…there is only war. So goes the famous strapline to Games Workshop’s futuristic fantasy role-playing game universe of Warhammer 40,000. I totally fell in love with Warhammer 4oK (as it is also affectionately known) as soon as I came across it. My only real experience of science fiction prior to 40K was watching Star Wars at the movies and Doctor Who on the small screen, both of which I liked but for some reason they both also fell short in some way. By that stage I was far more of a fan of fantasy – proper, big, epic fantasy, with wars, character conflict, large scale storytelling and immersive, fully developed worlds to explore. By contrast science fiction seemed either too shallow and childish, at the Star Wars end of the spectrum, or too esoteric and complicated at the Arthur C Clarke/H G Wells end. I had yet to discover the intricacy and imagination of books like the Dune, Pern and Majipoor series and to have my horizons expanded in weird yet wonderful ways by watching films like Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator. My first exposure to how good science fiction could be came when a friend bought me Space Hulk as a birthday present. I won’t lie, at first I was a little bit miffed – I mean, board games (as opposed to computer games) were already old hat even when I was a youngster. With its little carved figures and board sections I genuinely at first glance saw little difference between Space Hulk and chess. Then I read the rule book. These were just a few of the things that I came across: centuries-old superhuman soldiers who were organised into chapters like futuristic knights; aliens who were elves in all but name, roaming the stars in gigantic spaceships in an attempt to stave off the extinction of their race; a shadow universe inhabited by beings of unimaginable evil who constantly tried to corrupt and destroy humanity with their foul touch; hive fleets of nightmarish creatures floating in space, waiting for a chance to devour starships, planets and peoples to satisfy their unspeakable hunger; and a billion other worlds and races locked in a dark future whose only certainty was war. I was hooked.
For those of you who aren’t in the know, Games Workshop is a British gaming company who have been around since the late seventies/early eighties in one form or another. Originally their speciality was fantasy role-playing but it was not long before they diversified into tabletop strategy battle games, a fantasy and science fiction novel range and even, more recently, into some very successful computer games. Games Workshop first came to prominence with their fantasy setting of Warhammer, which, despite some interesting gothic flourishes and the addition of a Michael Moorcock-inspired Realm of Chaos, isn’t that different from any one of a number of other sub-Tolkien fantasy worlds. The Warhammer 40K setting, which has been around since the eighties, is a different, and much more original, animal. Whilst it is possible to detect elements of Dune, Alien, Terminator, Star Wars and any one of a number of other sci-fi settings in the universe of Warhammer 4oK, I genuinely feel that none of the ‘borrowings’ that the game creators have made are so great as to make it feel overly derivative in any way. Instead, it holds up very nicely as both an original creation in its own right and a futuristic spin on the Warhammer fantasy game.
The Imperium of Man is a war-torn empire, teetering on the brink of collapse. For more than a hundred centuries it has been ruled by the deathless Emperor, a being of incredible power, to whom thousands of souls are sacrificed daily. The peoples of the Imperium live in a place where Daemons are real, mutations are frequent and death is a constant companion. A truly vast domain, the Imperium is spread amongst the many stars of the galaxy. Its territories encompass untold millions of stars and countless more human lives. In its name, terrible wars are fought and desperate sacrifices made, yet even this river of blood is a small price to pay, for the Imperium is the guardian of mankind. Were it to pass into nothingness, so too would the human race, destroyed by enemies uncountable. To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned (this isn’t Star Trek!). Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of Dark gods.
There are very few shades of grey, and almost no light, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium. It should be emphasised that humans are only nominally the good guys in this universe. Foremost among the Emperor’s soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors, who can grow to over nine feet in height and can live for over a thousand years. The bio-engineering process which turns a ‘normal’ man into a Space Marine also removes much of his humanity, making him not much more than a disciplined, or at least controllable, killer. They are few in number and regarded with almost mythical awe by most folk, for they hold themselves entirely separate from the rest of humanity and are answerable only to the Emperor himself. Space Marines are divided into a thousand Chapters, each possessing around a thousand marines – one million battle brothers. All Chapters have proud traditions and distinct characteristics that translate into the way they fight. The ferocious Space Wolves, for instance, are more fiercely independent than most other Chapters and fight on their own terms up close with chainswords and bolt pistols. The Blood Angels are rumoured to have vampiric tendencies while the Dark Angels, who have for aeons roamed the galaxy on a floating hunk of rock that is all that remains of their destroyed home world of Caliban, are said to hide even darker secrets. Many Chapters are living legends and names such as the Ultramarines, Whitescars and Imperial Fists are spoken of with hushed reverence among Imperial citizens.
