MIND MELD: The Appeal of the Warhammer 40K Universe

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Several folks here at SF Signal are big fans of Black Library‘s Warhammer 40K universe and this week, we thought we’d ask Warhammer 40K authors about that setting:

Q: What do you find appealing about the Warhammer 40K universe as a writer and as a reader? What do newcomers to the universe need to know? Where should they start?

Here’s what they said:

Anthony Reynolds
Anthony Reynolds is an ex-Games Developer for Games Workshop and author of seven novels for Black Library Publishing. He lives in Sydney, Australia, and has a semi-to-rarely-updated blog at anthonyreynolds.wordpress.com.

It is the richness of the setting in all its darkness and horror that I find so appealing about the 40K universe. It’s very far from a generic sci-fi setting – it’s something more akin to the Dark Ages, complete with all its religious persecution, brutality, fear, and ignorance… but with added bio-engineered super-soldiers, Titan war machines as big as buildings, and daemons that like nothing better than tearing their way into the material plane to devour your soul.

As a writer, the 40K universe is a great place to work in, as while there is incredible depth of background material to draw from, there is a still a heck of a lot of room to play. The universe is a big place… if the odd planet, civilisation or solar system needs to be destroyed for the sake of storytelling, then so be it. It happens. The sheer scale of the universe is such that there is also always room for new developments, so for me, the setting has never felt restricting.

For new readers, Dan Abnett’s First and Only is a well-written and accessible entry point, but if you’re brave enough, I’d suggest just jumping in at the deep end. Pick a book that you like the look of and get reading. You might not understand every reference, but you don’t need to.

James Swallow
James Swallow is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author whose stories from the dark worlds of Warhammer 40,000 include the Horus Heresy novels Nemesis and The Flight of the Eisenstein, along with Faith & Fire, the Blood Angels books Deus Encarmine, Deus Sanguinius, Red Fury and Black Tide; his short fiction has appeared in Inferno!, What Price Victory, Legends of the Space Marines, Tales of Heresy and The Book of Blood, along with the audiobook tales Heart of Rage, Oath of Moment and the forthcoming Legion of One. Swallow’s other credits include the non-fiction book Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, writing for Star Trek Voyager, and scripts for videogames and audio dramas.

From a writer’s standpoint, there’s a lot of good stuff about the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I’ve worked in a few fictional worlds – Star Trek, Stargate, Judge Dredd – and as much fun as those are, you’re locked into using a palette of known, familiar characters that you can only evolve so far. Most tie-in writing hands you the sets and props and actors, and asks you to tell a story without breaking any of them. The Warhammer 40,000 universe, while it does have a number of “star” characters, is more a toolset for a writer. You’re given the sets and the props, but the heroes and villains of the tale are yours to create – and to destroy! There’s so much that has been written in terms of back-story that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches – so from a nuts and bolts standpoint, the 40K world is a storehouse laden with jumping-off points for stories.

That’s the technical, how-do-I-tell-a-story-here answer. Then there’s the other side of the same coin – the richness and thematic texture of this fictional universe. Warhammer 40,000 is deep and wide, it’s a grand canvas for stories of honour and struggle. It’s ideal for mythic storytelling, for drama set against a monumental, towering landscape and the dark glamour of warfare. It’s a place where humanity struggles to survive against great horrors and terrible threats, a place of faded glory, crumbling gothic splendour, and heroes and monsters. If there’s a single word that sums it all up, that word is epic.

I love the tragic brutality, the majesty and monstrosity of it all – I guess it speaks to some innately British nihilistic streak that runs through me as a writer…

And all these things are what appeals to me about it as a reader, too. I love picking up a new 40K novel, because I never know where it will take me. In other franchises, I know that the heroes will win through, and the thrill of the story comes in seeing how they will succeed this time – but setting foot in the Warhammer 40,000 world means that all bets are off. Up ahead, there’s blood and fire and darkness, and there’s no telling how it will all end. If you look at the SF landscape, there’s just nothing around right now like this, nothing with the same wild texture and fangs-out mentality; it’s hard-edged gothic space opera rooted in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Iron Maiden and the stories of Michael Moorcock, all with the dial turned up to 11. It’s a lot more than just toy soldiers.

So, what does a newcomer to the universe need to know? In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Start with that; that phrase is pretty much the bedrock on which the Warhammer 40,000 world stands. On the page facing the indicia of every 40K novel there’s a piece of text that begins “It is the 41st Millennium…” It talks about the Emperor of Mankind ruling a crumbling empire under siege from aliens and gods made of pure hate, about living a life where the only constant is endless warfare, about superhuman warriors and common men alike fighting to hold back the tide of the night. Make no mistake, this is a world of darkness that will kill you if you turn your back on it; but the war is just, and it never ends…and the prize is survival. These are stories of heroism and of horror, and they’re not for the timid.

