Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Infinities Of Reflection (Last Words On Horus Rising)

(As mentioned last week, Fliss is busy skipping through fields of autumn flowers now she's been temporarily released from the nightmare future of the 31st Millennium.  With the place to myself for the next fortnight, this seems like a sensible time to offer some general thoughts on Horus Rising as a whole.)

Mirrors are awful things. All they do is sit there and accurately reflect the hideousness of the world onto anyone unlucky enough to glance their way. They're horrible.

And yet somehow we feel compelled to seek them out. I'm as vain as the next overweight balding thirty-three year old. I shouldn't need an unusually shiny static surface to daily remind me of the orientation of my features - the basic set-up I've been staring at for three decades, and the changes over the years have been pretty much uniformly negative - but somehow, there I stand every morning, attempting to tease what remains of my hair into some semblance of order, trying to keep my eyeline high enough to not take in my spreading gut.

It would be enough to make any rational observer weep, which is why self-deception is so important when we find ourselves staring back at us.  Too much honesty is bad for the soul. Of course, too little honesty is just as corrosive, and oftentimes not simply to oneself. One should be particularly cautious with mirrors that themselves are less than truthful.

Horus Rising is a book deeply involved with mirrors. More particularly, with distorted and mistaken reflections, and whether people focus on the differences or the similarities. When Loken stares at the moon the Mournival have pressed into service as a replacement for Luna, he looks not at it directly, but through a pool of water.  A distorted image of a counterfeit object. Torgaddon assures us such variation is of no consequence for the purposes of their initiation, and perhaps he is correct, for all that flaws in the in the approach of the Mournival brought about so much, well, chaos.

Other differences are more pronounced, both for characters and for the reader. The initial attack on High City, for example, is quite deliberately structured to involve Horus attacking a world calling itself Terra and ruled by a false Emperor that he then saves the day by destroying. A mirror, in other words, of what Horus will eventually come to believe he is doing.  The implication here is hardly subtle: many of those who choose to follow Horus in the schism that approaches will do so for no worse reason than believing the Warmaster was as right the second time as he was the first.

This has enormous repercussions for those who would consider the loyalist Space Marines out and out heroes. Bred for war, incapable of fear, one cannot truly view the Astartes unswerving devotion to war for what they believe a just cause as some great virtue. One might as well praise a shark for swimming and for killing. It is not clear how one can celebrate the defeat of Sixty-Three Nineteen yet pour scorn on those that broke from the Imperium at Davin - or rather we can, but only because our villains were so good as to birth their new order in deliberate acts of mass murder (that said, it's always easy to argue honour binds us to the rules of war when those rules will almost inevitably hand you victory).

There are, I think, very broadly speaking, two types of people who identify with the Imperial forces in the 40K universe. There are those who appreciate the Space Marines despite their bloodthirsty, fanatical devotion to murdering anyone they consider anything less than pure, and those that appreciate them because of it. I can't speak as to which camp Abnett himself belongs to, but Horus Rising certainly asks the kind of question you would expect the former group to raise. Whilst the book encourages us to see the reflection of the Siege of Terra in this minor skirmish in the end days of the Great Crusade, it also demonstrates how completely the Luna Wolves fail to see their own image cast back at them. A people zealously devoted to their Emperor to the point where suggesting another human authority might exist is an immediate death sentence?  That no-one draws the obvious conclusion is remarkable.

Of course, it isn't hard to understand why: the iterators in general and Kyril Sindermann in particular exist for the sole purpose of ensuring that link is never made. These people believe they must be right.  But they cannot be right, because they disagree with us.  And we know we're right. Therefore they can only think themselves correct, and we all know how thoughts can be wrong.

Whatever the uses of this strategy for maintaining morale and cohesion during wartime, Sindermann's efforts ultimately did nothing but cause the one weakness of the Luna Wolves to fester in darkness. By insisting the Emperor was always correct, and that Horus was the mirror of the Emperor - distorted, yes, but not in ways that meant any more than the variations in planets' satellites - the iterators both ensured utter devotion to two contradictory thoughts, and ensured those thinking them could never possibly realise that fact.

It is not a pretty picture. Fanatics so fanatical they pour scorn on other fanatics for not being fanatical enough.  Soldiers boundlessly proud of the fact that they cannot even conceive of questioning orders.  Such breathtaking hubris may not be of any real consequence while the pool is still and the reflection of the moon still looks more or less like the moon itself. But then Garviel Loken finds himself amongst the glittering bottles of a chaos fane.

A reflection in a limpid pool is singular, faithful, easily decipherable.  A reflection in a half-full bottle made from low-grade glass is fractured and fuzzy. It moves in ways you do not expect. The glistening droplets that coat the outside invert and distort your image until you cannot recognise yourself.  Loken is surrounded by these torn, mocking fragments of himself when Xavyer Jubal turns his heels and attacks.

When Jubal falls to the lure of Samus, he becomes one more fractured reflection in the tunnels beneath the Whisperheads.  His identity shatters, taking his mind and much of Loken's worldview with it. Surrounded by the chaos of war and the chaos of reflection, and staring at Chaos itself where once stood a comrade in arms of unquestionable loyalty, Loken had every opportunity to recognise himself and every other Astartes in the horror that claimed Jubal - once the life-or-death struggle had come to an end, at least.  Instead, inspired by the equally wilful blindness of his Primarch, Loken chooses to see only the differences in Jubal's broken reflection of the Luna Wolves, not the similarities.  Perhaps Loken is simply more concerned with convincing himself he can never become Jubal than he is in discovering how Jubal became Jubal. We all lie to ourselves when looking in the mirror.  Got to get through another day somehow.

