My Year in Books Part 2: Grim Darkness

Last week I talked about the books on Buddhism I read in 2018, which made up the bulk of my nonfiction reading for the year. Today I turn to fiction and, continuing the pattern, most of it stuck to a single topic, namely science fiction in the universe of Warhammer 40,000.

But this isn’t just a story about me becoming obsessed with a setting. It’s also the story of how I largely abandoned my prior love, Star Wars, for something considerably better.

Last year I gave up on Star Wars novels. From the time Disney announced it was rebooting the Star Wars canon, and releasing a new line of novels that would be as canonical as the films, and running through the release of The Last Jedi, I read nearly ever Star Wars book released. But then I quit, and right about the same time I read my first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Xenos, part one of Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn trilogy. I went on to read twenty-one more.

By way of explaining this somewhat embarrassing admission, I should say that I read science fiction mostly for the world building, and much of the enjoyment of world building comes from extended immersion. For a lot of people, science fiction is about ideas. But if I want to explore ideas, I'll read philosophy. (There are, of course, exceptions, but very few science fiction authors are Frank Herbert, no matter their pretensions.) Science fiction, for me, is instead about occupying another place and getting to know it, and that means (1) world-building matters and (2) emersion coming over the course of many books improves the experience.

For decades, the world I occupied most was that galaxy far, far away. I still love Star Wars, but as a world to explore, it's become far less interesting. The setting just doesn’t make a lick of sense anymore, even by the loose standards that are its legacy. I challenge you to describe the post-Return of the Jedi universe without eventually shrugging. Warhammer 40,000's universe is fantastic, it holds together, even in its over-the-top insanity I find it plausible, and its writers more than do it justice.

And that’s really the thing. Even the best Star Wars novel (at the moment, I still believe that’s Battlefront: Twilight Company) is comparable to probably a middle of the road Warhammer novel. I can think of two reasons for this. First, the Black Library, the publishing house behind these books, simply hires better writers. But, second, the Black Library doesn’t farm its books out to authors mostly known for YA fiction. This isn’t to knock YA as a genre, but the style many YA authors develop doesn’t lend itself to telling stories I care much about. Most new Star Wars novels are, to be frank, like listening to an adolescent describe how he imagines adults behave.

So, Warhammer 40,000. What an enthralling place. It's a universe that's huge, dense, and dark. The aesthetics kick ass. It's silly, but it's such a finely tuned silliness that it never looks silly from the inside.

I've come to think of Warhammer 40,000 as the antithesis of Star Trek. Take every value and style choice of the latter, flip it, and you've got the former. Where Star Trek's space ships are sleek and plastic and well-lit, 40K's armies travel the galaxy in literal cathedrals built of goddamn stone. Where Star Trek is about hope for humanity, every 40K novel begins with this opening crawl:

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.

I dig it. A ton. And the best 40K authors are really good. Dan Abnett, to pick out probably the best of the lot, writes books I’d reread. Characters I care about and want to spend time with. Prose that rises above the expected workmanlikeness and that I’m even occasionally dazzled by. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Helsreach is my favorite piece of military science fiction I’ve ever read.

I imagine I’ll slow down with these in 2019, because I’ve got stuff to read that, I hate to admit, is maybe higher priority than more Warhammer.

But damn if it wasn’t fun to spend so much time there.