Where should a reader start? That depends on the reader. The streams of fiction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe have many different tones and textures. If you want epic, galaxy-spanning drama, read the Horus Heresy saga that begins with Dan Abnett’s Horus Rising. Gritty tales of soldiers in the mud and blood? Check out the Imperial Guard novels or Dan’s ongoing Gaunt’s Ghosts series. An alien perspective? Gav Thorpe’s Path of the Warrior and C.S. Goto’s Eldar Prophecy. Rich prose and compelling procedurals? Matt Farrer’s Shira Calpurnia novels. Intrigue? Dan’s Eisenhorn series. Comedy-drama? Sandy Mitchell’s Cain novels. And if it’s tales of demi-god warriors on alien battlegrounds you’re after, there’s a whole slew of books featuring the gene-engineered Space Marines; anti-heroes (Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords), stoic warriors (Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines), space vikings (William King’s Space Wolves), unflinching daemonhunters (Ben Counter’s Grey Knights) and my own noble-but-cursed Blood Angels.

Graham McNeill
Graham McNeill is an ex-architect, ex-games developer and current author who’s written numerous media tie-in novels, mostly for Games Workshop’s fiction imprint, The Black Library. Originally from Scotland, Graham now lives in Nottingham and spends altogether far too much time working (or so he’d have us believe). Graham can be contacted at his website www.graham-mcneill.com

I remember getting my hands on the Rogue Trader book (Warhammer 40k‘s first incarnation) when it came out many years ago, and being blown away by the imagery and bleak horror of the setting. As a teenager raised on Star Trek and Star Wars, finding something that wasn’t clean, wasn’t set in a world where everyone was happy and had moved beyond the need for money and a good scrap, this was a breath of dusty, stagnant, gothic air. To play a game in a setting where there was no hope of victory, only the chance to stave off inevitable decline into destruction…that was something I wanted a piece of. It fired up a need I hadn’t even realised existed. It was exciting, it was new, and the idea of the Space Marines stoked my imagination in a way that no amount of Stormtroopers or Klingon Warriors ever could.

A galactic empire ruled over by a corpse god, his eternal, rotting, frame wracked with unimaginable torments as he drains the lives from hundreds of psychics just to maintain his existence was just the coolest thing I’d ever read. And he was the good guy. He was the master the defenders of humanity served. If he was the good guy, then what kind of twisted universe was this? It was one I wanted to play in that’s for sure, and so for over two decades I’ve painted models, built terrain and played the game. But even from the start I knew there was more to each battle than dice rolling, more story to be told and more characters to discover. All the Space Marines in my army had names, and over the course of the battles they fought, they developed their own narratives, their own legends and heroic actions that we’d talk about later. Pretty soon, I was writing the narratives between the battles, the events that led to the fight and the aftermath of the conflict. These grew in the telling until I had reams and reams of story for the overarching campaign, characters and backstory.

It was the bleakness of it all that inspired this devoted interaction. After all, it’s a setting that – to my mind – could only have come out of the rain-lashed, cloud-wreathed island kingdom of Great Britain. The mordant humour, the pessimism, the world-will-end-in-darkness ethos struck a real chord in me, one that resonates to this day. Not say I’m a pessimist, I’m not, as I write stories firmly set in the heroic mould of SF/Fantasy, though I do let the bad guys win now and again (otherwise where’s the threat?). It’s a setting that’s the bastard child of a hundred fathers, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolf, M. John Harrison and a host of other classic SF authors, but one which has evolved over time to take on its own unique character. Other gaming systems have come on the scene since 40k arrived, but none of them have had a background that’s even half as compelling as 40k, any darkness feeling bolted on or deliberately made nasty to stand out, but feeling forced.

Warhammer 40k is a setting that’s complex and layered, as you’d expect from something that’s been continually evolving for over twenty years, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to get into. A lot of that depth comes with the reading and the reader’s understanding broadens with every book. In any case, a good writer doesn’t write with the assumption that his readers know everything. I like to balance my novels with enough assumptions made that I don’t have to explain every term or concept I deploy, but not so many that I’ll lose reader in a mire of WTF? There are lots of places for a new reader to start, but a good one is with any of the short story anthologies, as they’ll shine a wavering light into different corners of the 40k universe and give a flavour of each particular author’s style. From there you can decide whether you want to read of the heroic Imperial Guard, the enigmatic eldar, the mighty Adeptus Astartes or the Inquisitors who hunt foes too terrible to name in the shadows of star-spanning conflicts. Whatever your peccadilloes, you’re sure to find something that works for you, and before you know it, you’ll be sucked into the depths of the crumbling Imperium and its struggle for survival.