The Deceived, then, is essentially an exercise in watching prideful men use that pride as a vehicle by which they may drive past the point at great speeds and distances.  You can feel the accumulated weight of the mistakes borne of cupidity threatening to topple the narrative over.  It's almost a shame that this is then shoved to the corner whilst the Luna Wolves deal with the situation on Murder.

It's not that I don't understand what Brotherhood in Spiderland is doing, or that it isn't doing its part to feed into the more general narrative.  I mean, if you want to spend some time watching Astartes tussle with the 30K analogue to Tyranids - with added storm spells and Simmons-esque death trees - then I wouldn't dream of holding that against you. But there's more going on here. Whilst in the first part of the novel the hierarchy of the false Terra reflected the intransigent mindset of the Astartes, the second reflects back their obsession with genocide.

In itself, there's nothing to object to here. It's one more facet of the Space Marines to explore, and one more indication as to where everything will eventually go wrong. If The Deceived reminds us that the Astartes are dangerous fanatics who can only be labelled heroes because the forces arrayed against them are so horrific, Brotherhood in Spiderland reminds us of that horror.

So what is my problem here?  Partially, it's a question of timing.  The kind of genocidal war the Imperium finds itself embroiled in might underscore the problematic approach of the Astartes in general, but the sheer viciousness of the Megarachnids makes that dedication to extermination defensible. Remember, there are two types of Space Marine fans; those that can accept their excesses, and those that actively enjoy them.  Both these groups would find little objectionable in the war on Murder.  But the first section of the novel has already made an effort to split those two groups, and The Dreadful Sagittary will push them apart still further. Placing almost the closest thing possible to a justifiable war (it doesn't quite qualify, since the Imperium is capable of simply bypassing Murder entirely) in between the two seems like a stumble in the narrative. It might have been preferable to start here, where the Astartes have their most defensible reason for hostility, and then bring in the shades of grey later.

Of course, doing that would mean losing an opening that mirrors the close of the entire Heresy, which is a wonderful slice of circular narrative that I am entirely in favour of, so perhaps here we have the lesser of two evils.  That said, the problem we have here is no less real for the most obvious solution causing its own issues.  If nothing else, moving the caster of reflections from the Luna Wolves to the Emperor's Children dilutes the narrative somewhat. Yes, we gain something as well by allowing the two Legions to see their reflections in each other, but we learn too little of the III Legion to justify sidelining the building complications with the XVI.  In the final analysis, Brotherhood in Spiderland is far from a failure, but it feels like a short story sandwiched between two halves of a novel, which is a shame.

By the time we reach The Dreadful Sagittary, we are back to the central theme, which is just as well, because we are also running out of time. There's a sense of a dash to the finish line here, possibly as an attempt to jump-start the escalation after seven chapters dallying on Murder.  The result is a denouement that feels breathless and rushed, though I confess I can't see how padding the section out would help in this regard - any tinkering that might improve things here would probably have to take place in amongst the Megarachnids.

There my complaining ends, however, because the third and final part of Horus Rising completes the series of distorted reflections. At Sixty-Three Nineteen, we saw a twisted image of the Astartes philosophy. On Murder, it was their approach. Finally, here in interex space, we come across a reflection of the Legions' aims.

With thirty or more systems living in harmony, and all alien threats neutralised (one way or another) the interex is, if a little on the petite size, essentially represents a model of how the primary goal of the Imperium: a united and secure humanity. And yet when they come across such a society, not only safe but free from the endless war which carving out the Imperium seems to require, the first instinct of almost every Astartes present is to try and smash the mirror.

Why does this matter? Because by this insistence, we finally understand what a Space Marine sees when they look in the mirror. Not a warrior tasked to protect humanity at all costs, but a flawed image of the Emperor himself.  Of Horus himself.  Every part of the tragedy that follows stems from this simple fact: there was nothing the Astartes desired more than to have someone to emulate through slavish, thoughtless devotion. When the pool was still, the image was clear, and all was well.  But throw a stone into that pool, maybe even a small one, and the images begin so separate. Devotion to the Emperor and devotion to the Primarch no longer look like the same thing.

When the image you see in the mirror becomes unbearable, when the reflection no longer matches what your soul tells you you are, there's not really much more you can do than break it, especially when its reflecting a past you no longer wish to lay claim to.  For some, smashing the mirror itself isn't enough; you have to grind the shards to powder. Two centuries of inflexibility and unhampered aggression have conspired to create a mindset whereby no arrangement can be wonderful enough to not need tearing down if it hasn't been created at the whim of the right personality. Against such obsession, not even the past can stand.

Niggles notwithstanding, it would be hard to imagine a more thorough way to set the stage for the explosion soon to come. Indeed, the one irredeemable flaw here is that the build-up to the conflagration ultimately proves more interesting than the inferno itself.

Not that this is Abnett's fault, of course.  With False Gods, we'll start working out exactly where the blame does lie.


No comments:

Post a Comment