Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rotting Apples Beneath A Rotting Tree

The Flight Of The Eisenstein: The Blinded Star (IV)

Ignatius Grulgor
Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

In our last broadcast, we discussed the difficulty in ever understanding why Mortarion made the choices he did during the dying days of the Great Crusade. That thought has followed us here. Are we really fated to be forever ignorant of the Primarch's motivations? Records of Mortarion's own words are sparse and contradictory, but is that all we can rely upon?  Might we not learn more of the man himself by observing those who surrounded him, like a Navigator might recognise a planetary system from the Warp eddies that flow around its border?

Consider then Ignatius Grulgor.  The furtive and taciturn nature of his Legion notwithstanding, this is not a man whose dissatisfaction is difficult to discern, nor his grievances difficult to place.  Indeed, it's entirely possible that the sum total of his thinking when choosing his Primarch over his Emperor was that the former option would annoy Garro and his fellow Terrans. It has always been a curious fact of human nature that our instinct is always to hurt our enemies rather than to help ourselves.

So what is it about the Terrans that makes them so unbearable to Grulgor?  He himself references their arrogance, which is surely part of the answer. It's perhaps not even all that difficult to sympathise, either. The entirety of the Great Crusade has after all been an exercise in the tribes of Terra expanding out across the human galaxy and informing them "You do things like us now".  How can that be anything other than arrogant? What other conclusion can we draw from an Emperor who stamps out religion for believing something lies beyond science when he himself had encountered daemons his awesome intellect could not explain?  Even the map of the newly forged galaxy gives too much weight to the Emperor and to Terra; what kind of society divides the galaxy into segments according to the compass points emanating from a comparatively remote system in one spiral arm? One might as well rename Ultima Segmentum as "basically the galaxy".

The dominance of Terra makes no more sense culturally than it does spatially. Even were we to believe that the Emperor's Light represents the ultimate pinnacle of human society ever to grace Terra - an assertion we leave uncontested for reasons of time, not for lack of objections - it is a society born of and thus tailored to that world.  There is no reason to believe and many reasons to refute the idea that the resultant approach is one that can be adapted for literally any one of the two million human worlds recorded during the Great Crusade. What could possibly hope to work as well on a hive world like Necromunda as on a feral planet like Attila? A death-world like Catachan? A hollow planet orbiting a singing star like Herrelstein? Yes, the Crusade by and large made only minimal changes to the worlds they annexed (minimal beyond whatever damage was done in acquiring that world, of course), but this was clearly done as a matter of pragmatism and not principle.  The message from Terra was "You will be allowed to keep your cultures, for now at least", not "Your cultures are worthy of keeping".

This would be hard for those from any world beyond the solar system to accept, but for those from Barbarus it must have seemed arrogant to the point of madness. What strange scent in the sweet air of Terra had addled the Emperor's wits to the point he believed his followers could match those who choked down the poisons of Barbarus? At what point during his subjugation of the weakling Terra tribes did the Emperor conclude his feats were impressive enough to match defeating the alien slavers that teemed in the corrosive clouds of Mortarion's birthplace? How could a man from so soft and comfortable a world as Terra understand the Thorn Garden, or the drinking of the poisons, or any ofther facet of the mighty Death Guard?

It is here that we return from Ignatius Grulgor to his Primarch. What scraps have been gleaned of Mortarion's motives suggests Horus turned him by arguing the galaxy was entering a new age, an age which would require stronger leadership than the Emperor could offer. And who was more likely than a scion of Barbarus to believe that a resurgence of humanity taking place on its ancestral homeworld was simple coincidence rather than providence, and that in the final analysis, the greatest achievement of the people of Terra, both past and present, was simply to reach worlds like Barbarus, where the real work could begin.

It's no surprise that the son should turn out so like the father, naturally. This whole line of logic is predicated on that tendency. The Emperor to Mortarion to Grulgor: rotting apples falling from rotting trees. And in this particular way, Mortarion was perhaps more like his father than was any of his brothers, both so rooted in their homes they had no interest in any alternative approach. But this just makes the pair an extreme case of a common failure of comprehension. Mankind's strength has always lain in its diversity. Humanity can be united, but it cannot be homogenised. There is no one way, and certainly no one right way. The Emperor forgot that. Mortarion forgot that too, and in doing so murdered one third of his Legion and doomed the rest.

Still, if Mortarion's aim really was to demonstrate just how much his Legion could endure and survive, give him this much: he got his chance.


(This will be a short entry, since the majority of this chapter provides a different perspective to events already covered.)

What Is

Have you gotten any closer to understanding why and when Mortarion decided it was time to dial up the evil?

Did Mortarion offer the Emperor a poisoned cup and get knocked back?

I don't think so.  I don't figure the Emperor as someone who'd turn down a ridiculously  pointless macho challenge.

There seems to be big fractures in the Legion because of all this.  They don't seem to get on, the people from Terra and the people from... the other place.