It’s that depth and brooding atmosphere of impending doom, where the Doomsday Clock is forever set at two minutes to midnight, that keeps readers coming back for more. That, and the chance to see their army kicking butt, because everyone who has a 40k army loves to see its stories told beyond the battlefield, to relive those cracking games with the blood and the viscera flying, the bullets and the explosions rocking the world around them. Good fiction draws you in, and to be drawn into the world of the Imperium is to feel the dust of forgotten glory days lying thick around you, where the only light is from guttering candles and smouldering ruins. Where the only hope is that the alien horrors of daemonic nightmares might grant you a quick death instead of a lingering slide into despair.

If that’s not appealing, I don’t know what is. And remember. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war…

Henry Zou
Henry Zou lives in Sydney, Australia. He first started writing on long and lonely military exercises with the Army, and these scribbled notes and drawings became the basis for his stories. His first published piece of fiction appeared in the Warhammer 40,000 anthology Planetkill. When Henry is not working or studying, he devotes all his time to submission wrestling and listening to Baltic gypsy rock.

The Black Library establishment reminds me of TSR novels during their 1980s golden age. The background and fiction of Warhammer 40k has been building like a patchwork quilt since 1975, with each writer, artist and creator adding their own square to the cloth. Of course, 40k has its own distinct gothic flavour, but the room for creativity and subject matter prevents stagnation.

As for newcomers, it’s difficult to pin-point something specific since the novels themselves can be so different. A bookshelf can have Dan Abnett’s gritty, hard-boiled inquisitorial noirs on one end, and Sandy Mitchell’s Discworld-like humour on the other. In the recent months I’ve read Abnett’s Titanicus, Kyme’s Firedrake and McNeill’s Chapter’s Due, all of which I’d recommend as great examples of core 40k fiction.

Sandy Mitchell
Sandy Mitchell is a pseudonym of Alex Stewart, who has been writing full-time since the mid eighties under both names. As Sandy he’s best known for his work for the Black Library, particularly the Commissar Cain series. He’s currently in the final stages of an MA in Screenwriting at the LCC, and working on the eighth Cain novel. The seventh, The Emperor’s Finest, will be released almost simultaneously with Defender of the Imperium, the second Cain omnibus, in a few weeks time. His short film Ruffled Feathers, a comedy about a catastrophic hen night, premiered in June.

>> Q: What do you find appealing about the Warhammer 40K universe as a writer and as a reader?

As a writer, the sheer richness of the texture; it’s been growing and developing for twenty-five years now, and there’s so much background to play with that you can tell pretty much any kind of story against any kind of setting. You can even be funny, if you’re tonally consistent with the established feel of the universe, as I’ve found with the Cain stuff.

As a reader, all the great writers setting stories there!

>> What do newcomers to the universe need to know? Where should they start?

Just grab a book and jump in: you’ll have a great time, I guarantee it. You don’t have to have played the game, or read any of the supplements; the majority of the readers who pick up the books from Amazon or Waterstones, or the local library, have never set foot in a Games Workshop store, and never will. They just like well-written action/adventure SF. The details of the background emerge naturally from the interactions of the characters, just as they would in any other setting.

That said, there are several long-running series with their own internal continuity, so it’s best to start those at the beginning of the run: the omnibus editions can be quite handy here! The Cain series is a bit of an anomaly, as it jumps about his personal timeline anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if you read them out of sequence; although some of the running gags do build from book to book if you follow them through in the order I wrote them.

Nick Kyme
Nick Kyme is a writer and editor. He lives in Nottingham where he began a career at Games Workshop on White Dwarf magazine. Now Black Library’s Senior Range Editor, Nick’s writing credits include the Warhammer 40,000 Tome of Fire trilogy featuring the Salamanders, his Warhammer Fantasy-based dwarf novels and several short stories. Read his blog at www.nickkyme.com.

