5 Minutes to Midnight: Warhammer 40,000 and Apocalypse Literature

If you ask me (and you didn’t, but this is my post, so I’m talking about it anyway), media tie-in gets a bum rap. I roll my eyes when folks downplay it as having less literary value than original fiction. R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden work absolutely rocked my orbit, and Joe Schrieber’s Death Troopers informs my craft to this day. Black Library’s (and Game Designer’s Workshop’s) Warhammer 40,000 universe gets tarred by the same brush, which bugs me even more. Of all the great media tie-in out there, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is doing something unique and important.


For those of you unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it deals with an Imperium of Man, sprawled across the galaxy and assailed from all sides by a range of threats, each more unstoppable and horrifying than the last. Faced with their own extinction, mankind adopts the kind of coping mechanisms you’d expect: despotism, ultra-orthodox xenophobia, inquisitional militarism, Gestapo style internal suspicion and a feudal death-cult warrior ethos that evokes the worst of the real world high medieval military aristocracy.

Cool, eh? Damn right it is. But it’s more than that. By focusing on “The Time of Ending,” Warhammer 40,000 fiction is stretching the envelope of the obsession with apocalypse stories that is dominating the genre of late. Kirkman’s Walking Dead, Ennis’s Crossed, the revival of every zombie flick Romero ever made. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a zombie inspired piece of genre literature these days. The movies keep coming. 28 Days Later. I Am Legend. Contagion. The Day After Tomorrow. 2012. Children of Men. On and on and on. We are fascinated by the question “what happens when the world as we know it goes away?”

But there is a common thread. Almost all of the currently popular apocalyptic literature focuses on the moment of the fall or the period of disorientation/recomposition immediately afterward. It’s a litany of collapsing buildings, sundered families and the sudden awakening of man’s inner monster that emerges when he’s forced to make the hard choices between living with honor and living at all.

Warhammer 40,000 pushes the envelope in seemingly minor, but actually significant ways:

  1. It backs the scope up to the twilight before the fall. The Imperium of Man’s slow slide into hell creates a coolly dark spin on what has become mainstream apocalyptica. It’s always 5 seconds to midnight in the shadow of the Golden Throne and mankind still warps under the pressure, but in significantly different ways. The most compelling thing about apocalyptica is not the apocalypse itself (zombies are kind of slow and predictable) but in how the crisis makes normally nice people behave. Folks in the Imperium of Man haven’t been nice for a while, but it’s a cultural rather than an immediate shift, equal parts mass delusion, religious cult and indulgence of the depraved in the name of contingency. It’s Britain as the Romans pulled out. It’s the Hotel Rwanda as the UN cuts their losses and heads for home.
  2. It diversifies the threat. Most apocalyptica is unilateral. The world succumbs to *a* virus or *a* geologic event or *an* alien invasion by a single race of antagonists. The Imperium of Man is beset on all sides. Put down Warp influenced heretical rebellions and you still have to contend with rampaging Orks. Crush the Orks under the treads of your Leman Russ’ and you’ll still have to contend with the Dark Eldar. When the Dark Eldar have broken against the serried ranks of the Steel Legion, you find the Necrons taking you in your flank. Warp storms, plagues, the flickering Astronomican and the dreaded “Shadow in the Warp.” The slow but steady dwindling grip on technology. The primal decay into self-destructive fundamentalism. The compounded inefficiencies of a rotting bureaucracy. Mankind hasn’t got a chance. And yet the range of issues the Imperium contends with creates a palette far more rich and compelling than a lot of stuff available in the apocalypse sub-genre today.
  3. Years of conflict have created a humanity fundamentally different from us, yet hauntingly familiar. Modern apocalyptica deals almost exclusively with the world ending right now, relying on the poignancy of us watching our neighbors, families and friends wander the plains of Gehenna. But mankind in the Warhammer 40,000 universe has changed fundamentally. They have the hardened, war-weary fanaticism I saw among some of the Iraqi guardsmen I knew. They have altered themselves physically in the face of their multiplying threats: The Adeptus Astartes, arguably the heart of the franchise and the kernel of its enormous popularity repeatedly remind you that they are not human. They sweat wax, have auxiliary hearts, oolitic kidneys that filter poison. Their unswerving devotion to their eroding cause would put a modern jihadi to shame. And yet, they serve an evolution of humanity familiar enough to resonate, struggling to keep a candle burning against the encroaching blackness of space, losing ground millimeter by desperate millimeter.

It’s a universe worth a look. Those who eschew it based on a blanket distaste for media tie-in are doing themselves a disservice. Warhammer 40,000 is more than just kickass conflict with armored Space Marines, slavering Tyranids and relentless Orks. It is taking a page from the incredibly popular sub-genre of apocalypse stories, and spinning it in a creative new direction that is both refreshing and exciting. Zombie and plague story fans might be surprised to find their itch scratched by giving it a look.


Myke Cole is the author of the Shadow Ops military fantasy series coming from Ace (Penguin). The first novel, Control Point, will be published in February, 2012. As a security con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Federal Law Enforce­ment. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank good­ness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing. His website is at www.mykecole.com and he tweets as @MykeCole.


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