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Why Warhammer 40K?

September 21, 2011 1 comment

Short answer: Why not?

Only a few short steps to Warhammer 40K fandom.

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.

The catalog fetish still survives with me, since I enjoy buying exhibition catalogs for museum exhibits.  Nothing fuels my imagination more than a perusal of Forge World’s latest.

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.

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