I think the 40K setting is one of those that carries a similar appeal for both its writers and its readers. ‘Grit’ is the first word that springs to mind when considering what makes the universe so interesting. This isn’t a reality of shiny chrome, advanced technology or enlightened alien races; it’s one of decaying splendor, stagnation, planet eating monsters, insidious and terrifying daemons – it’s the grim darkness, people, and it ain’t pretty. Consider then, the heroes of this brutal tableaux – humanity. Whether it’s the hammer of the Imperial Guard, a vast force of human soldiers, tanks, gun-servitors and fanatical priests; or the Space Marines, brotherhoods of semi-monk, semi-medieval knight, semi-gladiatorial genetically enhanced super humans, the task before them holding off these monsters is a never ending and prodigious one.

It makes for a rich and compelling background – heroes in the 40K setting are flickering candles in a sea of abject darkness, which makes them all the brighter for that imbalance. Its unremitting and unique in so many ways. Full of icons, like the Space Marines and their enemies, it has a very muscular component, ideally suited for pulp science fiction, but which can also be cerebral.

As a writer, the potential for world building is vast. In spite of a shared universe, there are huge tracts of unexplored galactic space. You can literally create a planet and its culture only to destroy with a ravening horde of alien tyranids or subjugate it with the all-consuming power of Chaos (that’s with a big ‘C’). That’s quite appealing, to know that a genre tie-in has such a massive sandbox where such a narrative is possible, even probable. It’s an uncompromising setting and a highly visceral one. Some of Games Workshop’s art and miniatures upon which the novels are also based are truly inspiring. It’s a collective of material that spans over 30 years in the making. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

If you’re new to the setting, be aware that this is two-fisted action of the pulpy variety. It’s all about war and violence. A lasting peace is never going to be something that occurs in the 40K mythos – at its heart, it’s all about the conflict. The background is deep, but you don’t need to know all of it. Reading about it is the best way to induct yourself as the mood and tone of the narratives will inform the 40K world view, as it were. There are a lot of factions. Identifying one of these that appeals might be the best way to start your journey. You don’t need to be a Games Workshop hobbyist either, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

In short, the set up is something like this: humanity stands on the brink of destruction. It’s perpetually one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock. The Imperium (a huge galactic empire) is the last bastion of mankind and it’s ruled over by a demi-god Emperor whose immortal body is only kept alive by means of an ancient piece of technology called the Golden Throne. The Emperor was near-fatally injured some 10,000 years earlier at the end of a civil war called the Horus Heresy when his creations, the Space Marines, turned on one another. It was a conflict that consigned the galaxy to stagnation and a long, drawn out death. Technology is basically what’s left after that war. Innovation is dead, restoration is impossible. Threats from alien races and the power of Chaos (evil, basically) mean that mankind clings to the edge of the abyss with its finger tips, hanging on but never quite gaining a better grip to pull itself backup. It’s dark and it’s most definitely grim.

The Horus Heresy series of novels recount the details of the civil war that crippled the Imperium. Set some 10,000 years before 40K, they are a really good primer for anyone wanting to get into the setting. Apart from that, take a look at the books with Space Marines in them (both the Imperial and Chaos varieties). If you go to Black Library’s website (the guys who publish the books) then you’ll find some useful steers there too. The point is, you can start wherever you like – mid-series might be unwise – because there are lots of different strands written by different authors.

It’s a big, scary galaxy out there. Sure, it’s on fire but it’s also one hell of a ride.’

Gav Thorpe
Gav Thorpe is a long-standing author for Black Library, having penned many Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 novels, short stories and novellas including The Last Chancers, the hugely popular Angels of Darkness, and currently the Time of Legends series The Sundering. His first Angry Robot novel, The Crown of the Blood, is out Summer 2010.

Having been a fan of Warhammer 40,000 since I was a spotty youth, in all of its wondrous forms, I’ve always been swept away by the imagery. The 40K universe does a very difficult thing, and that is to be both very broad and inclusive in its imagery while still maintaining a very strong sense of theme and cohesiveness. It’s a huge pot of ideas, vast enough to put in anything, though whatever you put in will be twisted and warped to fit. The themes of sacrifice, war, devotion, dogma and an uncaring universe gel with the sorts of stories I like to tell. Despite all of the strangeness, the alien races, the monstrous creatures and soul-sucking daemons, it is a place also with heroism, humanity and overcoming adversity. The bleakness of the setting serves to highlight these rare instances even more; genuine pinpricks of light in the darkness. It is a realm of greys, where absolute good and evil can exist but the vast majority of people have to battle to survive in the twilight between. 40K possesses a genuinely different morality, where threats can be so absolute the hideous and totalitarian measures used to combat them seem justified. There is almost always no choice other than the lesser of two evils.