The Space Marines are extremely few in number compared to the size of the Imperium and hardly any citizens will ever see one in the flesh. The Emperor, who was mortally injured in the bloody civil war known as the Horus Heresy ten thousand years ago, is a rotting carcass kept alive with lost power from the Dark Age of Technology. What is left of him hangs suspended on the Golden Throne on Holy Terra (Earth) – the Carrion Lord of humanity, for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die. The average human being in the 41st millennium is much more likely to come across one of the numerous arms of the Adeptus Terra, the vast organisation of politicians, priests and soldiers that serve the Emperor through bodies such as the Cult of Mars (tech-priests who safeguard the secrets of the Dark Age of Technology), the Astropaths or Psykers (humans with psychic power through their connection with the Warp) and the Collegia Titanica (who control gigantic war machines known as Titans). What particularly marks out the Adeptus Terra is its intolerance of all mutants and aliens, its fanatical devotion to the Emperor, and its burning desire to conquer the galaxy in a twisted belief in mankind’s manifest destiny. This dark side of the Imperium is best summed up by the Inquisition, whose goal is to suppress and eliminate those forces that would destroy the holy dominion of mankind over the stars. Inquisitors are empowered to go anywhere and do anything – whatever they must to ensure the survival of the Imperium. It is a task which the Inquisition sets about with a frightening zeal that makes their namesakes from Medieval Spain seem almost benevolent.
Reading the above it might seem hard to believe that the Imperium are the good guys – that is until you hear about their enemies. Beneath the fabric of reality lurks the Warp, a realm of unspeakable horror and maddening Chaos – a realm inhabited by the Dark Powers. Since time immemorial, man has believed in the existence of spirits, gods and Daemons: otherworldly powers to be appeased, feared and bargained with. In the darkness of the 41st millennium, such things are all too real and find fertile ground to prosper in the souls of men. The true nature of these powers can only be guessed at, their dark names whispered by traitorous lips into heretical ears. Of all the Dark Powers, the four Chaos gods cast all others into shadow: Khorne, the god of murder, rage and war; Tzeentech, the god of change, mutation and sorcery; Slaanesh, the god of temptation, hedonism and excess; and Nurgle, the god of decay, disease and entropy. During the upheaval known as the Horus Heresy one of the Emperor’s most trusted generals succumbed to the lure of Chaos and turned on his liege, taking with him fully half of the Space Marine legions. Despite being defeated, at a terrible cost, these traitors still exist, hiding in a region of Warp space known as the Eye of Terror, waiting for the moment when the Imperium drops its guard and allows them to finish what their fallen master Horus began ten thousand years ago.
As well as having Daemons to contend with, the Imperium of Man is also beset on all sides by Xenos – the all-ecompassing term for aliens in the Warhammer 40K universe. There are clans of marauding ‘Orks’ (akin to fantasy Orcs but bigger, meaner and armed with plasma weapons rather than swords and shields); Necrons, a mysterious, skeletal, robot-like race, who possess the uncanny ability to repair themselves (Terminator-style) even after suffering horrendous damage; and the nightmarish, part-dinosaur, part-insect Tyranids, who seek to consume all in their path, draining planets of every resource and converting all living and some non-living material into biomass to fuel their ongoing conquest of space. My personal favourite 4oK aliens are the Eldar, a once mighty race whose planets were destroyed aeons ago during their Fall. The surviving Eldar, who are human-like in appearance but fey and ageless, live on great space ships known as craft worlds, fighting the long defeat against their inevitable extinction. They have fought alongside humans almost as often as they have fought against them but are nevertheless regarded as cruel, capricious and untrustworthy. Like humans, there are many subdivisions among the Eldar, including the depraved Dark Eldar, the piratical Eldar Harlequins and the primitive Eldar Exodites, who ride upon dragons on feral worlds far from civilised space.
The above is but a brief glimpse into one of the most inventive and original science fiction settings that I have ever come across. Although there are a number of 40K novels that have been published by Games Workshop’s publishing arm, Black Library, they are of variable quality to say the least and I’ve tended to read the rich and well-written role-playing background books instead. The one notable exception to this are the novels set during the Horus Heresy, which have an epic feel, as befits the grand period of history to which they relate. Then there are the games – the Warhammer 40K strategy battle game itself, the Dark Heresy role-playing game, the small-scale Epic 40K game, Necromunda, Battlefleet Gothic, Gorkamorka and, of course, the popular Dawn of War computer games. One way or another, there is a whole universe of 40K out there just waiting to be discovered!