Guest Article by James Dyson delving deep into the Maelstrom of 40k Lore and backstory. Its a good read, enjoy.
Strange Aeons: Understanding the theme of the 41st Millennium
With the imminent release of the next edition of Warhammer 80,000 set to grace the tables of gamers in the next few weeks, it seems an appropriate time to take a step back and cast a contemplative eye over this most unique of sci fi settings. In this short article, I wanted to briefly discuss some of the literary and cultural influences of the 40k universe, and to understand what it is that can be said to really define the setting as we know it. To be sure, to offer an exhaustive analysis of all aspects of Warhammer 40,000 could take up an entire book; after all, we’re speaking here of an IP that’s been shaped by many different creatives and has existed in one form or another for nigh on 30-odd years. Indeed, there’d be a very strong argument to say that nothing can truly be said to ‘define’ Warhammer 40,000; it’s a wild collection of themes, aesthetic styles and ideas jammed into one insane, sprawling pastiche. It’s the heavy metal, post punk and glam rock music waves of the 80’s mixed with the cyberpunk sci-fi films of the 1990s, it’s Hieronymus Bosch meets Dune, it’s a universe that can claim inspiration from sources as vast and diverse as Gothic and Baroque architecture to mecha anime (lookin’ at you, Tau) and the history of the Roman Empire, all filtered through a distinctly British sense of ironic humour. Nevertheless, one major unifying thread has been the idea of ‘grimdarkness’, a theme that’s been raised to such a status now that it’s become an adjective, a noun and a moderately popular internet meme. The question is then what constitutes the idea, and what influences we can find behind it.
As an overarching heading, I’m going to argue that what defines the idea of grimdark isn’t necessarily Warhammer 40,000’s emphasis on conflict, but rather the subtler and more disturbing notion of man’s insignificance in an essentially indifferent universe. If we take a trip back in time and look at the know-legendary Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, we can see that this has been a theme from the very start. Released in 1987, this source and rulebook represented the first iteration of the 40k universe, and though the setting subsequently received numerous additions and revisions to its lore, much of the core structure would remain consistent. It’s as early as Rogue Trader that we get the first iteration of its famous opener, which captured its bleak themes in two short paragraphs;
"For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods and the master of a million worlds by the will of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is Carrion Lord of the Imperium to whom a thousand souls are sacrificed each day, and for whom blood is drunk and flesh is eaten. Human blood and human flesh- the stuff which the Imperium is made.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. This is the tale of these times. It is a universe that you can live today if you dare- for this is a dark and terrible era where you will find little comfort of hope. If you want to take part in the adventure then prepare yourself now. Forget the power of technology, science and common humanity. 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 thirsting gods.
But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed...."
It’s interesting to trace the number of different inspirations and angles that this tone initially emerged from. One useful place to start is by noting that the creators of Warhammer 40k always saw it as being an offshoot of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, not only in terms of its game mechanics but more importantly in its overall tone. Indeed, in the Rogue Trader book itself it’s boldly stated that 40k wasn’t ‘just a science fiction game, although it’s set in the future … we call it a fantasy game set in the far future … a sort of science fantasy.’ What’s significant about this, however, was that it was fantasy of a sort that was the diametric opposite of conventional genre fare. Warhammer, both in its straight and futuristic guises, was part of the subgenre of ‘dark fantasy’, a reaction against the more mainstream conventions laid down by ‘swords and sorcery’ fiction (associated with the likes of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series) as well as the titanic presences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. In all such works one often commonplace thread was that they created universes that were essentially ordered, knowable and benign, with the most obvious illustration of this being that the concepts of good and evil were frequency depicted as cosmic forces with some sort of objective existence. Arguably, this stemmed from (amongst other things) a tendency for the early founders of such fiction to use historical myths (such as Norse mythology and the Arthurian tales) as their inspiration, where man’s relationship to the natural world was seen as one of unity rather than alienation and where the protagonists of such tales were heavily idealised.
Dark fantasy, however, presented a startlingly different perspective in its approach. In place of clear-cut black-and-white morality came only shades of grey, with no benevolent, omnipotent arbitrator to decide right from wrong. Both the characters and the worlds they inhabited became dirtier, more dysfunctional, even downright terrible. If Tolkienesque fiction (generally speaking) took its inspiration from a largely symbolic, even nostalgic, view of history, focusing on the legends of old, then dark fantasy looked at the crueller, actually existing side of the past and humanity. This was the world of plagues, of famines and blighted crops, where people lived short, difficult lives in a world that they little understood and which showed them little mercy. Again, we see these themes as early as Rogue Trader; as it put it, in the world of the 40k universe there exists an;
‘almost medieval attitude amongst the human societies. Fear, superstition, self-sacrifice and common acceptance of death are all strongly featured. Technology is present, but it is not central to the way people think. Most common folk see technology as witchcraft- so do the technicians!’
But I think it does a disservice to both the writer himself and the 40k setting to only consider this angle. For what marked out Lovecraft as one of the seminal horror authors of the Twentieth Century wasn’t necessarily the monsters of his stories themselves (creative though they were) but his pioneering of the concept of ‘cosmic horror’. More of an ethos than a well-worked out philosophy, it might be roughly said that cosmic horror was a sentiment of seeing horror in vastness; the idea of things in this universe being so large, so immeasurable and incomprehensible that our limited human existence is absolutely meaningless by comparison. On one level, this was a sentiment expressed by Lovecraft’s fictional characters (most notably Cthulhu) and finds a parallel in the 40k setting with the Chaos Gods and the C’tan, terrible beings of such power and infinitude that the entirety of mankind is but cattle to them. But at the same time it’s really an attitude to our existence in the world itself. Lovecraft was writing at a time when astronomy and geology were coming into their own (both of which he studied during his teenage years), revealing the full scope of the cosmos in terms of its age and size, and many of his stories express this sense of despair and realising the insignificance of our brief existence by comparison. And it’s this sort of feeling that only something like Warhammer 40,000 can properly capture, presenting us with a galaxy entirely separated from our own both by cycles of eons and by a magnitude which we can scarce imagine, yet without the sort of up-beat positivity that a lot of more mainstream sci fi usually engenders. If things like Star Wars and Star Trek offer space operas offering high adventure, then Warhammer 40,000 offers us a universe where we are but small blips beset on all sides.
Hopefully, then, in this essay I’ve managed to flesh out what it is about the grimdark universe that makes it so, well, grimdark. In essence a major part of it comes down to contrast. On the one hand, it uses its dark fantasy legacy to present a bleaker but more realistic picture of humanity, showing not how it ought to be but how it often is; ignorant, fearful and desperate. At the same time, it underlines this fact, and adds to its tragedy, by placing it alongside a picture of the universe that stresses its vastness and, ultimately, its cruel meaninglessness.