by Siryako Akda
"It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die. Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor's will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants – and far, far worse. To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods."
～The Official Introduction to Warhammer 40,000
Dystopia incites a person to fight. Dystopia incites a person to face the ever-present possibility of death. Dystopia incites pessimism, but it also incites feelings of courage and martial virtues. In other words, Dystopia is Cryptofascist. Judge Dredd, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984 are all good examples of dystopian fictions, and they can be said to have Fascist, or at least, anti-modern themes. The following article will deal with one of the most popular Dystopian fictions in popular culture, and that is Warhammer 40,000.
If you've been around the nerdy parts of the internet, you would know what I’m talking about. Warhammer 40,000 (sometimes called Warhammer 40K, Warhammer 40 gay, Warhammer or simply Nazi Medieval Fascist North Korea/Medieval Europe/USSR in Space) is set 40,000 years in the distant future, where war is constant and humanity – ruled over by a crumbling and hyper-militaristic empire – is on the brink of extinction.
Games Workshop, the company that owns Warhammer 40,000, first introduced this franchise as a tabletop game in the 1980’s, and since then, it has expanded into a complex story that can be said to have a fanbase every bit as dedicated as the two royalties of Science Fiction: Star Wars and Star Trek. These days, Warhammer exists in various mediums – in video games, in books, in movies, and of course, in tabletop gaming.
However, the importance of Warhammer 40K goes beyond its more obvious characteristics as a dystopic version of Lord of the Rings set in outer space. One also needs to consider the appeal that Warhammer 40K has with regards to its overall aesthetics, its values and the worldview that it represents. Warhammer takes the values usually associated with science fiction (e.g. technological progress, material progress, social progress, interstellar cooperation, and interspecies sex) and inverts them in the most painful and ridiculous ways possible. My purpose here is to analyze this inversion as well as the overall appeal of the entire franchise.
What is Warhammer 40,000 About?
The setting of Warhammer 40,000 is one of constant warfare. The aliens, the human “protagonists,” the worlds they fight on and even the galaxy itself is in a state of constant and unremitting war. There are no Rebel Alliances, Galactic Republics or Interstellar Federations for fair minded egalitarian liberals to identify with – only various empires trying to exterminate each other, each one every bit as brutal and ruthless as their enemies. There’s even a joke in the fandom that Warhammer is not a setting where the conflict is between good and evil, but between evil and blood-thirsty maniacal sadism.
In this bleak age, the focus of much of the story is centered around the Imperium of Man, a dystopian, totalitarian, xenophobic, theocratic and heavily militarized galactic super state that spans countless worlds. During this “grimdark” age, science and technology are all but forgotten and all thoughts of progress or individual rights are considered ridiculous, if not dangerous. Most of the citizens of the Imperium are (by our standards) oppressed and abused by their leaders. Plague, insurrection, death, genocide and most of all, war are the norms for those who live in the dark millennium of the year 40,000. For a more detailed explanation on how messed up being a citizen of the Imperium is, read this.
But wait. It doesn’t end there. Aside from looking like a crumbling, oppressive and totalitarian bureaucracy, the Imperium is also at war with:
Extra-dimensional entities that wish to corrupt and devour the souls of all life
Ancient robots that seek to harvest all life
Space bugs that will consume all life
Green skinned sentient space orcs who wish to maim all life
Powerful psychic space elves who look down on all life
Powerful space elves who who want to torture and rape all life
Blue skinned space communist aliens
Every other non-human sentient species in the galaxy and beyond
The Imperium fights against these enemies... All at the same time, and in some cases, they even win (at the cost of several millions of men in mass attrition warfare).
As you might guess from this presentation, the setting of Warhammer is so over the top that it’s considered by many of its own fans to be a joke, a cynical ploy by Games Workshop to get nerds to buy overpriced plastic figurines, and pretend for a few moments that they are Space Napoleon. However, what makes Warhammer relatively unique as a fictional setting is that it is the direct opposite of those sci-fi settings which project an optimistic and happy future for the whole human race. By trying to find a niche that is outside of the optimistic milieu of conventional science fiction, Warhammer has created a cultural space where certain repressed emotions of modern society (e.g. tribalism and religiosity) are given expression, albeit in a caricatured manner.
