Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Serpent Swallowing Its Own Tail

Re-Primer (Regular weekly post below)

During one of my infrequent journeys into the heart of intoxication with Chris Brosnahan this weekend, the topic of my "Heresy of Horus" blog came up, and it was suggested that it might be time for a restatement/expansion regarding what exactly this blog is, and who it's for.

The basic idea here is to contrast how different the experience of reading tie-in novels is for those who are long-term fans of the relevant franchise, and those that are complete newcomers.  There are a lot of reasons this is interesting, or at least interesting to me. I like seeing how people assemble their understanding of a fictional world and their predictions about where stories set in that world will progress. I know that this kind of tie-in fiction regularly gets something of a bad rap in certain circles because so much of the work has been done by others, and it's interesting to see whether there's anything obvious unsatisfying or substandard about these novels for those unsullied by the larger picture. Plus, of course, the internet has a long and glorious history of sites based around a couple saying dumb things to each other, which is why my girlfriend Fliss plays the role of neophyte here.  Maybe some of this is your bag too.

Onto structure.  Each week Fliss and I read a chapter from the Horus Heresy novels (this week is chapter fifteen of the second book, False Gods) and argue about whether it was any good or not.  Before we get to that, though, I start each post off with some ludicrous cod-philosophical ramblings from a fictitious renegade archivist from the 41st Millennium, based on some development in the week's chapter.  These often contain spoilers, so if that's something you're worried about - or if you just want to skip straight to the good bits - just scroll down until you get to the Q&A.  It's easily recognisable; the first question is in bold red text.

Chris also asked me about the intended audience for this blog.  It is true, I'm afraid, that there might not be a massive amount to be taken from this blog if you haven't read the books in question (though long-term Games Workshop alumni will probably get the general idea either way).  I did think about summarising each chapter as we went, but even if I weren't nervous about GWs reputation for extreme litigiousness, the degree of detail a summary would need to contain for what follows here to truly make sense makes the idea rather daunting.  Reading or having read the books in question is probably the only way to get the best out of this blog.

But hey; we take five months to cover each book.  You can catch up with where we've got to at the cost of £12 (£8 if you don't need your copies to be new) and by flicking through just 700 pages of text, and in the process get to read two books set in what I genuinely believe to be one of the most interesting fictional worlds ever produced.  Sure, the actual books themselves are never going to be confused with high literature, or even the smartest schlock, but in the category of trashy light reading they acquit themselves entirely reasonably.

Plus you get forty posts and counting of entirely free analysis and discussion, chapter by chapter. There's even a comment section so you can join in our sniping!

Something to think about, perhaps.  Anyway...

False Gods: The House Of False Gods (III)

Praetorians. In fairness, they're much scarier
when they're not taking on a Primarch (copyright Games Workshop)

Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

Ten point two millennia ago, or thereabouts, the most powerful man our race ever produced or ever feasibly could produce stood in a cavern miles beneath the surface of war-ruined Terra and said to himself something like "This is just the place to begin."

So history records, anyway. How can we ever know the truth?  And would we even understand that truth were we to reveal it?  We know so little about how the Emperor's plan to create his twenty favourite sons began. In some ways, we know even less about how it ended.

It is easy to not realise this fact, mainly because the one thing we do know about the nascent Primarchs' final seconds on Terra is so astonishing and important: the sudden disappearance of these would-be saviours into the Warp. It is almost understatement to note this event reshaped the face of the galaxy. It is little wonder we focus so much upon it.

Amid the thousands of ways in which Erebus earned the hatred and contempt of all who know his name, however, he did provide us with one small service here. He forced us to concentrate on the details.

Before we begin to pick through Horus' experience of his own time-line, let us deal with the obvious first: this was not some illusion created by "Sejanus" and his allies out of whole cloth. Tucked in at the edges, perhaps.  A few licks of paint here and there. But not a total fraud, any more than was the image of a Terra long gone or the droning metal horrors of an Imperial Shrine World. Chaos does not invent wholesale.  It lies with the truth. The chances of success are greatly increased, and it's more fun, too.

This fact is critical, because it prevents us from simply dismissing out of hand Horus' encounter in his father's laboratory.  Most, if not all of what transpired was an accurate rendering of the day the Primarchs were scattered.  "Accurate" does not mean truthful, though. At least, it doesn't have to. Shorn of all context, facts are ugly, brutish things, a clever man can lead them in any direction he chooses.  Which, of course, is Erebus' aim, and we will not forget that.

