This article, in addition to being part of my 2022 WarhamMarch series, also serves as a teaser for a series of articles I’ll be writing later in the year. Keep an eye out for more EMPIRES OF SCIENNCE FICTION in the near future.
Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame in which armies of a futuristic science fantasy setting do battle. In addition to the original game (which has itself undergone many revisions and edition), the lore and setting have been explored in great depth over the past two decades by a numerous novels, novellas, and anthologies released by in-house publisher Black Library. The information relied on for this article largely comes from these works of fiction.
‘There is no peace among the stars, for in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.’ The tagline of this franchise (from which the modern genre label grimdark is derived) is a mission statement for the game, and one that must be taken into consideration when examining the cultures that exist within it. Of course, on a meta level, the universe is in a constant state of warfare simply because this gives players a reason to face one another with whichever armies they wish. But within the context of the game world itself, the ever-present nature of war is a defining trait of the galaxy. War shapes every culture, and any attempt to understand these cultures must employ constant warfare as context. No, not every member of every society is a soldier. But the civilisations that have arisen to prominence by the turn of the forty-first millennium are driven largely by the needs of a wartime economy. Entire planetary ecosystems have been divided into agricultural farmland to feed armies. City-sized factories produce ammunition and weaponry. The empires of Warhammer 40,000 are not simply at war, they are consumed by it. War is the fire in which they are forged, and perhaps also where they will eventually burn.
The Imperium of Man
Humanity as portrayed in Warhammer 40,000 is largely united under a single banner. The Imperium of Man has been a dominant force in the galaxy for several thousand years, and in that time has had only one ruler. The God-Emperor is the highest of powers, at once a man and a deity. Ten thousand years before the current era of the franchise, the God-Emperor ended a rebellion led by one of his own children. As a result of that rebellion, the God-Emperor is now confined to his throne, which serves as both a symbol of his divine right to rule, and as a life-support machine for the ancient ruler. The exact state of the God-Emperor’s health is ambiguous, and it is possible he remains only as a corpse, being portrayed as alive in order to prevent total civil chaos. However, any questioning of the God-Emperor’s will is an act of heresy – one of the Imperium’s most server crimes.
The Imperium is driven by a belief in manifest destiny: That it is their purpose to bring the entire galaxy under the God-Emperor’s rule. To achieve this goal, the Imperium devotes incalculable military forces. Daily propaganda reminds the citizenry that all alien species are the enemy, and must be destroyed on sight. The same is true for heretics who speak against the God-Emperor. In spite of this dedication to purging the perceived unclean, however, a loophole does exist. The Imperium is surprisingly tolerant of pre-existing religions. It does not seek to eliminate them outright, but rather to prove that all religions ultimately lead to the worship of the God-Emperor.
A focus on war to the exclusion of other concerns has led the Imperium to a very tenuous position. In accordance with its own doctrines, it must keep expanding into hostile territory. Naturally, this brings it into conflict with other great powers of the galaxy. Crusades may take centuries to complete, as seen in Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series. The Sabbat Crusade has been underway for several decades by the time the series begins, and it is expected to rage long after the protagonists have fallen in battle. For the soldiers of the Imperium, retirement is rarely an option. The regiments consist of volunteers, but are largely conscripted from the Imperium’s many worlds. In addition, penal legions ensure that even the criminal underclass may aid humanity in its endless war.
Despite its constant state of expansion, the Imperium of Man is a stagnant society. There is no technological innovation, with even the greatest of Imperial weapons following traditional patterns. While there are many unique cultures with the Imperium, there are no sweeping cultural changes. No reforms. All life is subsumed by the desire for victory. With a single figure unmoving on his throne, there is no differentiation between the current period of war, and any of the others that have gone before. Indeed, were the war ever to end, and the soldiers return home, it seems likely that the Imperium would collapse under its own weight. In committing itself so fully to a war that cannot be won, the Imperium of Man has ensured a longevity as eternal as the conflict. It survives, it endures, but it can ever be at peace.
The Necron Dynasties
Millions of years before the rise of humanity, the necrons boasted an empire of their own. Not content with merely dominating the galaxy, they turned their attention on the powerful beings they regarded as gods. The price for survival in the wake of this conflict was the shedding of skin and bone, and the adoption of metal. As a result, the necrons are now truly immortal, but are a truly stagnant species. So much so that the overwhelming majority remain in a state of deep sleep in tombs that are largely unknown by other species.
Despite their high technological levels and rich history, the necrons rarely figure into the larger politics of the galaxy. Over the aeons, they have become a deeply inward-looking people, obsessing over their own failures rather than reaching outwards once more. The transition from flesh to metal has taken a heavy toll on their psyche, both on an individual and a societal level. Cultural depression has settled over them, and they seldom stir on their own.
However, when their tombs are violated by unwary settlers, the necrons are quick to retaliate with overwhelming force. Embracing the idea that their best days are behind them, the necrons defend their legacy with everything available to them. Nate Crowley’s The Twice-Dead King shows this, while also bringing into sharp focus the contempt with which the ancient necrons view the younger species of the galaxy. In contrast, Robert Rath’s The Infinite and the Divine shows another possibility. That a necron might take an honest curiosity in the civilisations that have followed their own. But even this curiosity comes with a destructive intent. The necrons may take an interest, but their goal is not to study. It is to collect. To render permanent and unchanging just as their own civilisation has become.