Those who are about to embark on a foray into this dark universe could do worse than pick up one of the Space Marine Battles series, or the Imperial Guard books. These are standalone novels, so new readers can stick in their toe without committing to one of the longer ongoing series. In the former, there’s been particular praise for Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden and the latest in the series, Hunt for Voldorius by Andy Hoare, is sure to be a good ‘un; if you prefer the poor bloody grunts and tankers to superhuman killing machines, Redemption Corps by Rob Sanders or Steve Parker’s Gunheads might be the way to go. For the most part, 40K fiction is necessarily of a military slant. However, there are some titles with a less battle-orientated theme, although they have plenty of action too. The omnibus Enforcer by Matt Farrer shows a good chunk of the Imperium of Man away from the frontlines, and Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn collection is a huge favourite amongst 40K readers.

Really there is no single place to start, because the Warhammer 40,000 universe is such a big place, with all sorts of different things to appeal to different folks. There are several anthologies of short stories available, and they make a good introduction to both the setting and the authors currently writing there. With Black Library about to launch their digital range the choice is getting even wider, and if you can track down the out-of-print and massive Let the Glaxy Burn anthology there’s bound to be something that lures you in.

Okay, I haven’t mentioned Dan’s Gaunt’s Ghosts, but everybody else is going to, aren’t they? Can I plug Path of the Warrior, a real diversion from all of those Space Marines and Guardsmen, featuring the enigmatic and downright alien Eldar? No? Too late!

Lucien Soulban
Lucien Soulban is a novelist and scriptwriter living in beautiful Montreal. He’s contributed to numerous anthologies including Horrors Beyond 2, Best of All Flesh, Dark Faith and the HWA’s two horror comedy anthologies: Blood Lite and Blood Lite 2; you’ll also find he’s penned five novels including Dragonlance: Renegade Wizards and Warhammer 40K: Desert Raiders. Lucien’s also written for various video-games including Rainbow Six: Vegas, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Golden Compass, Dawn of Heroes and Kung-Fu Panda.

Boy, that’s a toughie, especially since I find so much appealing about 40K on a variety of levels. As a writer, and particularly a horror writer, I think the universe is lush and baroque and bloody dark. It’s the kind of setting you could fall into, like exploring a Bosch painting but with H.R. Giger’s aesthetics for the horrific. It’s got a dash of Lovecraft thrown in, if Lovecraft were a Holy Crusader and zealot, and no matter how much the books touch upon the various races and horrors, you always get a sense that they’re just scratching the surface of what lurks below because (face it)… you really can’t handle the truth.

Now, as a reader, I actually like the military angle, when done well. I love reading about warfare and I love interesting locations, and 40K thrives on the marriage of the two. I’m also a fan of Dan Abnett’s work, and while reading about Space Marines is fun, I feel that nothing connects you to the real personalities of the world like the Imperial Guard. So I like that element of being grounded in the fantastic, especially since I relate far more with the reactions of the soldiers than with the reactions of the long-lived and almost singularly-minded Space Marines.

As for the newcomers… I’d say hold on to your hats. I think they need to wrap their heads around the concept that the cosmos is spiraling out of control and laughing maniacally as it does. The humans of that universe have no choice but to be fervent, because compassion and hesitation will get you killed. The tagline of the universe is that there is only war. I’d also say there is no mercy either, because mercy is what evil will use against you.

But don’t take my word for it. Jump in. I’d recommend Dan Abnett’s series on Gaunt’s Ghosts to familiarize yourselves with the universe and to gain an understanding of the human condition in that universe. I think that is critical… understanding the odds arrayed against humanity because that establishes what society must sacrifice to win.

Matthew Farrer
Matthew Farrer lives in and around Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. He has been writing fiction in Games Workshop’s universes, mainly the 40Kverse, since 1999. His Shira Calpurnia trilogy of Warhammer 40,000 novels has recently been collected in omnibus form as Enforcer, and his work also appears in the recent 40Kverse anthologies Sabbat Worlds and Fear the Alien.

It’s the lack of autopilot, explains the protagonist of Maxine McArthur’s Time Future at one point in that book. She’s talking about her years of living as the only human among an alien race, and that’s the expression she uses. It’s not a mechanical term: she means there’s no social autopilot, no chance to relax, to be at ease. No gesture or facial expression means what a human instinctively thinks it means. There’s no shared understanding of species or experience, nothing to underpin a common turn of phrase or explain a quirk of behaviour whose roots run so deep that you’re not even conscious of them. Every tiny word and action has to be consciously planned and scrutinised. None of the cues mean what you think they do.