Really? Not even a vague idea?


Barbarus. You had a point, I believe?

I'm wondering if the Terran Astartes are there to keep the Barbarus ones in line. Make sure they stay loyal to the Emperor.

S'possible. Certainly if that was the Emperor's plan that'd be a good way to go about it.  Or, y'know, it would be if it didn't enrage two thirds of the Legion.

But no, is the answer to your question. I can't figure Mortarion out.  The best I can do is that maybe he's playing both sides against the middle? Though you seem to be making Mortarion out to be too much of an out-and-out villain for that to work. 

Hey, if you slaughter a third of your men for the sake of a power-play you're an evil arsehole, whether you've been nipping at the Kool-Aid or not.

The only other alternative is that the whole thing is just one more endurance test. Make them crawl through thorn gardens, make them drink poison, make them survive the melty-face virus. 

Yeah, one of those things doesn't sound like the others. Still, it's the kind of ultra-pragmatic approach that I can see appealing to Mortarion.

Exactly. The first Astartes clinical trial.

Clinical trial?  What's the intervention here?

Mortarion's special juice.

Um... that's a great band name, but probably not something NIHR are going to fund.  You know what sticklers for ethics the Research for Patient Benefit stream are.

This is Research for Astartes Benefit.

Yes, because nothing benefits people like feeding them poison to see if it stops them dissolving upon contact with a virus you yourself have infected them with.

But if anyone survives, they could head down with virus bombs and make sure they get planted in the right place.

Well sure, but that "if" is big enough to sail a Battle Barge through. I mean, if we could find people who can survive nuclear bombs we could do away with nuclear missiles.  You know, if these people also had superhuman strength and could teleport.  Astartes, is what I'm saying.

On a similar topic, does Ignatius Grulgor have anything approaching a point regarding Garro? How much of the Heresy just comes down to two groups of Astartes who just don't like where the other half came from?

Grulgor's not a very neutral name, is it? Not hard to figure out which side someone called that is likely to take.

Maybe it's like "Cecil" on Barbarus, though. Besides, whatever his name, he's either right about Terrans or he isn't.

That's pretty racist; labelling everyone from Terra like they're the same.

Hey, it's wasn't my idea that like every single Astartes is white.

I suppose the fact that they've spent so much more time around the Emperor than the Barbarus lot have could have made them arrogant, like the Emperor's Children. I mean Loken, Garro, Vipus. I suppose they are all of a type, aren't they?


Obviously a great deal of this chapter involves events we've already seen.  How much of a difference does it make for us to be seeing things through Garro's eyes, and via Swallow's prose?

Hard to tell, really.

Struggling to see the subtle differences?

Struggling to remember the last book.


I did notice how Garro came across as naive here, though. Much like Loken, actually, though the two seem pretty much interchangeable anyway.

Naive in what sense?

He swallowed Mortarion's line about the remembrancers very quickly, even though it makes no sense.  If the Astartes were any good at keeping records, you'd never need the remembrancers along at all.

I suppose it depends whether you'd rather watch Star Trek or just read a transcript of Picard's log.  "Horus entered the room. Horus is good. Horus shouted at us. We were sad."

I think that-

"Oh no a virus has eaten my face".

I think that Captain Picard is rather more dry and understated than that.

All the more reason the Astartes need someone to write their logs for them. Or, you know, set them to a jaunty tune.

Is that really all the remembrancers are bringing to the table?  What was the point?

To stir those back home into a patriotic frenzy.  To present the Astartes as noble warriors rather than the deranged space murderers they really were.  If it helps, think of them as 31st millennium Jessie Popes with spaceships and drinking problems.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

I Wear My Scars On The Inside

Flight Of The Eisenstein: The Blinded Star (III)

Attilan Rough Riders: strangely unwilling to answer whether
they cut open their cheeks to store food in, like some terrifying inverse gerbil

Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

Scars are serious business.

With the human race arguably never so populous, and certainly never before with such numbers embroiled in warfare, it is quite possible that there are more scars being carried by mankind today than at any point in our millennia of history. The vast majority of these historical markers for savage wounds will have been incurred as we fought our enemies within, without, and beyond.

Not all of them, however. Some scars, we give to ourselves.

Scarification is a ritualistic practice that dates back to the Dark Age of Technology, and almost certainly earlier. The plains of Afrique, the forest nations south of Nordafrik; reports can be found from all over Ancient Terra, and the practice continues today, most obviously amongst the savage horsemen of the steppes of Attila. The reasons for scarring oneself are as varied and peculiar as the languages humanity once spoke - as we still speak, when we can escape the tyranny of Low Gothic. Language is a fine metaphor here, in fact, because scarification at heart is intended as message delivery. And, again like a language, the message is one of inclusion: we belong here, you do not.

