One Galaxy's Burning Hatred For Humanity

by Arthur B

A thorough dissection of Let the Galaxy Burn, a compilation of Warhammer 40,000 short stories from the early days of the Black Library.
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Once upon a time, between 1997 and 2004, the Black Library published a bimonthly magazine of short stories based on Games Workshop games, entitled Inferno! Indeed, the Black Library was originally created in order to produce Inferno! - it was only later that they started producing novels based on the work of Inferno! authors and reprinting the previous range of Games Workshop tie-in novels, starting down the road which would eventually make them the tie-in fiction juggernauts they are today. And in those early days of their slow and inexorable rise to power, the Black Library published three compilations of what they considered to be the best short fiction from Inferno! - well, the best short fiction which hadn't been siphoned off to form the basis of novels, at any rate. These collections - Into the Maelstrom, Dark Imperium, and Words of Blood - are now out of print, but for the delight of readers everywhere Games Workshop have produced Let the Galaxy Burn, which collects all the stories from the earlier collections and also includes three brand new tales, The Fall of Malvolion and Playing Patience by Dan Abnett and The Tower by CS Goto.

For our delight, editors Marc Gascoigne and Christian Dunn have arranged the stories into seven themed sections, each focusing on a different aspect of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, so I may as well tackle the stories theme by theme.

We Are the Space Marines, the Champions of Humanity


Naturally, the first segment focuses on the Space Marines, although - as Marc Gascoigne points out in his introduction to the anthology as a whole - there's always a little twist to make the stories a bit more interesting than "genetically engineered warrior monks shoot aliens". The best story in this segment is Words of Blood by Ben Counter, in which he relates a battle between Black Templars and Khorne cultists that hinges more on leadership and psychology than on tactics and killing power; the leaders of both sides realise that they must compromise their principles somewhat to win the day, but in doing so both face the risk of mutiny and rebellion from their underlings. Second best is a tie; overall the better story is probably Angels by Robert Earl, an account of a minor Space Marine intervention on the outskirts of a wider conflict told from the point of view of a humble villager from a world with only a medieval level of technology and social development, but I also really enjoyed In the Belly of the Beast, a Space Wolves story by Gotrek and Felix author William King, mainly because it shows the activities of a tyranid hive mind in a way which acknowledges the guiding intelligence behind the Hive Fleets but doesn't overanthropomorphise it in the way the zoat ambassadors in Ian Watson's Hot Fisting Space Marines In Bondage did.

Easily the two least interesting stories in this segment are The Black Pearl by Chris Pramas and Graham McNeill's Unforgiven, both of which revolve around the terrible secret crusade of the Dark Angels Space Marines to bring their chapter's renegade Fallen Angels to justice. The main problem is that both stories are pretty much only about said terrible secret crusade, and they don't really succeed in making the Dark Angels seem like a three-dimensional, well-rounded chapter. This is possibly because, what with their monomaniacal pursuit of the Fallen Angels, the Dark Angels simply aren't that three-dimensional, but that does mean that stories about them simply tend to be a bit uninteresting.

Suffer Not the Alien to Live


The next segment of the collection concerns stories that hinge on encounters with the various aliens that exist in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Four out of the six pitch the Imperial Guard against the antagonists. The first exception to this is Deus ex Mechanicus by Andy Chambers, an enjoyable and all too rare story told from the point of view of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the maniac cult of tech-priests from Mars that control the technology of the Imperium of Mankind. It's heaps of fun, especially since it includes the Necrons, an underused but very cool adversary, although those who don't know about the C'tan and the Deceiver will probably find the ending a bit confusing.

The second exception is the lamentably bad Business as Usual by Graham McNeill, which concerns a criminal gang from the Underhive, the driven Adeptus Arbites Captain out to catch them (the Adeptus Arbites are basically the Justice Department from Judge Dredd transplanted into the Warhammer 40,000 universe), and the nest of tyranids they blunder into. The idea of nests of tyranids existing under a hive city as scattered remnants of a defeated tyranid incursion is a sound one, and both the Arbitrators and the underhive gangs are underused in Warhammer 40,000 fiction, but McNeill's story is weighed down under heaving stacks of cliche. Not only is the Arbitrator Captain a tired rehash of the old "driven cop out to arrest the protagonist but forced by circumstances to work alongside him" trope, but the gang leader himself is a walking action movie stereotype, with two hot female accomplices in catsuits and trenchcoats backing him up and a willingness to say shit like "Come on, come on," [...] "Let's pick up the pace here people!" without a shred of irony. I already knew Graham McNeill sucked from the woefully bad Ultramarines omnibus I tried to read but failed (capsule review: Ultramarines are boring and Graham McNeill is boring so when you put them together you get something exponentially more boring than either of them on their own), but it's good to have confirmation that I should avoid his work like the plague in future.

Similarly, the Imperial Guard-based stories are a bit of a mixed bunch. My favourite is Children of the Emperor, written by veteran SF author Barrington J Bayley (who was a peer of the likes of Michael Moorcock during the 1960s), in which the "aliens" are in fact highly divergent humans whose ancestors modified them extensively during the Dark Age of Technology, although a close second is Dan Abnett's The Fall of Malvolion, a brief and poignant look at what happens when an Imperial world gets taken by surprise by the tyranids and utterly crushed. On the wretched side of the coin, Neil Rutledge's Small Cogs is preachy, and even worse fails to really convey a sense of action or danger during the fight sequences, which in a Warhammer story is absolutely fatal. Ben Counter's Hellbreak left me cold too; it's about the dark eldar, and Ben fails - like so many have in the past - to come up with a portrayal of them which doesn't reduce them to BDSM elves in space, and if you're trying to be taken seriously BDSM elves in space really aren't the way to go.

