When it comes to 40k lore, I am extremely judgemental, especially in terms of the Black Library (the publisher, not the Webway Dewey Decimal System). Let's face it: many authors of 40k books would get laughed out of most legitimate publishing houses. Whether it's the inability to find one's groove within 40k constraints or just poor writing skills, many BL authors have penned some real stinkers. Of course, there are some notable exceptions that are quite good and a few that are even compelling enough to read a second or third time, and to be fair, even some really accomplished writers of other genres and milieux have a hard time conveying the breadth of the 40k universe. I took a stab at it recently, writing a few one pagers for the recent Mechanicus fandex, and it was hard - really hard - to get the flavor just right.
So I wanted to convey to you why I love 40k fluff despite the fact that it might be derivative, illogical, and sometimes silly.
LIKE SAND THROUGH THE HOURGLASS...
The crazy-enormous scale of time makes 40k incredibly attractive. Think about it; all of recallable human history spans, what, 7000 years? So multiply that seven times over to get to "current" time, and that's just from a human perspective. Other races measure their history in eons.
That's enough time for entire races and cultures to rise and fall, never to be noticed by the rest of the universe. The "Star Trek"-like good-intentioned expanding exploration could have happened 5 times over. Again, we’re talking about the history of modern civilized Earth being a tiny grain of sand in the desert of time. That is a lot of room for things to happen.
This epoch-spanning time frame goes a really long way towards justifying many things that have to do with 40k. First is the incredibly powerful but also incredibly specific technology. Why do the cogitators have screens but also printout scroll-like paper? Because the concept of development of an idea from the ground has been lost (which gives me hope that, like remembrancers, all consultants and were killed by Horus and the Emperor around 30k).
NO ONE IS GOOD
This expanse of time leads to a few interesting characteristics that I really enjoy. Of course, there's is the deterioration of research and development and the absolute fear of artificial intelligence. But the most striking thing to me is the retention of the mechanics of society with the complete shedding of "good" and "bad". "Right" and "Wrong" are still there in full force and relativistic as ever, but the farce of moral certainty has simply worn away over time due to irrelevance. The incomprehensible inevitability of humanity's end weighs on the mind of every self-aware human throughout the Imperium, and it's used as the ultimate "just because". Is it moral to sacrifice 365,000 souls per year to maintain the Golden Throne? The alternative is the end of humanity. Is there a justification for the torture, genocide, and one-minded fascism that the Inquisition utilizes as tools against the Alien, Demon and Heretic? Again, what is the alternative?
The Orks are genetically predisposed towards conflict. Tyranids see humans as livestock The Tau are desperate for expansion and seek to assimilate everyone. The Eldar see the Mon-keigh as a nuisance. It is the 41st Millennium and there is only war, alright. Civil wars, religious wars, race wars...take your pick. Add to that Dark Eldar, Necrons, Demons, Chaos Legions, cults, the Inquisition, warp storms, the Black Ships, isolation, crushing poverty, oppression, the Eye of Terror and all the other little black rain clouds, and you have quite a catalyst for simple hate and pure conflict.
|Goth Dog is Goth|
This expanse of time leads to a few interesting characteristics that I really enjoy. Of course, there is the deterioration of the basic underpinnings of a free and enlightened society. In some ways, the adherents of Chaos do have some things right: the Emperor is a Corpse God. The sacrifice of 1000 souls per day to support the Golden Throne harkens back to some of the oldest and most obscure Mesopotamic religions. In a majority of human society in the year 40,000+, there is a strange juxtaposition of aesthetic excellence and horrifying utility: compare the descriptions of ship bridges in an Abnett novel to the ghastly cherub servitors that encircle many inquisitors. Everything is vast and foreboding in architecture and martial culture. This kind of far-future gothic aesthetic really adds a unique flavor to a game that could have easily devolved into another "future perfect", "dystopia", or "Logan's Run" sort of vibe. For you whippersnappers who don't remember Logan's Run, think "The Island" with bad special effects.
So how does this manifest itself in terms of the fluff? Look at the artwork. Not the ridiculously proportioned Space Marine portraits that you see on the Black Library book covers, but some of the large battle scenes peppered throughout the rule books.
The perspective is always looking up towards the sky from a low angle. They show the immense scale of the hive cites and monstrous creatures, and the skies are almost uniformly full of churning clouds. Everything seems dark and constricted.
There are a few artists that just nail that vibe...servo skulls everywhere, implants, trampled bodies, flames, and explosions. It's really the scale and audacity that is so appealing to me.
Sometimes, they miss that aesthetic goal, especially when they fail to convery the considerable size difference between a normal human and a Space Marine, but at least the orks don't look cartoony.
I see the excess of skulls within the 40k aesthetic as an homage to medieval Europe and the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes, I don't care for the tiny heads on unhelmeted Astartes, but I will gladly take that over the sleek and impossibly attractive "heroes" of other Sci Fi art. The Gothic architecture evokes a certain madness and excess taken to it's (il)logical conclusion.
THE COMPLETENESS OF THE TAXONOMY
Like him or hate him, you've got to hand it to Dan Abnett; he and the rules authors somehow created a clever and somewhat consistent taxonomy and ontology. The terminology that is unique to 40k is close enough to modern English to be understandable but different enough to be evocative and strange. Cogitator, regicide, engineseer, chirurgeon, medicae, amasec...all instantly identifiable. Then there is the surprisingly organized yet intricate mythology. Yes, the algae with genetic memory of machinery that is the Ork physiography is a bit off in my opinion, but the concept of Chaos and the Warp, the Eldar history, and the history of the Emperor in antiquity is very established yet pliable (in case a codex changes everything...cough, cough Necrons...). I also really appreciate the governmental bodies' pseudo-latin names.
Sly Marbo. Ferrus Manus. Lion El'Johnson. Mon Keigh. Angron. Corvus Corax. Konrad Curze.
Come on. What's next. "Under the Grandstand" by I.C. Butts? "My Life with Tigers" by Claude Balls? Enough with the puns.
So that last point aside, I have to hand it to GW. Their fluff is complex yet interesting enough to absorb even if you are a casual gamer. I've certainly played games with even deeper backgrounds...Robotech, AD&D, etc...but I'm really drawn to 40k despite it's obvious "borrowing" from trope after trope.
What do you like or hate about 40k fluff? I'd really like to know.