same corner of the universe (Affectionately coined the Dan-iverse by the folks at Black Library).
In summation, Warhammer 40K is awesome. It’s super-nerdy, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like anything war-related and science fictiony, this is for you. Don’t let the table-top gaming originis scare you off, some of these authors have cracked the NYT bestseller list. Its worth your time, trust me.