For Commander Halley, that was an ordeal. She has my sympathies. But for myself, thinking about that particular ingredient that brings me back to this setting over and over again, I think it’s that feeling that’s the key. I used to try to explain the 40Kverse to people in the simple term of what it was opposite to: the anti-Star Trek, the un-Star Wars, the non-Galactica, but I think “no autopilot”, while needing more explanation, nails it better. 40K uses so many of the cues and tropes of classic science fiction… but none of them align quite as they’re supposed to.

Censer-swinging tech-worshippers who incant prayers over their machines to persuade them to work. Standard SF cue for bad guys, or ludicrous comic relief, or people who have to be saved from their own ignorance by the hero. Then you get a chance to see the literally hellish results when malign influences get hold of technology that hasn’t been properly consecrated. Faster-than-light travel. We all know how that works. A few calculations and some beeps from the navigation console and then kapwingg! and there you are where you wanted to go. Then you enter the 40Kverse and to engage your translight drives is to push your ship into a hellish ocean of quasi-living entropy, riding its storms and currents like the sea captains of old, praying (literally, again) that you don’t cross the path of one of the predatory things that live there. Terrifyingly advanced aliens flit from their hyperspatial webway passages in antigravity flyers to square off against genetically and surgically enhanced cyborgs pouring out of orbital drop pods. Except that the aliens are symbolically acting out aspects of their war god, and the Space Marines have their armour and tanks adorned with bright livery and heraldic banners, and the war unfolds more like Olivier’s Henry V than Black Hawk Down.

Nothing in the 40Kverse works quite the way it’s supposed to. One of its axes is the trappings of tough military science fiction, its other axis is dystopian fantasy that harks back to the New Wave of decades ago, baroque and psychedelic. The constant tension and brilliant chemistry between those two create a place where none of the genre machinery works in quite the way you’ve been taught it will. No autopilot. It’s exhilarating.

But no-one can be…told…what the 40Kverse is. You have to read it for yourself.

For words, begin with Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn series and Graham McNeill’s Storm of Iron. That will show you the nature of the universe you’ve taken on, and give you a taste of the military feel that 40K has inherited from its wargaming roots. Continue in that vein with Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Helsreach and any of the Space Marine anthologies. Speaking of which, go old school with Ian Watson’s wonderfully off-the-wall novel, also called Space Marine, and at least the first volume of his Inquisition War trilogy, now published as Draco. Then round out your experience with Ravenor, Dan’s follow-up to the Eisenhorn series, and Jim Swallow’s Faith and Fire with its story of the fighting sisterhood of the Imperial church. By now you’ll have a taste for what you’re satisfied with and what you want more of, so then it’ll be time to hit the Black Library website and start checking their free excerpts for what direction to take your reading in. You’ll also be ready for Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain series and the books chronicling the Horus Heresy back in the 40Kverse’s ancient past. I tend to recommend these as second-stage books, since they play with the 40K setting in ways that are more entertaining if you’re already familiar with the work that they’re springing off from.

And because the visual feel of 40K is just as important as the words, don’t forget the art books: John Blanche’s Inquisitor Sketchbook, the Liber Chaotica, the Horus Heresy “Vision” series (now assembled in hardcover as The Collected Visions), and the art and background sections of the gaming rulebooks themselves.

William King
William King was born in Stranraer, Scotland, in 1959. His short stories have appeared in The Year’s Best SF, Zenith, White Dwarf and Interzone. He has travelled extensively throughout Europe, America, Asia and Australasia, and he currently lives in Prague. His works for Black Library include the first seven Gotrek & Felix novels, the tale of Ragnar Blackmane and the forthcoming Tyrion and Teclis trilogy

>> What do you find appealing about the Warhammer 40K universe as a writer and as a reader?

I came into the Warhammer 40K universe as a reader sometime back in the 80s and the same thing appeals to me now as appealed to me back then. It is a very different sort of science-fiction universe, a mixture of technology and fantasy and dark Gothic horror combined with elements of Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon and Elric stories and Frank Herbert’s Dune. It is a very downbeat place which I think reflected the grim realities of 80s Britain and which gives it a certain piquant atmosphere even today.

As a writer, I find the setting very challenging. It enables me to mix elements of sword and sorcery with elements of space opera, cyberpunk and supernatural horror in a way that I really enjoy. It allows a certain kind of pedal-to-the metal storytelling which I very much doubt I could get away with anywhere else.

>> What do newcomers to the universe need to know?

It’s the 41st Millennium, old gods and demons have returned and haunt the darkness of interstellar space, and a vast Empire, in theory owing allegiance to the Emperor of Mankind but in practise ruled by various warlords and vast bureaucracies, is in a state of galaxy-wide war.

