I continue my CCLaP essay series “On Being Human”, this week exploring the dark world of Warhammer 40K and the Space Marines.
Short answer: Why not?
Long answer: The reason I’m investigating Warhammer 40K mostly stems from my own biography. As an 80s pre-teen, I enjoyed the pop culture of the time, especially if it was on TV and involved robots, vehicles, and weapons. Transformers, Voltron, and GI Joe were my favorites. (Although I owned a number of GI Joe toys, the TV show remained anathema in the house.)
I’m not sure when it happened or where, but it was probably a hobby shop somewhere in (possibly?) South Milwaukee area. While the store had the usual hobby store staples – trains, models, kites, etc. – what caught my wasn’t a model car or a Lionel product, it was the Citadel Miniatures catalogs of 1991. (And yes, I still have them.) The monsters, demons, soldiers, and armored vehicles really hooked me. In the terms of museology, I had a case of poeisia, the Greek term for wonder and awe. In the end, my dad ordered not a miniature or model, but the catalog itself.
Besides the Citadel Miniatures catalogs, I also found a copy of Rogue Trader. The illustrations, the hyper-dystopian mythology, and the ultraviolence appealed to my baser instincts. Only recently have I discovered my copy, falling apart as it is, remains a collector’s item in high demand.
Rogue Trader, the Dune Encyclopedia, and the Star Wars VHS trilogy (pre-Lucas meddling) form a constellation of precious pop culture commodities I value as one would a saint’s bone. Given the crypto-religious tone in Warhammer 40K, a reliquary for my Rogue Trader 1st edition doesn’t seem inappropriate at all.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s: I’m in the thicket of a grad school public history program. (What is public history? Short answer: The program you take when you don’t want to become a history professor.) Grad school in the humanities involves lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading. Footnotes, Foucault references, using the words “discourse” and “space” in a sentence. Heady, intellectual stuff, occasionally interspersed with writing as dense as a uranium milkshake. I don’t regret a minute of it.
I preserved my sanity by rediscovering Warhammer 40K, this time in the omnibus editions of the Black Library novels I found in the local Barnes & Noble. The hook occurred with the first sentences of Ian Watson’s magisterial trilogy The Inquisition Wars. Now considered non-canon, it remains one of the best Warhammer 40K novels I’ve ever read.
The omnibus opens with a short story entitled “The Alien Beast Within.” It concerns an Imperial Assassin infiltrating a cabal of Genestealers. Pretty standard stuff in terms of space opera and military science fiction. While the plot didn’t stand out, the language did. Watson wrote the story in a gaudy pop decadence, a delicious fantasy reincarnation of French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. Here are a few opening lines:
THE GIANT EXERCISE wheel accelerated yet again while Meh’Lindi raced, caged within it. The machine towered two hundred metres high, under a fan-vaulted roof. Shafts of light, of blood-red and cyanotic blue and bilious green, beamed through tracery windows which themselves revolved kaleidoscopically. Chains of brass amulets dangling from the rotating spokes of the wheel clashed and clanged deafeningly like berserk bells as they whirled around.
I read on, blissed out on the verbal pyrotechnics. Here is Watson’s description of the God-Emperor’s Palace on Terra in the novel Draco(1990; 2002):
IF VIEWED FROM low orbit through the foul atmosphere, the continent-spanning palace was a concatenation of copulating, jewelstudded tortoise shells erupting into ornate monoliths, pyramids, and ziggurats kilometres high, pocked by landing pads, prickling with masts of antennae and weapons batteries. Whole cities were mere chambers in this palace, some grimly splendid, others despicable and deadly, and all crusted with the accretion of the ages.
Following the Inquisition Wars, I read the Eisenhorn omnibus written by the impossibly prolific Dan Abnett. The trilogy follows the eponymous Imperial Inquisitor and his rag-tag entourage across worlds. What makes Eisenhorn different from the usual Black Library volume is it spends most of the time amongst the ordinary and everyday in the grim 41st millennium. It was a nice re-introduction into this world. Both Inquisition Wars and Eisenhorn are excellent gateway volumes for those interested in the Warhammer 40K universe.