The criteria through which one is included or otherwise obviously depends on context - scars can mean anything from the right to be heard in council to being prepared for motherhood - but whatever the difference between the haves and the have-nots, the unifying feature is that the scars double as a form of advertising; "join us and this can be yours". Those without, the theory goes, should envy those with, and those with can find satisfaction in entering a select assemblage. When those scars are earned in the metallic blur of battle (either directly, or as with the Attilans, by celebrating an ascension to adulthood which can only have been made possible by reaching a certain threshold of martial skill) the result is a kind of horizontal brotherhood that overrides barriers of rank (much like the Warrior Lodges to which we must soon return) or even species. An unofficial organisation of interstellar murderous bastards. "We are something to be feared" is the entirely unsubtle message. "If we're willing to do this to ourselves, imagine, what we're prepared to do to you".

This concept of scarification as an endurance test to demonstrate fortitude and a tolerance for pain seems entirely obvious as a warning to the enemy. But what are we to make of an army - of a brotherhood - whose endurance test leaves no external trace?

To deal with the obvious first: yes, Mortarion's poison ritual qualifies as scarification. The act centres on a display of toughness, endurance, and resolve, placing it squarely within the tradition of such practices, and we must assume some kind of permanent cosmetic damage results.  There's a reason no-one is ever asked to prove their worth as a warrior by stubbing their toe or suffering a paper cut.  The fact that those who bear witness are required to remember what they saw simply adds to the feeling of exclusivity.

But that feeling isn't the only reason to keep your men's scars on the inside. Indeed, it can scarcely be even the main reason, Mortarion not seemingly being one to spend his time worrying about how to strengthen the bonds between his warriors.  Not without some ulterior motive, anyway. So what other function is being served here? What use is a ritual of endurance designed so those who have endureed less never get to see either it or its effects?  The simplest answer here would be to argue that the Death Guard simply couldn't care less about what anyone else thinks; that a scarification ritual which is private and unverifiable by outsiders demonstrates complete contempt for the enemy: "We know we will beat you with ease; who cares if you realise that ahead of time?"

There is good reason to treat this theory as plausible. It reflects not only the general arrogance of the Astartes (whichever millennia one is in), but the insular, impenetrable nature of the Death Guard in particular. Mortarion, remember, is the Primarch about whom we know the least about his reasons for defection. Even the perennially-secretive Alpharius has given us more clues as to his motives than has the father of the XIV Legion. Isn't a total lockdown on information entirely in character?

Well, no. Not entirely. More so than any other Legion outside of the Night Lords, Mortarion's Legion centred its tactics around the use of fear as a weapon (it still does, of course, though since the Heresy the VIII and XIV Legions have somewhat more competition in that area). And you cannot promote fear through the total absence of information.  For everyone but the most paranoid of cowards, the enemies you fear are those you can't see or understand, not those you don't even know exist.  Terrifying those you wish to defeat requires not that nothing be discovered about you, but that nothing can be verified. A smartly managed stew of rumour, hyperbole and misinformation can be vastly more effective than total silence.

Of course, for such a campaign to be successful you need information to slowly seep out. You need vectors for your rumours and propaganda.  You need people who are just enough part of the Legion to understand what goes on, just separate enough from it to not feel like they quite belong, with just enough strength of mind to comment on what they see, and who are in non-combat roles which maximise the amount of time they will spend with people from outside their Legion.

And which is the Legion that maintains a tradition of choosing housecarls from Astartes aspirants who fail the tests on their homeworld, bringing them partially into the Legion without the mind-scrubbing practised elsewhere? Perhaps Ignatius Grulgor was right all along. Mortarion did favour Garro over him. It takes a lot of effort to maintain an aura of terrifying mystery across an entire galaxy, after all. The one thing Astartes shouldn't be wanting to shoot - or to leave to die of exposure on frozen planetoids - is the messenger.


What Was

I think this is the first real mention of the fact that new Astartes are made at least in part by stealing organs from dead Astartes and implanting them in new recruits. A good idea? A grim idea? Both?  You usually say both.

It feels inefficient. And weird. Mainly weird.

It's the 31st Millenniun, everything is going to be weird.  The question is whether it's good weird, or bad weird.

I don't know.

Is it really all that different from organ donation? Maybe Astartes armour comes with a filled in donor card as standard.

Of course it's different. Organ donation doesn't create new forms of life.

I dunno. If you've been born with a dodgy liver and someone gifts you a new one, I suspect you're going to find yourself able to do all kinds of new things.

If it's organ donation, then that's probably fine. Depending of course on which organs we're talking about. You know I've got issues with certain bits of me being passed down the line.

You mean your eyes?


Your groaning, wheezing, coal-powered eyes, constantly on the verge of total collapse.

I can still see well enough to slap you.

It won't be any actual organ we have, Fliss.  It's some new sci-fi extra organ.

That still might freak me out.

How? How can removing organ that doesn't even exist freak you out?