This is expressed in the story of the Imperium, which is the story of a fallen empire. The Immortal God Emperor of Man, the founder of the Imperium, had actually intended to create a totalitarian atheist human supremacist superstate as opposed to a totalitarian theocratic human supremacist dystopia. He carried out his plans by launching a galaxy-wide military campaign to subjugate all the far-flung human colonies and also to eliminate or neutralize all of humanity’s foes (e.g. aliens). Unfortunately, after a terrible event known as the Horus Heresy, the Emperor was reduced to a half-dead corpse, and from that point on the Imperium began its painful decline into oblivion.
This decline is what makes the Imperium interesting. It’s like staring at a train wreck, and seeing artistic tragedy. So in order to explain the appeal and significance of this particular train wreck, I will now describe the three most important aspects of Warhammer 40,000 as I understand and perceive them.
The Boundaries of Human Civilization – Unlike most other science fiction settings, the Human Imperium is not an expanding state. Its boundaries are determined by a powerful psychic beacon which is the basis of space travel, the Astronomicon. Beyond the Astronomicon is Astra Incognita, the empty reaches of space, offering not promises of glory, prosperity or brave new worlds, but death, terror and demonic monsters.
The limits of the Imperium are symbolic of the limits of the human will and of the human intellect in the face of nature. As such, it is the direct opposite of other science fiction settings that promise endless discoveries and possibilities. This inversion however, goes much deeper than the distinction between optimism and pessimism. It also touches on the nature of nature itself.
Modernity treats nature (including human nature) as a malleable object that is subject to the will of the human mind. This is true for numerous science fiction settings. A good example of this is the world of Pandora in the sci-fi movie Avatar, where despite the threatening nature of the world, it is still presented in the movie as being at the mercy of stereotypical corporate fat cats.
However, for a fictional setting to present nature as hostile, powerful and un-tamable creates an alternative narrative where technology, and by extension human civilization, are presented as weak and ephemeral. In a universe where humanity is presented as weak and at the mercy of aliens, morality ceases to be the issue, and survival takes center stage.
Indeed, in Warhammer, the Imperium, despite its military might, is presented as a besieged state that is fighting a losing war against the terrors of space (i.e. nature). This decline as well as the limits of the human Imperium can be thought of as a cautionary tale for all civilizations. Decline is inevitable. Empires fall, but only nature remains. In the end, morality, ethics, science, peace and politics do not matter. Only that which is primal matters. For the Imperium, it’s not technology or space ships that’s keeping it alive. It’s the ruthless, primal brutality of its soldiers.
The Regression of Technology amd the Cyclical Narrative of History – Warhammer can be called an Archeofuturist setting in that it integrates the high powered technology of science fiction, and combines it with pre-modern values. The Human Imperium, through the Adeptus Mechanicus and its Techpriests, treats technology as a religion, calling Artificial Intelligence "machine spirits," and using complex rituals to operate technological devices. This is because most of the technology found in the Imperium is left over from a previous age, the “Dark Age of Technology.” The Dark Age of Technology ended with the Artificial Intelligence centuries and a massive rebellion which ended with the technological and scientific regression of the entire human race centuries before the rise of the Imperium.
However, Warhammer's Archeofuturism exists mainly because of the nature of the setting itself. The universe in 40K is unstable, and is often hostile. Even the alien empires which had preceded humanity have fallen, thus setting the precedence for humanity’s own inevitable decline and those that would succeed it.
This narrative is contrasted with the technological optimism which exists in most sci-fi settings, and where science and technology are seen as the solution to all of man’s problems. Without this type of optimism, expressed in materialistic and technological terms, science fiction could hardly exist, but then again, one can also say the same about modernity. For how can modernity exist without the vision of the future that it strives to create.
Indeed, this begs the question that if one were to take away all of modern man’s fancy gadgets and fast cars, what would be left of him? In the Human Imperium, technology plays a secondary role, for in a galaxy where space demons exist, and where the ephemeral nature of progress is revealed for all to see, faith and instinct are more important tools for survival.
The Overcoming of Man – Despite the name "Human Imperium," the humans of the Imperium are very inhumane, both on an emotional level as well as on a physical level. The soldiers, citizens, priests and even bureaucrats of the human Imperium can be called to some extent super-human in that they engage in genetic enhancement and robotic augmentations.