Though immortal, the necrons are unable to reproduce, and thus every loss is a significant one. While the dynasts may be content to throw away the lives of others to protect their own, the necrons are in a state of unstoppable decline. Though their bodies are hardened and all but impenetrable, necron society is wasting away. And the necrons can do nothing but watch their great monuments turn slowly to dust as the centuries go by.
If the Imperium and the necrons represent two points along a similar trajectory, then the orks are the rejection of that teleology. Ork society is unchanging, not because it is set ins tone, but because it is an ocean of chaos. The orks embrace mob rule, with the strongest ruling over the weak. Even those who advance through intellect are eventually strong-armed into the service of a bigger, angrier ork. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mike Brooks Da Red Gobbo, in which the servant grotlings save the lives of their ungrateful masters, onto to resume their previous subservience when it becomes clear that any who openly oppose the strong ork overlords would be killed.
The orks have been a constant threat to galactic civilisations for thousands of years, though the severity has waxed and waned with time. The strength of the orks is numbers. Orks, being fungal in nature, reproduce quickly, and there is no easy way to curtail their growth. In addition, an individual ork possesses phenomenal toughness and regenerative capabilities. They are hard to kill, and quick to kill others.
The orks have two great failings. The first is a lack of innovation. This may strike some as odd, for they are famous among gamers for their ability to jury-rig repairs and innovate new ways to cause havoc. But the deeper truth is that the orks are better at repairs than they are at building. An item in the possession of an ork may very well function for the ork’s entire lifespan, that is true. But such an item likely originated with another culture. The second failing is a lack of unity. While an individual ork may rise to prominence and lead their people in a war, that war does not last long in the wake of the leader’s demise. Furthermore, without a strong leader, the orks are prone to internal conflict. Were the orks ever to remain as the galaxy’s sole inhabitants, they would soon annihilate even themselves.
Like the necrons, the aeldari are a civilisation that has fallen from once lofty heights. However, the aeldari retain some semblance of a culture. Almost exclusively among the factions of Warhammer 40,000, the aeldari have repeatedly shown a willingness to cooperate with other species. Perhaps recognising that their once proud civilisation is past its prime, they now accept help when it is offered, and are ready to offer it in return.
The problem with aeldari civilisation is not one of ability, but of willingness. As a whole, they appear unwilling to restore the empire they could have. Perhaps this is species-wide scarring resulting from previous attempts at greatness, in which they broke both their civilisation and reality itself. Regardless, they exist in the present as an extremely hedonistic species, preferring to live in comfort rather than struggling for a better life. In their more blatantly evil cousins the drukhari, this hedonism turns to cruelty, but the aeldari are hardly innocent.
The aeldari exist as a cautionary tale of sorts. A warning of what could happen should the wars ever stop. A life of peace is a noble goal, but if we cease to struggle for what we believe in, what is the point of existence? How do we define ourselves in the absence of a clear goal?
Unlike the other factions of the game, the T’au are still very much on the ascent. They are, in galactic terms, a young species, and are only now beginning to develop their interstellar dominion. While others have been hardened, or even broken, by millennia of war, the t’au remain optimistic. In this, they are certainly naive. More than this, they are perhaps the most delusional of all factions.
The t’au believe in the t’au’va, which translates as ‘the Greater Good.’ A simplified version of this philosophy is that all species should work together in harmony under the guidance of the t’au leadership. For their part, many t’au appear to believe that this goal is genuinely in the best interests of all involved. But, as Phil Kelly shows in his Farsight novels, what cannot be achieved through diplomacy will be happily enforced through military prowess. The t’au employ propaganda both benign and sinister, and have a large standing army to enforce their desires.
Within their own culture, t’au are rigidly hierarchical. Split into four castes (one for each traditional Western element) the majority are locked into once career for their entire life. A fire caste member, for example, will be a soldier. An earth caste may be an engineer or a medic. Above these four castes exist the Ethereals, who are the true power of the t’au, hidden from external view but ruling nonetheless. Any non-t’au brought into the fold are positioned outside of the caste system, but their position is evidently beneath the t’au.
The t’au are perhaps unique in putting diplomacy ahead of military techniques. It is likely that their comparatively small population leaves them uneasy with the notion of a protracted war against larger polities. Nevertheless, their goal is as expansionist as the Imperium, and they are more than willing to defend what they perceive to be theirs, whether it falls within their borders or otherwise.
If the states of Warhammer 40,000 were successful, there would be no game. Even the most recent edition of the game, which brings something approximating hope to the Imperium, in practice does little more than reinvigorate them for another massive war. The societies portrayed within the game world will always be subservient to the needs and requirements of the tabletop experience.
Yet in showing these states as failed, Warhammer 40,000 is able to offer both satire and direct criticism of the machineries by which these empires linger on. Warhammer 40,000 shows us the worst of all possible worlds, through a lens that makes the experience enjoyable, and in doing so reminds us that all political and cultural systems are prone to corruption and collapse. The greatest enemy in the grim darkness of the far future is not military or xenos, but complacency. Whether it is the unending rule of the God-Emperor or the rigid castes of the t’au, a civilisation that refuses to change is one that rejects the option to improve. Not all change is progress, but all stagnation is death.
Abnett, Dan, First and Only (Black Library, Nottingham, 1999)
Brooks, Mike, Da Red Gobbo (Black Library, Nottingham, 2021)
Crowley, Nate, The Twice-Dead King: Ruin (Black Library, Nottingham, 2021)
Kelly, Phil, Farsight: Crisis of Faith (Black Library, Nottingham, 2017)
Rath, Robert, The Infinite and the Divine (Black Library, Nottingham, 2019)