The organ could turn into a cobra the instant it's exposed to air.

...Yes, I suppose that would freak you out. I hadn't considered this from quite so lunatic an angle.

So now I'm useless and a lunatic?

I didn't say you're useless.  I said your eyes are useless.  But yes, you're a lunatic. A lunatic on the verge of blindness.

What Is

On a scale of one to ten, how surprised are you that the Death Guard have their own lodge, and how big a part do you think the lodge will play in the Legion's eventual betrayal?

Um... two.

Fair enough. Just out of interest, what would they have had to do for you to give a score of one?

Shown Garro was a member last book.

I was going to go with the book being called "The Treacherous Adventures of Mortarion's Naughty Lodge".

I think the Lodge will play some role here.  Not as big as it did with the Sons of Horus.  Otherwise Garro would have been sent to the surface instead of getting a place of honour.

I'm not sure the Eisenstein would count as a place of honour, but yeah; it doesn't seem like Lodge membership is a necessary condition of survival like it was with the XVI Legion.

I could tell that bloke the housecarl bared his soul to was going to turn out to be Lodge member.

Yeah, I liked that.  It was going to call it a twist, but it's probably not all that surprising. It's basically Torgaddon all over again.

With Garro basically being Loken.  I've not noticed any differences between them yet.

Maybe that will come with time.  I mean, do you think Loken and Saul Tarvitz are basically the same character?



But I keep coming back to what Mortarion's thinking is.

Well, since we're on the subject...

It feels like maybe Garro was being tested here. Indeed, he might have been being tested twice, once by the Silent Sisters, and once by his Primarch.  But were they tests? And did Garro pass?

As I say, I've not worked Mortarion out.  I'd have said Garro definitely failed, except that Mortarion didn't seem to punish him at all.

I wonder if Mortarion is just a bit more subtle than the Warmaster. Rather than just dividing everyone into two boxes - "with" and "against" - he's got the lost causes to send to Istvaan, the definite toadies to give the first lot a good kicking, and question marks like Garro shuffled to places where they can't do much damage if they choose to stick with the Emperor.

But he's one of Mortarion's best warriors; a captain of a company.

All the more reason to keep him from anywhere he could stick his superhuman oar in.

With the Silent Sister, I'm torn as well.  I can basically see three possibilities. Option one, they genuinely do just want to know if the alien told something to Garro, because they can't hear psykers themselves. Option two, the only way to hear the alien is if you're a psyker yourself, so Garro just accidentally revealed himself as one.

And option three?

Option three us that the Sisters are with Horus and they're sounding Astartes out.

Plausible deniability. Nice theory. Lips sealed.

What do you make of the ritualistic poison-drinking? A nice bit of world-building, or just three stupid guys drinking stupid things stupidly?

They like their poisons, do these guys.

A throwback to their polluted homeworld. They remind me of my fellow Teessiders, actually.

In that this is basically two men challenging each other to drink the mankiest top-shelf booze in the pub?

Hey! I can say this stuff, you can't. But actually, good point. It's all just one more type of endurance test.

I was going to say one more alternative to whipping them out and slapping them on the table.  Though maybe those glands being stuck in you makes your penis really small.

Maybe.  I always wondered if it led to an advanced form of that steroid thing where your dick gets tiny.  I don't know the medical term; I've never had to check.

Really? That's what you always wondered?

I think about a lot of strange things.

Doesn't it make your balls grow? Or shrink? Or turn into raisins?

Not really my area. I know what you mean, though.  I reckon at least 90% of what goes on in the Great Crusade boils down to penis envy and dick compensating. I mean, boarding torpedoes rather gives the game away.  What's wrong with getting in a shuttle, man?

So if this is all about demonstrating strength by not being poisoned, and people are pissed off with Garro because he got poisoned and they didn't, does that mean when the virus bombs get set off on the planet later loads of Death Guard will be pissed off that they didn't get to join in?

The Death Guard begging for disease? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?

Compared to what? Kidneys that turn into cobras?

Fair point.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

While You're Making Other Plans

Sorry, gentle readers: no new post today.  Fliss and I are in the final stages of our big house move, so our every waking moment is spent either at work or building furniture (I made a chair yesterday! It may still be assembled, perhaps!).  What scraps of downtime we're afforded is generally spent sat on sofas (some of which we built ourselves) trying to summon the energy needed to understand Walking Dead or Criminal Minds.

I'm hopeful normal service can be resumed as soon as possible, though I should note BT are being characteristically unhelpful, and we may not get internet access in the new place until the end of the month.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Reach For The Bleach

Flight of the Eisenstein: The Blinded Star (II)

The Sisters of Silence (copyright unknown)

Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

One of the of the most immutable truths of the forty-first millennium is the sad fact that the Imperium is dying. From every direction and from every corner, our enemies gather, sniffing gleefully at our blood as it seeps out amongst the stars. Our own star is on the wane, a setting sun heralding a new Long Night from which we have no guarantee of emerging.

