Media Hierarchies and the Horus Heresy

You’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, right? Back in the 80s, there was an arm of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise responsible for creating and selling little fantasy miniatures, so that as you’re playing you can see your characters on the table. It makes it easier to manage things like distance and position during combat, and it helps players invest in the idea of their character. The problem, from a business perspective, was that players weren’t buying miniatures at high volumes. They only needed one each, really, to represent their character, plus maybe an extra handful to represent monsters or other non-player characters in the story. So this arm of the business set about creating a new tabletop wargame involving larger groups of miniatures – the logic being that bigger battles and more minis meant higher sales. The result was Warhammer Fantasy Battle, released in 1983. Fantasy Battle was successful, and four years later in 1987, they released a companion wargame focused on science fiction: Warhammer 40,000 (at the time subtitled ‘Rogue Trader’). Warhammer 40,000 has all of the same basic elements of Fantasy Battle, but shifted into a science-fiction context – there are space orcs, space elves, space demons, and, of course, a space-bound human empire.

By 1997, Games Workshop had created a publishing imprint, the Black Library, which published comics and short stories about the Warhammer universe in the bi-monthly anthology Inferno!. The anthology was, again, successful, and by 1999 the Black Library was a full-blown publishing house, releasing novels and other fiction titles for Warhammer in all its incarnations. The works of the Black Library obviously have to be understood with close reference to the tabletop wargame. They are in a sense promotional material: like the TV show for Transformers, they are designed to give narrative wrapping to a product line. That’s their economic raison d’etre. They are satellites, waypoints, secondary products radiating out from a center and gesturing back towards it. Arguably, we can only properly understand them as fiction in the context of their progenitor.

To illustrate the point, we might consider the character of Aeonid Thiel from Dan Abnett’s 2012 novel Know No Fear. In Know No Fear, the mighty Ultramarines are betrayed by the Word Bearers above the planet Calth. Calth is an Ultramarine planet, and the Word Bearers turn up pretending to be friendly, and then they murder everyone – it’s a 400-page catastrophe, and also a New York Times bestseller. At the beginning of Know No Fear, Aeonid Thiel is an Ultramarine Sergeant marked out for censure, or disciplinary measures. He’s been pulled off the line, and his helmet has been painted red – which is just how they indicated someone who was marked for punishment. Ultramarine armour is coloured blue, so the red kinda stands out. Thiel’s crime is that he’s been creating theoretical strategies as to how he would fight other Space Marines. Even that mere concept is considered totally beyond the pale, so far outside the realm of possibility that he’s pulled out for censure – but then, of course, the Word Bearers attack Calth, and his punishment starts to seem a little silly. There’s this great bit in the middle of the battle where Marius Gage, the Ultramarine chapter master, sort of pauses and goes ‘why was Thiel up for censure again?’, and his guys have to awkwardly explain that they were punishing him because he accurately and correctly made plans to defend against the exact betrayal that had just taken place.

“‘Sergeant Thiel. Do you happen to know why he was under censure?’
‘I do, sir,’ says Jael. ‘His commanding officer discovered that he was running theoreticals on how to fight and defeat Space Marines, sir. Thiel claimed, in his defence, that he had run theoreticals on all other major adversaries, and it was a tactical blind spot not to know how to fight the Legions … His theoreticals were regarded as treasonous thought, and he was referred to the flagship for censure.’
‘That was his infraction?’ asks Gage.
‘Looks bloody pitiful from where we’re standing, doesn’t it?’ asks Jaer.”

Thiel conducts himself heroically throughout the battle, and by the end of the book, Roboute Guilliman, leader of the Ultramarines, declares that Thiel’s red helmet should become a marker of rank, instead of a mark of censure. Thus the arc is complete: Thiel starts as a radical free-thinker, as someone outside the bounds of orthodoxy, but is proved correct by a tragic chain of events. He is elevated and rewarded for his thought, and the Ultramarines also in some sense acknowledge their failure in punishing him in the first place. If they had been more open to controversial ideas, if they had considered the possibility of an attack from allied forces, they might not have been blindsided by the Word Bearers. They incorporate that mistake – the wrongful censure, and the implied adjacent error leading to the loss of Calth – into their armour, into their history, into a statement of who they will be going forward.

Of course, none of this arc comes as a surprise to people who play the tabletop game. In Warhammer 40,000, Ultramarine Sergeant units are denoted by their red helms. If you come to this book with any familiarity with the tabletop game, that initial detail of red meaning censure is surprising. It’s not what it signifies in the actual game. So as a reader, if you bring that background knowledge, you know how the story is going to end. You know how things are today, and you’re really just waiting to see how they fall into that familiar pattern. It becomes an origin story, a creation myth. It’s ‘How the Leopard Got Its Spots’. You can see, then, why we have to read these books with reference to the tabletop game. The story of Aeonid Thiel is the story of a detail from the tabletop miniatures. It’s in there so that when you play, when you’re looking at an Ultramarine Sergeant, you can think about the storied history of his helm. It gives depth and texture to the miniature, so that when it gets munched by a Tyranid you know exactly what you’re losing.

From that perspective, we might argue, the Black Library is fundamentally a second-tier product line. It’s marketing, promotional material, stuff to get you more invested in the idea of buying more miniatures. And yet – that seems kinda unsatisfying, maybe a little degrading. It feels like we maybe cheapen the idea of a fictional universe when we reduce it to its economic function. Whenever a story finds purchase in the public imagination, when it starts to get sequels and spinoffs and a broader fleshed out history, there’s always this wrestling match as to how we understand later additions. Are they cash-grabs, or can we take them seriously? Where do they fit alongside the original? We almost seem to have this anxiety about whether we’re allowed to find joy in an expanded universe. We worry that our fondness is somehow a trick that the creators are exploiting to get our money. And this hierarchy of media, this jostling of primary and secondary forms – sometimes it seems like a bulwark against that insecurity. Oh, you have to engage with the real heart of the narrative. You have to play the tabletop game. That’s the only vantage point from which you’re able to make sense of the books. The game is the real deal, and the books are just marketing. But you know what? That line of argument is silly. It’s economics all the way down. Warhammer 40,000 started as a companion to some other wargame that was designed to boost miniature sales for Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not better or more pure just because it came first. We come to these worlds from wherever we are – and it’s probably good to understand that other perspectives exist, that other people might have insights that are not available to you – but that doesn’t invalidate however you’re approaching the story. If you enjoy Know No Fear in isolation, good for you. Just enjoy it. Don’t worry about getting into the tabletop game – it’s unbelievably expensive.

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