Grimdark Appreciation

My Warhammer fixation shows no signs of slowing and I know this because I am starting to really enjoy the human element of this scifi world.

I’ve been a Warhammer 40,000 enjoyer ever since my first Ork Boy told me to “zog off” all those years ago playing Dawn of War. In fact this blog was originally called “Freebooter Kommand” in honor of da boyz (and a very good thrash song). The other 40K factions were fine — cool even — and I got it: things are bad for humans. They got their space paladins and their army mans, etcetera, and it’s tough out here in these grimdark streets.

But all the other factions, from beakie boys all the way to Drukhari sadists, were set in contrast against the Orks. They were simply there to prove how fun da boyz were and to give them something to beat up on.

This was the throughline for my 40k experience from the Dawn of War franchise, into the novels and comics I read, and so forth. I dabbled with the humies, even read some very enjoyable Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, but my opinion did not change. You were either a superhuman Spess Muhrine or a gi joe and there wasn’t much more to it than that.

I’m currently getting hit with a double whammy of Imperial fiction, though, in the forms of Darktide and the Carrion Throne novel (in addition to novels The Emperor’s Legion and Dark Imperium). Both are gritty and precise, zooming in on the lives of average (and not so average) humans living in the grim darkness of the forty-first millennium. The result is repainting the picture I had of what I took to be the “vanilla” faction of Warhammer.

For at its core, away from the idealized weirdness of Space Marines and the grandiose Commissariat and mythical Custodes and legendary fireside tales of battles won, the Imperium of Mankind lives in a terrible, terrible gray area.

Some will disagree immediately and remind us that the Imperium is strictly a fascist dictatorship or, at best, oligarchy. The weak are oppressed, heavily, and the strong continue to grow fat through corruption and abuse.

All of this is true and the Imperium is not what one might call an idealized vision of the future. It’s not the Federation; not a place one might actually want to live. There are many reasons for this, starting with general scope and scale of 40k. The world, from its fighting units to its star empires all the way to broader, interconnecting concepts like the Warp, is meant to be over-the-top and larger than life. The galaxy of the fort-first millennium is scifi shot through with medievalism and taken to its utmost extreme, nearly to absurdity. Splash in a bit of cyberpunk dystopia, space opera void warfare, steampunk technology, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror and you’ve got an extremely interesting and almost novel setting in which to set mankind tottering about, acting ugly.

Internally, though, there are also reasons for the atrocities committed by mankind and that is what I am getting at.

For humanity, once the greatest force in the galaxy, is on the brink of collapse. Commoners must be persecuted and hatred must be preached not because it allows the rich to simply control the populace as in our world (though that is what it does), but because that element of control can mean the difference between relative peace and a literal invasion of daemons.

This is not the superstition of a misinformed people who may or may not launch a witch hunt over petty jealousy; it’s the objective reality of this galaxy. Call them daemons for convenience; call it faith for shorthand. However you slice it, the spiritual realm of the cosmos is hungry and coming to get you and the authorities have to do something about it, even if it’s not the right thing. So religious diversity is squashed and the people are lied to; xenos, heretic, mutants, literally any sort of “other” is to be jailed or killed outright.

And yet there are people trying to do the right thing, from low level government officials all the way to Primarchs (well, at least one of those). How can a society of truth and safety be built upon the ruins of a fascist system in the malicious shadow of reality-devouring evils?

Moreover, how can one blame poor, starving, disease-ridden people for turning towards the lies of eldritch gods who offer them power?

It’s a tricky balance. And I’m starting to like it.

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