This is all a far cry from the glorious sweep of the Great Crusade. But it's worth considering exactly why that is. There are currently almost a million Astartes guarding the realms of man, a number at least comparable to and probably exceeding the forces available to the Emperor during his wars of expansion, and who are required to defend a far smaller number of worlds and systems than the Imperium boasted at its greatest extent. The absence of the Emperor himself and his score of sons is obviously a grievous blow to humanity, but even so, the Primarchs could only ever participate in the smallest fraction of warzones that blight the galaxy. If we are to understand how close we have slid towards the abyss, we must look elsewhere.

It is difficult to not feel some sympathy for the Jorgall. They may have been aggressors as often as not, at least in the early days, but they quickly found themselves facing an enemy far beyond their experience. Think about that for a second: a sentient race so dedicated to warfare it regularly mutilated its own people to replace limbs with weapons, and yet they were utterly, completely outclassed by the Astartes. We tumbled from the Warp, invaded their bottle-worlds, and exterminated everything we found. Even the children. Especially the children, killed not as a regretful corollary to total war but as a high priority target.

The human virus, spreading through the galaxy. Appearing from nowhere, a killer without conscience, destroying the weakest first because it lacks the ability to consider that wrong.

One of the basic truths of a virus is that it never gets weaker. It can become less common, but each individual virion remains no less potent for that. When viruses are defeated, it is not because they have become less powerful, it is because the host body has rallied its defences to the point where it has become stronger than what is assailing it. Viruses do not lose momentum, but they can ultimately be overtaken from a standing start.

If the Imperium shares so many characteristics with a virus, then, what are we to make of our reversal of fortunes? The slow, agonising death of our civilisation. It is not that our Astartes have grown weaker or that our lance batteries cut less deep. It is that the forces opposing us have become so much stronger. The Chaos Space Marine Legions may be outnumbered ten to one by their loyalist cousins, but with access to daemonic strength and Warp gates their attacks can be even more devastating than their already formidable might would suggest. The arrival of the Tyranid super-organism in recent centuries has been another major blow, as entire sectors find themselves swallowed up and reprocessed as new horrors to be let loose upon the rest of us.

But most dangerous of all are the Necrons. Unlike the forces of Chaos, only the barest fraction of their full might has yet been flexed. Unlike the Tyranids, their seemingly endless stream of reinforcements originate not from outside the galaxy, but from within it. They sleep between and under our worlds, waiting for the signal to awake and attack.

Think about the Necrons for a moment. Their pristine, surgical cleanliness. Their remorseless, implacable quest to destroy all trace of messy, chaotic life. Even their weapons are designed not to kill their enemies but to unmake them utterly. If humanity - and every other sentient species swarming across known space - is a virus eating away at the galaxy, nothing represents the leukocytes dedicated to sweeping such invaders away better than do the Necrons. Perhaps what will finally destroy us is not how much the Imperium has weakened, but how much newfound strength our enemies can call upon.

The idea of the Necrons as a galaxy-wide immune system exterminating space-faring races in the pursuit of healing the stars is obviously a fiction; simply an analogy that happens to fit the facts. But that is exactly what should concern us.  Not that the Necrons actually are the immune system to our virus, but that such a bleak, unedifying metaphor fits us so horribly well.


What Is

This is the earliest we've gotten into full-blown combat since Horus Rising.  Does the rapid deployment help things move along, or would you have liked a bit more about the XIV Legion first?

I like that we're straight into it. No messing about like with the last two books.  I admit I found the first chapter of Horus Rising confusing, but I've got the hang of this now.

So you're saying now the background has been established there's no good reason not to start punching as soon as humanly possible.

Absolutely.  Especially with battles like this. I mean, I got why it took a while to get around to the action in the last book.  You needed to build up to it.  You didn't need to build up to it that much, but you needed something.  But this is just a bunch of Astartes shooting a bunch of aliens.  Let's get right to it.  And bring some more gore, too.

Still not enough, huh?

Well, the bloke with the huge fist was cool. He probably wishes he was a.. um... a Death Eater.

Those still don't exist here, Fliss.

Fine. The World Eaters. Do the Legions ever exchange Astartes?

Not permanently, though the idea of an Astartes cultural exchange program is interesting. You can just imagine them coming back home. "Over there they stab Eldar twice and then cut their heads off. Different world, bro. Different world."

I guess every Legion has to have its misfits.

So long as they're murdering aliens, it doesn't matter too much, I guess. Let's see, what else. Oh. This fight takes up about five percent of the whole book. Which is a lot for a scene seemingly unconnected to the heresy. Does that imply something more is going on?

I'm assuming there's some connection here. We know Mortarion is working for Horus at this point, so there must be something the Warmaster wants here. 

Are you sure Mortarion has turned at this point?