Newcomers need to know that the universe is very dark, as dark and bleak as the fiction of HP Lovecraft. Most of the stories are very fast paced military science fiction set in a detailed and exotic version of the far future.

>> Where should they start?

The line is now so vast that I cannot claim familiarity with even a small fraction of it. I would recommend that you start with Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series or anything by Graham McNeill. If you want to consider writing fiction set in the background I would recommend starting with the game itself, which gives a very good feel for the universe, and then work your way into the fiction.

Dan Abnett
Dan Abnett has written numerous comics for 2000AD and Marvel and has written many Warhammer 40k novels for Black Library. He can be found on the web at his website.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Universe of Warhammer 40K, and it’s not a terribly pleasant place to live. War, disease, anarchy, death, mutation, demonic corruption, nihilism, cultural collapse, and the slow stagnation of human civilisation: these are just some of the aspects of everyday life here in the UK that I am reminded of when I visit the Imperium.

What? You wanted a serious answer?

Okay. Though it has now transcended its origins to become a global shared Universe, 40K appeals to me (and appealed to me fifteen years ago when I first started writing for the Black Library) because it is a curious British vision of the future. The crumpling Imperialism, the faded grandeur, the myth and majesty…yes, yes, all of that… but also the feeling of a quirky, dark humoured, oddly cruel, sometimes witty British mindset at work. That’s where it comes from. There are strong flavours of that in the art, and the fluff and the fiction. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a sort of mordant Midlands mindset (pardon my alliteration). From the heart of darkest England, it stabs at thee.

40K is a no hope future, a cultural destiny with no happy ending. Mankind is engaged in an ultimately doomed war just to prolong his inevitable demise. Humans have been the primary power of the Galaxy for 10,000 years, but all good things come to an end. However – my god! – mankind isn’t going down without a serious kick-up! In gorgeously decorated armour and uniforms, wielding stupendous weapons (usually with the aid of post-human physiques), the warriors of the Imperium are facing unimaginable horror and hostility with almost blind courage.

Let’s face it, you might not want to live there (and you wouldn’t stay alive very long if you did), but it’s got to be the most visually appealing SF Universe going. The elaborate spendour of gothic Imperial might, mixed with the bittersweet melancholy of tragic decay. Beauty and horror, simultaneously. Heroism and futility. Loyalty and mindlessness. Majesty and corruption.

And monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.

Creatively, I adore the fact that 40K is so unconventionally bleak. The monumental background circumstances mean that it’s essential for both writers and readers to hold on to the frail human spark at the heart of it: character, emotions, gallows humour, brotherhood, devotion. Lose those things, and everything just becomes too big and way too relentlessly loud. I am always delighted when readers tell me that the things they like most about my 40k books are the personalities that drive them along. People are shockingly and flatteringly invested in the characters I write, and often get quite emotional when I ‘allow’ certain fates to be met. The strength of those characters, I believe, is only possible because of the contrasting richness of the milieu they operate in.

Of course, though the whole thing comes from that very British place, it has (as I said) gone beyond that. It has been successfully adopted by – and adapted into – dozens of nations around the world, who have each brought their own touches to it (which is precisely the way any good, inclusive hobby should operate). At Baltimore Games Day this year, I did a reading from my latest Horus Heresy book, Prospero Burns (in all good bookshops January, hint hint!), and one of the (American) members of the audience was overheard saying “I love his books, man, but they sound so weird when you hear them in that accent”.

So what I’m saying, I suppose, is that 40K has a unique flavour, but you make it suit you by adding your own imaginations. I was about to say you ‘make it more unique’, because, of course, there are degrees of uniqueness. Not.

What do you need to know? Nothing. Nada. Zip. There’s a prologue spiel at the start of every book that gets you in the game. If you like what you read, you’ll quickly find it very easy to discover ways of expanding your knowledge: on line, at Games Days, at clubs, at GW stores, through forums, through White Dwarf magazine, through rule books and supplements, through the upcoming Ultramarines movie (notice how I slipped that in there?).

Where do you start? Well, I don’t want to be that guy and recommend my own books. There are some very good, very entertaining authors on the BL lists like Graham, Jim, Aaron, Gav… just read whatever takes your fancy. If I had to recommend one series, it would be the Horus Heresy books. Yes, I know I wrote the first one, so I am being that guy, but the Heresy is the story of the civil war that ‘created’ the Imperium of 40K and, unlike other author-specific series, we’ve all contributed to it, so you can enjoy the work of different authors as you go.