Despite all this, however, Horus' betrayer raises questions worth tackling. Some are harder to answer than others, of course. Why did every one of the eighteen Primarchs whose names we have recorded find themselves on human worlds in a galaxy strewn with alien life and filled with barren spheres of rock and giant clouds of poisonous gas?  Does it matter? The Emperor wanted his sons to survive so he could find them. Chaos wanted them to survive because it is hard to win supreme killing machines to your side once they have choked to death on an airless world.

"Sejanus'" point about the Emperor only being able to create twenty Primarchs is slightly harder to answer. At least, it is to answer fully.  To some extent, this question at its heart is no less foolish than asking why, if the humans of the Dark Age of Technology could design and build the gigantic, all but unstoppable Imperator Titans, they didn't ensure every single world in their Empire was guarded by ten thousand of them.  That a task is hard is not proof that it cannot be done except by cheating.

That said, we do not yet have a full answer. Yes, it is clearly folly to suggest a handful of Primarchs is proof the hand could not have been the Emperor's own. If nothing else, there's no obvious explanation as to why Chaos would want to so limit the number of Primarchs either; the more that were created, the harder the Emperor would have found it to keep them all under control. But that line of reasoning immediately suggests another - what if the Primarchs were kept at a score precisely because the Emperor was concerned about losing control?

It's entirely obvious why Erebus would not suggest this possibility, but it fits in with what we know about the Emperor. Did he not, after all, create Leman Russ to be his executioner?  Was not Russ tasked on at least two occasions and potentially three to track down and kill a fellow Primarch?  The Emperor was never unaware of the possibility of betrayal, his arrogance came in never conceiving that he could fail to spot the betrayal in time.

Lying with the truth, as we said (an even more obvious example: the idea that the Primarchs were tools to be "cast aside" once the galaxy was conquered - of course that's what they were, but Horus' horror at the idea of completing a mission he volunteered for is entirely his own problem).  But all of this is simply circling the true question: why did the Emperor turn his back?

As with all the most important questions, this is difficult to answer. In part that's because the tale seems to break down as this point, as though the tricks the Emperor plays with causality leaves its marks in the very narrative we have pieced together.  Why ask Horus not to follow the path that leads to disaster and then immediately allow that path to open up?

All at this point is desperate speculation, of course, but we can construct only three possibilities.  The simplest is that the Emperor knew of no way to prevent the theft of his children without risking their deaths in the resulting struggle. Another is that the Emperor did indeed see an advantage in allowing his children to be scattered.  There is some benefit to spreading the Primarchs across the the galaxy, experiencing radically different human cultures, giving them different viewpoints and skills. With their unstoppable martial abilities, they were in less danger than their situation would suggest, and whilst such widely variant upbringings would make eventual assimilation difficult, well, it's not as though the Emperor hadn't already decided to dedicate himself to unification under all circumstances. Besides, foil this attack, and another one will be launched the day after. Or the day before.

There is a third possibility, however; the only one that truly explains why the Emperor seemingly made his decision only after his brief exchange with Horus. Perhaps the Emperor recognised Horus more fully than he let on.  He might not have been able to identify which of his children had grown into the towering bald figure that stood before him, but Primarchs as a breed are hard to miss. An adult Primarch standing beneath the tube that holds his own infant form, which is about to be thrown into the time-bending depths of the Warp?  It hardly takes the Emperor's intellect to understand what the Emperor's intellect understood at that moment.

Seeing Horus watching the kidnap attempt was proof the kidnapping succeeded.  That battle was already lost.  The Emperor let Horus fall into the Warp because Horus travelled back in time, and Horus travelled back in time because he once fell into the Warp.  It's a circular structure the Thousand Sons might recognise; along with anyone who studies Kyril Sindermann's precis of the nature of the serpent of chaos.  Effect follows cause follows effect.  Ultimately Chaos can see the future because it can create the future.  There was nothing left for the Emperor to do but let Horus know that there was still time to step aside. If his plea sounded distant and unconvincing, consider the difficulty he faced, trying to talk to an adult son he never met at the very moment that son is being kidnapped as a baby.  A certain degree of stilted expression has to be expected. All Horus had to do, after so many months of bemoaning his father's absence and desperately wishing for advice and guidance, was to listen then and there. To make just one last effort to trust his father, before the Great Crusade ended and Chaos lost its opportunity.

Horus, of course, didn't listen at all.


What Was

Any initial reactions to seeing the Primarch Babies get sucked into the vortex? Is "Sejanus" right about it being a deliberate plan by the Emperor? 

