The Horus Heresy: On Agency

I mentioned back in April that I’ve been enjoying the Warhammer 40K novels. I’ve been reading the Horus Heresy – it’s a series with over 50 titles, exploring how Horus Lupercal, favoured son of the Emperor of Mankind, turned against his father and started an intergalactic civil war. You’ve got the loyalist Space Marines, who are (ostensibly) the good guys, and the treasonous Chaos Marines, who fall under the sway of the dark Chaos Gods. There are roughly twenty legions of Space Marines that split between loyalists and traitors – which I think gives some context to that shocking figure of fifty books. Crudely, we might say that it’s two or three books for each legion. Some titles (like Fulgrim) focus on the fall of a specific traitor legion, while others (like Know No Fear) showcase loyalist legions fighting back. By the time you’ve done all the traitor legion origin stories and dedicated two or three books to the major strategic movements of each loyalist legion, plus the one-off stories about small groups of soldiers (Flight of the Eisenstein), auxiliary forces (Mechanicum), and the short story collections (Tales of Heresy), fifty is actually a fairly moderate figure. It’s also a much more approachable series than the sheer volume of writing would suggest. As befits the neo-Catholic sci-fi setting, the basic narrative arc is very ‘fall of Lucifer’ – the most favoured and beautiful son turns against his creator and is cast down. The rest of the series really just shows the different legions working through the implications of that initial act. It’s a granular, detailed vision of an empire tearing itself apart.

If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll know that the ‘40,000’ part of Warhammer 40,000 tells us when the story takes place. The original franchise, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, obviously had a fantasy setting, and Warhammer 40,000 was designed as its sci-fi counterpart, set 40,000 years in the future. Everything in 40,000 is generally understood as happening in and around the 41st millennium. The Horus Heresy, however, is set ten thousand years earlier – in the 31st millennium. It’s framed deliberately as a historical piece, as a look back into the past. The boilerplate for Horus Heresy opens “It is a time of legend,” deploying a weak pun that emphasises both the magnificence of these times and their status as stories of the olden days.

In terms of real differences between the Horus Heresy and 40K – in some ways it’s not huge. You’ll still find your fan favourites, your Terminators and Land Raiders and so on. Probably the major difference at the start of the Horus Heresy is the presence of hope. The Emperor’s Great Crusade, his quest to reunify the fragments of humanity, spun out across the stars, is going well. Where the 40K boilerplate tells us to abandon concepts of hope or enlightenment (“Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war“), those forces are very much at the core of the pre-Heresy human empire. Their most obvious presence is in the remembrancers.

The remembrancers are essentially artists – writers, musicians, painters – sent out to record the stories of the Great Crusade as it unfolds. The Great Crusade is driven by heady ideology – humanity brought together, united as one people and set in governance over the universe until the end of time itself. As the Imperium works towards realising this vision, the remembrancers essentially serve as the propaganda arm. They set forth the Imperium’s narrative. In the first book in the series, Horus Rising, the remembrancers are contextualised as part of “a more formal and authoritative celebration of mankind’s reunification.” But that act of reunification is still ongoing. It almost seems strange to call them ‘remembrancers’: they aren’t remembering acts from the past. They are rather commemorating acts in the present moment. In a sense, they are remembering for the future, feeding these stories into the Imperium that is yet to come, so that future generations will be able to look back and understand how their utopia was formed. That’s their function as propaganda – and again, it just speaks to the massive confidence of this civilization. They’re so convinced of their future triumph that they are already celebrating its success, sending out remembrancers so that later, after they’ve won, they’ll have memories of how the victory was brought about. The irony, of course, is that this confidence is false. Horus, leader of the Great Crusade, turns on the Emperor, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

As a motif, then, storytelling in the Horus Heresy books has a doubled meaning. Both the remembrancers in the past and the storytellers in the present agree that the actions of that time will determine (or have determined) the future. All parties agree that the actions of that period shape the future of the universe. Where they differ is in their belief in their own agency – which really underpins their different understandings of hope. The remembrancers believe that they have agency, and see their actions as contributing to a brighter future. The storytellers of the 41st millennium do not consider themselves to have agency. Their society has stagnated, and they consider agency to be a thing of the past: they locate it in the days of the Horus Heresy, ironically agreeing with the remembrancers on where agency rests but opposing them on its consequence. The books are thus both stories of the past and stories about a time when storytelling spoke about the future – when narrative was an act of hope in the sparkling empire that was yet to come. The tragedy of the Horus Heresy is this shift in what storytelling means. The remembrancers projected the significance of their current actions forward into a better, uplifted world. The contemporary storytellers of the 41st millennium look backwards at those same actions, ruminating on how the past affects where they find themselves in the modern day. They are stories that look back at a time when stories could still look forward. In that sense, the Horus Heresy books are a testament to the scale of loss both in content and in form – both in the tale they tell and in the degradation of storytelling itself.

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