Have fun. Pack a helmet and spare underwear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

12 thoughts on “MIND MELD: The Appeal of the Warhammer 40K Universe”

  1. I think the biggest appeal of the 40k world comes from just this – the huge pool of very different, very talented writers who love the universe just as much as the readers do. And Dan Abnett. The git. Who kills every character Igrow to love.  Why, Dan, why?! But, in the grim darkness of the far future, there are only sad endings… Top work from a bunch of top guys and girls. And Dan.

  2. This one I am glad to see, and will come back to read in more depth when I am more awake.  I have read the reviews of these posted here, and had been wondering where a good entry point into the place was…

    …thanks for this, everyone!

     

  3. I’ve loved the Gaunt’s Ghosts series (the only 40K I’ve read) but had to take big breaks between arcs because the action was often so brutal I needed a rest. Very gritty stuff and unapologetically adult.

  4. As a long time reader, the appeal in the 40K universe is simply how awesome it is and how much effort has been put into this thing that was created from a bunch of inspirations (e.g ‘Dune’ and ‘Starship Troopers’) and just evolved into a world where archetypes are used to create something unique.

    And having good quality writers helps a bit too, along with characters you feel for (e.g ‘Try Again’ Bragg), brilliant stories and the promise of something un-expected or so tragic, your left going “wow, that actually hurts” (e.g Fulgrim and A Thousand Sons).

    And finally, Blood Angels Are Awesome.

  5. The Horus Heresy series has been awesome, though I would like to see the Empreror fall and how the people of the Imperium plan to replace him if they are to keep the Astromonicon working and how this would effect the Despoiler and his Black Crusade

  6.  

    I tried to read that webcomic but the font the cartoonist chose is so difficult to read for any length of time that I gave up.

  7. I’m a bit late to the party but here is what I enjoy about the 40K novels.  They combine the media explodey goodness with some excellent character development and literary depth.  I’m frequently impressed by the portrayal of characters such as Gaunt in Gaunt’s Ghosts.  

    While I would find very little in common with the politics of the era,  one thing which does resonate with me is the fact that we see combat veterans, scarred, battered, wounded and haunted yet they are not repentant about what they do.  They are soldiers.  They accept it.  They don’t wring their hands about it and they don’t cry about it.  

    Separated by time, as a reader and a veteran myself, I find much more in common with the soldiers portrayed in the 40K novels than I do with the few soldiers which are portrayed in the American Science Fiction Community (outside of Baen and a few other exceptions).  Some of the novels pay homage to works such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Things They Carried and The Forever War.  

    It’d be nice if the ones who sneer at media based novels would pick up Gaunt’s Ghost or one of the Ultramarine books to see what they are missing.  

    Respects,

    S. F. Murphy

    On the Outer Marches

    P.S. I’ve got Matthew’s book on my desk but teaching keeps me from Calpurnia for the moment.  But I’ll get to her eventually.

  8. After reading all that I still do not understand.

    Why not design your own universe rather then writing about someone else’s?

    My guess is the installed base of readers that writers can depend on for sales. The same thing works with “title” Comic Books. I realize that sounds nasty but in my opinion it is not meant to be. I happen to like capitalism and do not feel money is a bad thing for an artist to pursue. Believe it or not Michelangelo was commissioned and payed to paint the Sistine chapel.

    I do find it funny that no one can actually admit it.

    Here I will make it easy for you.

    Cut and paste the following:

    “I am not an A-list writer…but I have some talent and I enjoy the work. In order to get an audience I write in established franchises that have a large fan base. It pays better then trying to invent my own.”

  9. Josh, I enjoy creating my own universes.  In fact, that is where my writing credits come from at the moment.  

    That said, I can see the appeal to picking up the toys in the 40K universe and putting a personal spin on them.  The universe is so wide, so vast and filled with dark textures.  If you are a European Historian, you get to mix your science fiction with your love of the past into a really neat synthesis.  

    I also do work for John Birmingham as his research assistant.  He creates the world and writes the novel but I provide input here and there.  I find the experience of working in the worlds he creates just as fulfilling as working on my own stories. 

    As for money, I believe more than a few of the writers on this list have moved on to write their own works set in universes they created.  The same can be said for Star Wars writer Karen Traviss.  

    Finally, established universe or not, I get the impression that there is a great deal more creative freedom to be found in the 40K universe, or other media franchises, than in some of the other markets. I know that is definitely the case with the many of the American short story markets.

    Respects,

    S. F. Murphy

    On the Outer Marches

     

     

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