However, what truly makes many of the people in the human Imperium inhumane is that they do not equate human with "humane." "Man is something that shall be overcome," as Big N would say. In a galaxy where humanity is at the brink of extinction, humanity defines itself in terms of brutality and ruthless will. This is what allows them to survive physically and psychologically in a galaxy plagued by aliens and demons.
This has a revolutionary subtext in that it presents human nature beyond the confines of modern values, and replaces it with a Hobbesian outlook. Thus, due to the necessity of survival, the very concept of humanity ceases to have a moral or ethical definition. For in a hostile universe, only hostile and dangerous humans can survive, and that certainly requires a reassessment of what it means to be human.
Comparing Warhammer With Star Wars and Star Trek
In order to better appreciate the uniqueness of Warhammer as a pop-culture internet phenomenon, it’s important to compare it with the relatively optimistic settings of Star Wars and Star Trek. Both franchises allow their respective fans to immerse themselves in an imaginative galaxy that is vastly more exciting and entertaining than our own.
In the case of Warhammer however, it’s not just a matter of stepping out of our everyday lives into a galaxy far far away. It’s also about stepping into a new metaphysical and moral system, along with the new collective experiences that go along with them. One of the most important characteristics of Star Wars and Star Trek is that they are both a projection of Americanism and Liberal Modernity onto space. For one thing, they took many of the experiences of 20th century America, such as economic and industrial expansion as well as the civil rights movement, and projected them onto outer space, with aliens taking on the role of the “other” (i.e. people from different cultures, races, religions and nationalities), and the galaxy took over the place of the wild west. Star Trek was even called "the wagon train to the stars."
In contrast to this, Warhammer's morality must be contextualized within the setting, a setting that is brutal and where happy endings, like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star with a lucky shot using the Force, are not allowed. Moreover, the “other” are not aliens who are open to diplomacy, but inscrutable monsters (with few exceptions) which are so inhuman that they exclude the possibility of long term interstellar diplomacy.
In contrast to Warhammer, in the original series of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry could afford to have his characters wag their fingers at all the strange customs of racial stereotypes/aliens that they met on their long voyages, because the set up is structured in such a way that the heroes and the values that they represent are always right, whereas the values of the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, and all the other bad aliens are either wrong, or at least misguided. Likewise, Picard, Kirk and the Jedis almost always win, and even if they don’t win the battle, there is always the implicit recognition in their respective settings that they’re right, and the enemies are wrong.
Star Wars and Star Trek are more conducive to a liberal and modern mythos because their stories take place in settings which are conducive to a particular type of story telling. In both Star Trek and Star Wars, it is assumed that in the future, science and technology would have the same role and impact on the galaxy as it does in our present world, that material progress can be sustained, and by extension the values of progressivism. Also, in both stories, it is widely assumed that the galaxy will be able to support the consumption of an ever expanding human race, and that warfare would be an anomaly and peace would be the norm. In Star Wars and Star Trek, it is assumed that aliens have a lot in common with human beings, and that expansion into the outer reaches of space will have the same outcome as the expansion of the entire human race throughout the entire world. This is an obviously optimistic worldview, rooted in the idea that the galaxy could be explored, understood, and ultimately subdued, mainly through the application of human understanding (i.e. science), not unlike the worldview that is being fostered on a global level today.
It’s easy to identify with the heroes of Star Wars and Star Trek because they have the same values as peoples of the modern world. One can even say that among the reasons why Star Wars and Star Trek have become so famous is the fact that they are projections of modern culture into a wider and more exciting setting (i.e. a technologically advanced galactic civilization). They are the myths of globalism and Americanism.
This is not the case with Warhammer 40K. Most of those who deplore the ideas of Right would most likely consider the Imperium as the archetypal manifestation of those ideas: brutal, pitiless, hierarchical, militaristic and reactionary, and they would be correct. However, even though Warhammer 40K and the Human Imperium are mere caricatures of these values, the appeal is still there, and this appeal represents the human will to fight and overcome mediocrity, stagnation and defeat. These values – even in their twisted forms – say no to those values presented by Star Wars and Star Trek. It is traditionalist counterculture at its finest.