Well, no, but then I've no idea when "this point" even is.  There's no frame of reference. Horus could be doing anything right now. And I'm not sure we'll ever know when some of the Primarchs turned.

Are you enjoying the Jorgall? How do they rank against previous alien creatures?  

I'm struggling to make sense of what they look like. Particularly the legs.

What's tough about the legs?

It's the idea of them radiating out like spokes on a wheel.

Are you imagining them perpendicular to the body?

I don't know. Are they tripods? Do they have legs like tripods? Why not just bloody say that?

I lacks a certain lyricism. But I agree though that their descriptions are brief and scattered throughout the chapter. But then I think that's deliberate.

Deliberate why?

I think they're a conscious riff on a Cthulhu monster (which is always a good idea). The 40K universe owes a lot to Lovecraft - early versions of the game included a world named "Port Cthulhu" - and I think a lot of that is on show here.

That means you're cheating.  You know what Cthulhu monsters look like.

Well, true.  As soon as I read the description of the Jorgall I just assumed they were Elder things with four fewer limbs. From that point on I had a clear mental image and just made alterations each time a new description arrived, like the ovoid heads.

But the truth is it's not so much that I have previous knowledge of Lovecraftian gribblies (and we've played enough Eldritch Horror by now for you to assimilate at least some of the nightmarish imagery) , it's that the sparse description is a deliberate attempt to have our own imaginations fill in the horrible details.

Well, my imagination was rather busy trying to answer the question of what the hell was going on.

I'm not saying it's a foolproof strategy. But if we can move past the leg issue, what else can we say about this latest alien race?

I like the idea that they're being enhanced. I assume that's a deliberate parallel to the Astartes.

Presumably. I'm surprised Garro didn't pass comment on that, given Tarvitz made the connection pretty quickly when fighting the Megarachnids. I guess he was too busy staring at the Sisters of Silence.

He did mention it.

Yeah, but that ruins my plan to write Nathaniel Garro: Space Letch, so I have no option but to ignore it.

Any thoughts on the Sisters of Silence now we've seen them in action? What can it mean that they're all psi-silent, anyway?

I was wondering what that mean. Surely it can't mean they don't think at all.  That's impossible.

No it isn't; watch.

(I sit still for several seconds with a vacant expression).

Yes, well, you have something of an advantage in this department. And anyway, how long was it before you found yourself thinking "Doo de-doo, I'm not thinking; doo de-doo, no thoughts for me."

Actually, I quickly segued into "Yes! I WIN at not thinking! I cannot be beaten in a no-thought-off!"  But there was definitely a few seconds there when I was thinking nothing at all.

Fine. Now try it when walking.

I'm sure I could-

Walking into a battle with flying tripods.

Ah. I see your point.

So I presume it just mean no-one can read their minds.

Spot on. Which raises an interesting question: how did that come about?

I don't know. Could be natural, could be genetic alteration.  The problem is I don't actually know what all the other psykers in this universe are. It's hard to speculate on a new kind when all the other kinds haven't been explained.

Fair enough.

What I want to know is why the Emperor is so interested in one little psyker in one alien ship. If there is a connection here to the wider heresy, I assume that's it.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Indefensible Positions

Flight Of The Eisenstein: The Blinded Star (I)

The coming storm (copyright Games Workshop)
Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

It is difficult for us, uncommonly bald apes that we are, to fully grasp the nature of space combat.  Forty-three thousand years ago, we charged across open plains at our foes, waving our copper swords. Fighting in two dimensions.  Knowing the valleys and the river mouths and the mountain passes through which our enemies might file in order to defeat us.

As the centuries passed, war grew and became more complicated. Sailing ships slid out of sight of land, as the fear of creatures from the depths became outweighed by the tactical advantages of murdering your enemies in places they never expected to be murdered. But the basic truth remained: the enemy could only ever come from over the horizon. Even when our talents for devising new weapons gave us submersible warships and flying machines, we could still comprehend what we faced. Our ancestors once lived their lives amongst the foliage, we understood threats that could come from above or below.

There is no "above" or "below" in space, not once a ship glides from a planet's grasp. Once that planet no longer fills our windows, an attack can come from anywhere. And we simply cannot cope. Full, total three-dimensional war is simply not something we are capable of comprehending. Thousands of automated systems and sensor clusters strain to reduce the infinite sphere of the void into a space we can deal with. We simply cannot deal with the complexity unaided.

Or at least, we cannot cope whilst visualising the process as armed combat. But a far older and far more futile struggle provides a near-perfect analogy for our aggressors: viral infection.

It is not just our star fleets which must face enemies hidden from our gaze by simply being so much smaller than what surrounds us that we cannot realistically hope to see them coming. Planetary defence forces are less soldiers defending fortifications than they are white blood cells waiting to be surrounded without warning.