One final note: I don’t play Warhammer 40K. First, from the prohibitive pricing of just about everything in their inventory makes it financially detrimental to start an army. Second, I don’t know many players who live in my area. On the other hand, I continue to enjoy reading the novels and browsing the catalogs online.
Having survived Ayn Rand’s epic literary atrocity Atlas Shrugged, we thought that it is time to explore other pop cultural avenues. The two subjects under consideration are the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40,000. (Each title is shorthand for sprawling creative properties involving TV shows, role playing games, video games, web series, tie-in novels and comics, and countless other pop cultural artifacts.)
Battlestar Galactica represents a rich vein to tap into the struggles and ethical dilemmas facing the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The spin-off series Caprica dealt with issues like organized religion, terrorism, virtual reality, technological advancement, organized crime, and capitalism. The franchise will expand again with the upcoming series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, chronicling the First Cylon War.
Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter known as Warhammer 40K) began in the United Kingdom as a fantasy role-playing game. (There is also a companion RPG called Warhammer that has a fantasy setting.) Starting from the premise of The Lord of the Rings … IN SPACE!, the franchise has expanded in tie-in novels, video games, a magazine, and a vastly expanded universe. Issues like colonialism, imperialism, and posthumanism will be explored.
NOTE: For both features, there will be spoilers. These are critical analyses, not episode or book summaries. Also, given the vastness of these franchises, we at Coffee is for Closers would appreciate any feedback, corrections, etc. from fans and members of the academic community studying these pop cultural touchstones in greater detail.
Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia is a rollicking adventure set in the Seventies. The title should give the reader a clue to the tone of the piece. Calling the Seventies “the Golden Age of Paranoia” with tongue firmly set in cheek, Wheen brings together everything from global politics, literature, and film. Bouncing between the drunken paranoia of President Nixon to the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the lunatic butchery of Idi Amin, one gets the impression that indeed “the world [is] on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”
Wheen’s work captures the Zeitgeist of the decade. He occasionally adds his own memories combining with a journalist’s knack to create a feeling of immediacy. From his British perspective, he offers stories and figures not well known to those readers across the pond. Included are the strange behavior of former Prime Minister Edward Heath and the farce of the Oz decency trial. The latter seems like an odd addition to a book chock-full of political paranoia and conspiracies. However, it does illustrate how paranoia became an everyday feeling, with proper bluestocking shocked that longhaired hippies would publish a magazine espousing an “alternate lifestyle.” All the more ironic since society had no problem with business suit-clad entrepreneurs churning out far worse in pornographic magazines.
Besides politics and pornography, Wheen also examines the literature produced in the decade. The seminal postmodern novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was released at the height of the Watergate hearings. Conspiracy theories abounded, most notably in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose fiction in the Fifties contained paranoia and identity crises, finally went insane. The copious psychotropic drugs made for a deadly combination, especially when he thought his fiction was becoming reality. With the FBI spying and infiltrating leftist groups, Dick and the paranoid hippies were actually telling the truth when they thought they saw FBI agents behind every mailbox.
In the heady atmosphere of conspiracy, people begin seeing patterns that may or may not exist. Besides elements of the far right thinking Edward Heath and Henry Kissinger were KGB agents, one only has to look as far as Gerald Ford to connect the dots. As a congressman, Ford participated in the Warren Commission, presenting to the public a lone gunmen and “a magic bullet.” Nearly a decade later, following Nixon’s resignation, he promptly pardons the disgraced president. To some, Ford epitomizes government whitewash. The constant refrain of the conspiracy-minded is “Only connect.” Or in the memorable words of All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.” Depending who you talk to, there exists ironclad evidence of conspiracy and intrigue. To others, the events can be explained away as coincidence. Wheen lets the reader make up his or her own mind.