Well, it’s high time for me to resume Science Fiction Spring. I’m chiselling away with a few of the classics, but on a lighter note, I decided to use the opportunity to delve into a franchise I’ve maintained a passing fascination with for several years.
Warhammer 40,000, or Warhammer 40K for short, is a tabletop roleplaying game, part of the family tree that goes back to Dungeons and Dragons. However, whereas Dungeons and Dragons is a game distilled from the milieu of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, Warhammer 40K is distilled from those of Frank Herbet and H.P. Lovecraft. It also differs in that it is played with miniature figurines, making it vaguely akin to a tabletop ancestor of the real-time strategy video game genre.
I’ve no intentions to play the game, but the spinoff materials interest me. The novels all have the same opening coda, which runs, in part, thusly:
“It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies…Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp…Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds…But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants — and far, far worse. To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable…Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war.”
In practical terms, the franchise is about providing a plethora of warriors, factions and weapon systems to pit against each other in the gameplay. Thematically, exactly what the franchise is about varies depending on who you ask. Is it a brutal subversion of optimistic visions of the future like Star Trek? A dark reflection of modern society? A little-boys-club pretend violencefest? A parody of same? A goofy sci-fi sendup of fantasy roleplaying game tropes? If it was first intended to be any one of these, I’m blowed if I can figure out which.
But despite its relentless bleakness and Game of Thrones-esque moral-dark-greyness, I’ve long found the general concept of 40K strangely fascinating. It has the benefit of having the original idea of showing the old-hat interstellar empire in its decline and a varied and rich aesthetic and mythology. And, having set this twilit scene, it has the potential to subvert itself to compelling effect.
Perhaps for that reason I found my way round to one of assorted novel series spun off from Warhammer 40,000 that has intentionally elected to have a bit of fun in the setting.
It’s not quite as intense or deranged as the covers make it look. I guess Grim Darkness is habit-forming for cover artists.
In the Imperial Guard, the main military arm of the Emperor’s forces, all units have commissars who maintain morale and discipline. Ciaphas Cain, Commissar of the 597th Valhallan Regiment, is unique in his profession in that he is very popular and liked by his personnel, not feared and hated. To hear him tell it, this is part of a cunning to survive the constant fighting his regiment is continually hurled into, allowing him to concentrate on getting safe, behind-the-lines assignments without having to worry about being fragged by his own people.
In the three books I’ve read of the currently-nine-book series – Caves of Ice, Duty Calls and Death or Glory – Cain routinely tries to take charge of the low-risk, secondary missions for the sake of avoiding the thick of the action, but inevitably he finds something even worse.
In Caves of Ice, the ravening Orks have invaded an industrial planet which Cain discovers is also a tomb of the sinister undead machines known as Necrons. The Orks menace another world in Duty Calls, and it transpires that there is another shadowy operation taking advantage of the mayhem. In Death or Glory, a hive fleet of the eldritch Tyranids is about to descend on yet another Imperial planet, but Cain discovers that a cult dedicated to Chaos and a renegade tech-priest are actually much bigger problems.
Noticing the pattern here? The latter two books do lay in the promise of something building on the horizon, as do the tongue-in-cheek footnotes added by Cain’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and editor of his memoirs. Whether any such does occur I’m not far enough in to tell. The fact that some of the books are lined up in order of the importance of clues thereof instead of the order in which the events happened to Cain suggest that such a finale is intended.
That said, as I implied, the books are the kind that basically tell the same story with different details filling in the blanks.
The books I was most reminded of were the Phule series by Robert Asprin. Cain is the slightly eccentric leader figure with a trusty assistant – in this case his malodorous attache Jurgen – and a few semi-regular supporting characters.
The books are light reading, and not terribly intricate, with one or two regulation twists. The humour is dry and not laugh-out-loud funny, mostly snarky remarks made by Cain in his memoirs. There are also a lot of coy references slipped it, to things like Star Wars, Monty Python, Firefly and, I think, in one case, Fawlty Towers. Moreso, the humour seems to be drawn from how Cain has, to invert an old joke, the heart of a coward but the legs of a hero, and how much he professes to hate that.
What does intrigue me about the books is the contrast between the lightness of tone and the bleakness of the setting. The dissonance isn’t dwelt on – I’m not even sure if it’s on purpose – but the pleasant conversation, camaraderie and occasional taste of the high life Cain is afforded makes him almost the equivalent of a middle-class everyman, witnessing the dreadful, strange and awe-inspiring events around him and the more extraordinary characters, while removed enough from them that he’s not a helpless, indoctrinated peon, nor a high-minded fanatic like the Space Marines who are 40K’s flagship characters. Equally, it’s hard to tell (if only because the authour isn’t trying very hard) to tell if Cain is really meant to be, as I assume, only fooling himself by insisting what a coward he really is, while being secretly rather good-hearted and even self-hating and traumatized – the latter particularly obvious whenever Necrons are on the prowl.
That said, from his position he merely regards the more exotic aspects of the setting with jaded disinsterest. Understandable given his station but not to the extent, usually, of saying much of profound meaning (although Death or Glory does a little of that). I suspect that if you’re an initiate of the franchise’s melodramatic, dark tone, then it is remarkable for the level-headed subversion of that convention. For an outsider, the idea of an everyman coping with threats on the scope of 40K is diverting but not deeply meangingful. And the characterization is slapdash at best, so exactly what Cain is meant to be beside a pile of wisecracks is difficult to tell.
Like the Phule series, the Ciaphas Cain books are fundamentally sci-fi nerd beach reading: shallow, fun, interesting, pleasant, forgettable, not helped by the fact that they are clearly meant for 40K fans and nobody else. Use of the sci-fi-religious terminology with no attempt to translate (phrases like ‘machine spirit,’ ‘cogitator’ or ‘enginseer’ for example) makes that clear enough. But what the heck, go for it if you want to kill some time with a book. Why not?