I believe that the brutality of Warhammer is among the reasons why it has become so famous as of late. People's instincts in the West, at least on a subliminal level, are fascinated with what’s beyond modern values and modern morality, which is to say the "galaxy far far away," with the battle between the Forces of Light and the Dark Side getting a little old now.
The "grimdark" setting of Warhammer, aside from presenting and justifying an anti-liberal morality, also presents a particular worldview. A worldview that is centered around the idea that the galaxy is hostile, that the world is hostile, and that it cannot be conquered. Death is a constant threat, and the new worlds and new life that humanity will encounter are likely to try to slaughter humanity itself.
Because of this worldview, the liberal morality widely used in Star Wars and Star Trek, would not apply in Warhammer 40K. In truth, the application of liberal and egalitarian morality in Warhammer renders a person susceptible to death, at best, and Chaos Corruption by interdimensional entities, at worst. It is for these reasons why those of us who subscribe to anti-modern and anti-egalitarian values should take these stories seriously.
At the core of one’s feelings towards a particular overarching fictional setting are these two questions: "How does the world work?" and "What kind of world do you want to build?" Star Wars and Star Trek gives one set of answers to these questions, while Warhammer gives something else entirely different.
“Every doctrine tends to direct human activity towards a determined objective,” as Mussolini said. Although very few people would want to live in the Human Imperium, I also believe that there are also a lot of people who don’t want to live in Gene Roddenberry’s Federation or George Lucas’ Galactic Republic, yours truly included. Despite its obvious caricaturization, the Human Imperium represents a society where courage, valor, instinct and the will are more valued than equality, compassion and progress. It is a society that is not driven by the shallow morality of egalitarianism and individuality, but by the Will to Power as expressed by the Will to Survive.
The Significance of Warhammer 40,000 in Pop Culture
Warhammer 40,000 is what right wing science fiction ought to be. What this means is that the characters and personalities which exist in the 40K universe are an extension of the setting in which they play their parts. It's basically fictional Dasein, because the cruel and brutal nature of 40K as a setting is reflected by the brutality of its own characters – one reflects the other. In other words, the stories are harsh, and the characters are often subjected to certain death and defeat. One cannot approach or appreciate such a setting with a liberal mindset because it is too alien for contemporary modern society. So for people to start appreciating or empathizing with the characters of Warhammer also means that they have stepped out of the liberal worldview, and that is very important.
Although many fans of Warhammer 40,000 understand that the Imperium is evil or at least brutal and cruel to the extreme, such brutality is also justified given their circumstances. This results in the relativization of modern morality, because given the nature of the Imperium’s enemies, fans are introduced to a setting where the moral values of more liberal science fiction settings simply do not apply. Without this moral dichotomy of Good and Evil as expressed by liberal morality, those who immerse themselves in the lore of Warhammer 40,000 are forced to approach the values and mentality of the Impreium from the perspective of the Imperials themselves: Kill or Be Killed. Indeed, any system which relativizes modern morality opens up niches for anti-modern and anti-egalitarian values to come in.
And it’s not even about morality alone. Even though it is widely acknowledged that the Imperium is evil by modern standards, a lot of fans still can’t help but feel a sense of affinity for the soldiers and warriors of the Human Imperium, many of whom fight against impossible odds and are driven exclusively by a fanatical will to fight and survive. I suspect that this is because 40K, like any good fiction, allows us to go beyond ourselves and our everyday lives to embark into an experience that is profoundly different to what we are used to. This experience is crucial, because it offers a vision of a society that may be created in the future. In other words, it inspires, and that is one of the key functions of any culture.
So, despite its terrors, the Warhammer galaxy calls forth instincts of glory, courage, faith, and transcendence. Warhammer allows the expression of those instincts of man that have been repressed by modern liberal morality. It is a galaxy where the raw, animalistic rage, and the deep yearning for transcendent courage, hidden deep within modernity’s civilized veneer, is given full expression; where prosperity and progress must be contextualized within the rise and fall of societies; and where peace, plenty and technology are not enough to keep humanity alive. Warhammer 40,000 may be a caricature, but it is a caricature of those aspects of humanity that seek a path beyond the confines of modern consumerism, egalitarianism and globalism.
"Praise the Emperor and Strike Down His Foes!"
Originally published 13th November, 2012