I always figured the Primarchs got scattered somehow - the only surprising fact is that Horus is surprised.

He always thought it was an accident.

Giant wormhole appears and sucks you up? Seems like an accident to me.

So you don't believe this story about it being retribution over some broken pact?

Erebus is certainly lying in part, since Chaos has been planning this for millennia and Horus was only created centuries ago.

Good catch.

But I certainly can believe the Emperor wanted his Primarchs scattered. What better way to conquer the galaxy than to have your most powerful troops already all over the place?

How about tube number XI?

Yeah, that was odd.  Does Horus have a number?  No, his Legion does. So who's Legion XI?

Er... let's come back to that.

What Is

What do you think of the Emperor after your first encounter with him? Impressive? A disappointment? Is he the villain of the peace?

We didn't really get to see much, did we?  Just a golden figure doing weird things.

You're saying he's a disappointment?

I'm saying he wasn't around long enough to have time to disappoint.  And it's not like he was well-described, is it.

That's deliberate, surely.

Because he's Jasmine?

From Aladdin?

From Angel, you berk.

I think it has more to do with the idea that any attempt to pin down the Emperor through rigid description would lessen his impact upon our imaginations.

That's silly.

It is not silly. Merely pretentious.

Also; I didn't understand the last two pages.  It seemed like a big chunk was missing.

Did you pick up on him being able to freeze time.

No, but that's not my only problem. Who was he talking to? Why did he turn his back?

Opinions differ.  The kindest options are that he wouldn't risk killing his Primarchs in a battle to save them, and/or that by seeing Horus he realised the kidnap attempt couldn't be stopped.  The less kind option is that Erebus is pretty much right.  So maybe he is the villain.

Yeah, but Erebus saying that makes me doubt it, for obvious reasons.

Maybe they're both villains.

Maybe everyone's a villain.

Is that a reference to the book, or are you making some bleak philosophical point?

Which would be funnier?

Were Horus and "Sejanus" really in that chamber beneath the Himalayas hundreds of years earlier?  Will the Custodian remember what happened? Will the Emperor?

Well if they do, they'll know Horus killed all those chappies.

I don't think the Custodians would be happy to be labelled "chappies". Though since they're dead, I guess it doesn't matter.

I don't think anyone will remember. They didn't get anything from those guys in the future.  Though this seemed like they could interact far more.

That's probably a comment on how much more awesome the Emperor is than your average menial.

Which also makes me think this isn't real.  If the Emperor can freeze time Erebus would have to be mad to take Horus to see him.  What if the Emperor freezes him and has a nice long chat with Horus about what's really going on?

Is Petronella any more appealing to you now she's a drunken mess?  And is Karkasy any better? 

No. Are you hoping I'm attracted to drunken messes?

There is certainly plenty of accumulated circumstantial evidence.

She's still a bitch, it's just now she's drunk.  She isn't even a funny drunk. Karkasy's nowhere near as bad.  They're blatantly going to have sex, though.

You think?

Karkasy will sleep with anyone.

He didn't sleep with that hot redhead, for reasons utterly beyond explanation.

He's in love with Euphrati.

Oh yeah, that.

But if Petronella avoids mentioning her, she should be alright.

Will it lower your opinion of him?

You mean if he immediately kills her.

Or just tells people how crap in bed she is.  Though that would be quite caddish, I think.

Yeah, best to just smother her with a pillow like a gentleman.

Do bars really look worse with the lights on? Or is that just North-East nightclubs?

North-East nightclubs certainly look hideous under decent lighting.

This cannot be denied.

It's usually the toilets that look the worst.

Yeah, you don't want to end up switching the lights on in there.  You might find mice scurrying around your feet.


Scurrying.  If mice start screwing around my feet I'm going to leave them to it.  I don't want to cock-block my rodent amigos.

What Will Be

What does Sindermann want with Euphrati Keeler, and will her absence bring an end to the army's happy-slapping antics planetside?

I assume it Loken rather than Sindermann.

Why would Torgaddon lie about that? Or why would Loken lie to Torgaddon?

Maybe he's just spinning it, figuring Euphrati will be less nervous being summoned by Sindermann.  I don't think it's a chat about the Emperor cult, otherwise why bother saving them?

Depends if it was meant to be a chat ending in a gunshot.

I think they want to discuss the pictures she shot of that guy.


Yeah.  Maybe they want to sneak the pictures in to Horus to give him some idea of what he's up against.

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