In short, invading space fleets operate as a disease, a contagion, the vector through which a race spreads itself across a hotly-contested galaxy. Which is a rather apt thought when it comes to the Death Guard, of course, given their eventual fate.  As we begin these discussions of the final days of the XIV Legion as loyalists, it's sensible to consider another vector, as Mortarion's sons begin their drift into the arms of Nurgle. With so disgusting a deity, as we have argued before, it can be difficult to understand why anyone might volunteer to become his servant.

Here, though, this isn't really the case, and not just because if anyone might fully appreciate the increased toughness offered by Nurgle it would be dedicated warriors. It took us a great deal of work to understand devotion to Nurgle amongst the cultists hidden within the Imperium, and we only managed that by viewing the idea as a bleak form of insurance against a nightmarish universe. No such convoluted logic is needed with the Death Guard's fall to the Lord of Pestilence.  Even if we strip away their obsession with poison and their disinterest in dressing up death as anything more noble or honourable than an ugly inevitability, their entire stated purpose forces them into a parallel path with the phagocyte; those other factors simply made them the most obvious targets. We may never know to what extent the prideful Death Guard allowed themselves to be warped by Nurgle and to what extent it was forced upon them, but if the change was not voluntary, it was only a disagreement of what they had become adn what they were becoming. The general direction of their fall was never in doubt.

Indeed, it may well be that in some respects the outbreak of the Heresy and its consequent shift of the their role from crusading conquerors to ever-pressed defenders was the salvation of those Astartes who remained loyal. Pathogens were spreading. The Imperium was infecting, and it was becoming infected. Everything becomes sick and dies unless the universe conspires to kill it first. In the final analysis, it may be that the Heresy's greatest effect was to stop the galaxy succumbing to our infection rather than someone else's.

As ever, though, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Before the Death Guard can become plague-bearers of a very different type, we have many miles to go and many places to visit.

We shall begin on the bottle-world of the jorgall.


What Was

How are you finding the world according to Kaleb?  You've mentioned before a lamentable lack of human viewpoint characters. Is Garro's housecarl doing the job you were hoping for? And what about this idea of having servants that failed to become Astartes themselves?

He's definitely fulfilling the role I hoped Petronella was going to, before she turned out to be first awful and then dead. It really drives home the elitist attitude the Astartes have. Is it my imagination, or is he bowing and scraping more around the other Astartes than he is Garro?

Quite possibly. But that's probably not unusual with master-servant relationships.  Although what do I know, really. I'm basing this on Jeeves and Wooster. Which might be the best idea for a crossover ever, but it's a shaky foundation for extrapolating working relationships.

So does everyone go through an Astartes test? Well, every man?

No.  You've got to be a pretty kick-ass warrior just to get to the point of the trials.

So do many people fail the trials? I can't imagine the Legion needs all that many housecarls. 

Indeed not.  There's other, less rewarding options available too.



Spare parts?

Actually, kinda.


Robots. Well, cyborg servitors, but let's not get picky. I like to think there's a second test where those who've failed the first test find out who gets to be servants and who get to be lobotomised.

No wonder Kaleb loves his job so much.

What Is

This is the first book in the series that doesn't directly follow from the previous novel. Are you happy about backtracking like this and seeing things from a new angle?  Or are you impatient to get to whatever happens next?

I'm fine with backtracking. All that fantasy reading has primed me for book series that suddenly lurch backwards. And better this than a big jump forwards.  That's really annoying.

The title here doesn't exactly hide what this novel is going to be about.  Just out of interest, is this the dangling thread from Galaxy in Flames you're most interested in exploring? Or is there something else you'd rather had been covered first?

Like what?

I did wonder if you were going to ask me that. Let's see... you've got the upcoming shenanigans on Istvaan V, the Word Bearers attacking the Ultramarines at Calth, whatever secret plan Horus has to deal with Sanguinius, and what happened between Fulgrim and Ferrus Manus.

I think this is a fine choice. The Death Guard don't feel as well-explored as the Luna Wolves, or the Emperor's Children. They can have their own book.

You don't want to see more from the Emperor's Children?

Nope. They're dicks.

Try telling that to Tarvitz.

Tarvitz is dead. The survivors are all dicks.  And we've just had a tremendously depressing conclusion to the last book. Do we really want to hand the next book over to a gaggle of arseholes?

I see. That doesn't explain why you're not interested in more Blood Angels, though.

I'd rather see them in a multi-book story, though.

Why does that disqualify them here?

You said the next few books are standalone.

Not standalone. There just aren't any more multi-part stories without other books in the middle.

But that's a terrible idea!

So it's no Emperor's Children books, and no multi-book stories with gaps in between.  Man, you're going to hate the next two books after this. Especially since one of them is just awful

It's early days, obviously, but Swallow has a very different prose style to Counter. Are you enjoying the sudden outbreak of literacy? Or does he need to come to the point?

I did think it was going too slowly to begin with, but I'm getting into it now.  It's nice. I like finally feeling like there's enough description of what we're seeing. It's nice and eloquent.

In the last book, you - entirely reasonably - complained that we learned almost nothing about Mortarion.  Has this opening chapter helped in that regard?  And to what extent would it be sensible to keep Mortarion mysterious?

There's still not much there, is there. I mean, obviously he's death.  They're not even trying to hide that.  But other than that, what do we know? That he likes to hide in the shadows?

That's my point, though. If you want keep someone a mystery, there's a low ceiling on what you can show. Just the occasional detail, like how he keeps sniffing at gases rising from his chest. I like to think it's Vick's VapoRub.

I guess we'll have to see.  Not about the VapoRub; that's just silly. But about the mysteriousness. It depends how long they try to spin it out.

Any thoughts on our newest faction, the Sisters of Silence?

It deels a bit like a token.  That's about the only thing I'm even partially sure of at this point. They could be warriors, or shamans, or anything.  No idea. But they look like tokens.  And it's interesting that they're linking women with the forbidden.

Yeah. Yeah, that might go wrong.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Galaxy In Flames: The Gallery

A Sons of Horus Battle Barge descends towards Istvaan III to begin the virus bombing.

Sorry it's not the best quality picture. I'd hoped to scan it, but our department's scanner seems to have been deliberately wired to only allow low-grade scans. Which I suppose is a good way of keeping feckless staff like me from making use of it for our own dubious purposes, but it does also mean that anything actually useful we want to make copies of is immediately rendered unreadable.

Anyway, I doubt the method by which the picture was replicated is the real problem, but I hope you like it nevertheless.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Reports From The Front (Last Words On Galaxy In Flames)

Let's start talking about Galaxy in Flames by nipping back to the two books we've already covered. After all, this is a trilogy; there's just no way the final instalment isn't going to end up being  compared with its predecessors.

I mentioned last time around that Graham McNeill had a tough job on his hands with False Gods, but of course the truth is each of these books brought with them unique problems. The first installment had to be a belter to ensure the series had any real chance of surviving over the long term, hence why it was given to Abnett, the safest pair of hands Black Library can boast. The second book, as I've noted, required pulling off the genuinely difficult trick of starting out with a depressed but still loyal Horus, and ending with a Warmaster baying for his father's blood. And whilst I've never spoken to anyone who's said they were glad McNeill got this job rather than Abnett, it's hardly like it was an indefensible move. In the years before False Gods was released McNeill had already published seven novels for the Black Library, including books set both in the 40K universe and the Warhammer Fantasy Setting, and he had proved by the solid sales figures of his Ultramarines books (the first omnibus is currently on its second printing, I believe).

Ben Counter, in contrast, was a comparative newcomer.  Before Galaxy In Flames, he had published just four books, and three of them focussed on a Space Marine chapter of his own invention.  There was then rather less reason to be certain of Counter's ability to adapt to the brief required here. In other words, it seems someone in charge at Black Library decided that the concluding instalment in this opening trilogy was the book least in need of a proven hand at the tiller. Perhaps this decision
was made on the assumption that with the story of Horus' fall already mapped out, Counter's contribution need not involve much beyond connecting the dots. Certainly, dot-joining is essentially all that's in evidence here.

Galaxy In Flames is not a tale well-told. Indeed, large sections of it don't particularly feel told at all, so much as noted. When I initially read the book, I thought the prose poor. But that's not quite it.  It isn't poor, it's just achieved a level of functionality almost unattainable by authors permitted to tell their own tales. The events are laid out on paper and linked with brief sketches of the motivations for those involved, but the overall impression is less of a novel and more of a dry history text which happens to be covering a period with more explosions than usual. But even for a history book, this does quite feel right.  It's more like one of those awful summaries of historical battles you find dotted around the internet written by those far more interested in warfare than can be considered healthy; the kind of writers for whom detailing the exact weapon used to murder a man is of greater importance than the choices that led that man to his death in the first place.  A blog dedicated to a military sci-fi franchise might seem an odd place to make such complaints, but there's enjoying fictional violence, and then there's fetishising it. Not that I think this novel is trying to fetishise violence.  I don't think it's really trying to do much of anything.

Still, if Black Library believed the tale to be all but author-proof, they weren't completely wrong.  The Battle of Istvaan III and the last stand of the Luna Wolves - along with Lucius' vile betrayal - provides ample opportunity for adrenaline-aimed pulp entertainment.  There may be nothing even approaching a subtext, but the all-surface story offers plenty of resolute heroes and hissable villains, all set against a death toll galloping upwards. This is hardly a disaster. Still, the impression left is very much that works here does so despite Counter's efforts, or at best independently of them. This is a story easy to avoid screwing up, but also easy to spin into something truly remarkable. That Counter was only able to achieve the former can hardly be considered much of a triumph.  This is a book without even the ambition to fail in a way we might find interesting.