By the way, on the diversity front, all of the protagonists so far have been men with apparently white/European backgrounds - they almost all have European-sounding names, and where skin colour is mentioned, it is usually of the melanin-deficient variety. On a more juvenile level I also feel personally discriminated against because none of the stories so far have been about orks and I am a space ork player and it's totally not fair that the tyranids have been in four stories so far and the orks haven't even been in one waaaaah. Let's see if things get any better...

Only In Death Does Duty End


They might as well have called this section One of the Protagonists Dies In the End, since the uniting theme of these stories is that, at their conclusion, at least one of the protagonists dies; what's at stake is whether they die triumphant or a failure. Far and away the best of these is Demonblood by Ben Counter, the only story in the collection so ar I liked enough to wish it was a full-length novel. It's got two protagonists - a horribly corrupted Space Marine, and a kickass Sister of Battle who is vastly more awesome than him and who, sensibly, Counter chooses to make the primary viewpoint character, it's got a fun revenge plotline which unfolds over the course of years, it's got Ben Counter's schtick of the battle of wills between the adversaries being as important as the physical violence, and it's got a fun twist ending. What more could you want?

Diversity-wise, we also get Know Thine Enemy by Gav Thorpe, a story about a Chapter of black Space Marines (the Salamanders, who in canon also have glowing red eyes - though Thorpe doesn't mention the eyes) which lets itself down by taking too long to get to a too obvious conclusion, and not doing enough to distinguish the Salamanders from any of the other hundreds of completely blandly indistinguishable Space Marine Chapters out there, though this last point is a serious problem of most Space Marine-based stories. There's also Mark Brendan's Tenebrae, in which the possibly-Hispanic governor of an invaded Imperial world contemplates the ruination of his career, which is interesting mainly because Warhammer stories tend not to be based around mediocre failiures, and I'm not sure that Brendan really succeeds at it - the governor basically does absolutely nothing for the duration of the story but sit around whining, which makes his eventual fate less of a tragic but noble end and more of a blessed relief for the reader.

A better attempt at basing a story about a screwup is Hell In a Bottle by Simon Jowett, in which a dropout from the Space Marines whose body rejected the Chapter's geneseed (and therefore couldn't take on the powerful genetic enhancements the Space Marines enjoy) is left tending to a forgotten and neglected piece of ancient technology that lures him in with the offer of being the hero his biochemistry would not allow him to be. Speaking of worthless abortions, Jonathan Green's Salvation is possibly the worst story in the collection so far, mainly because it is structured appallingly badly. The basic idea is alright - a Space Marine takes part in a military campaign on a primitive world, is wounded and nursed back to health by the locals, has amnesia and forgets who he is, eventually remembers and goes off to fight a big scary monster to defend the village that took him in. The problem is that two thirds of the story covers the Space Marine going on the military campaign, leaving about 5 pages for all those other plot points to unfold in, sabotaging any hope the story might have had of actually working.

Worryingly, there have still been no stories about the loyal forces of the Imperium fighting orks, which by this point I was starting to find concerning. Part of the joy of Warhammer tie-in fiction is seeing armies you collect in action, and so far Let the Galaxy Burn has been orkblocking me. (It also features absolutely no references to the Tau whatsoever, so if you're a Tau player... then the Black Library hates you as much as everyone else does.)

Innocence Proves Nothing


Under this heading come the stories in which ordinary citizens of the Imperium - defined as folk who aren't in the Imperial Guard, Inquisition, or Space Marines - blunder into deep and secret matters and end up hopelessly out of their depth. Gav Thorpe has two stories in this section - Nightmare encapsulates the theme perfectly, as a young outcast psyker goes on a dream-quest guided by a clearly malevolent entity, a nice idea which is ruined by the fact that you can see the plot twist coming from the other side of the galaxy. Thorpe's other contribution, Raptor Down, doesn't really belong in this segment and seems to have been shoved in to bulk it up a bit; it's about Imperial Navy forces who pilot aircraft capable of flying into orbit, and the team leader who disobeys orders to lead them into a bombing raid which he knows will save thousands of lives, but at the same time will lose him a great many of his men. Where "innocence" comes into the equation I have no idea.

However, the other authors in this segment make up for Thorpe's limp efforts. Ancient History by Andy Chambers is about a scruffy young man who is press-ganged into the Imperial Navy and can expect too spend most of the rest of his life below decks tending to the needs of a gunnery emplacement larger than the Empire State Building, who befriends an old deck hand who might be far older than anyone suspects. The story doesn't really go anywhere, but it reads a bit like someone trying to imitate Gene Wolfe, so I have to give him some points for that. Loyalty's Reward, by Simon Jowett, is about the terrible things that happen when an organised crime family get their hands on forbidden alien technology, as seen from the point of view of an up-and-coming enforcer, and whilst predictable does at least have a decent punchline.

To be honest, though, the only above average story in this chunk of the collection is The Tower by CS Goto, which focuses on the troubles of an Administratum cipher - a bureaucratic drone selectively bred over generations to the point where he can memorise entire documents and recite them to the correct superior without allowing any of the information therein to peremeate his consciousness. The Gormenghast-like ritual and tedium of the Imperial bureaucracy isn't something I've ever seen anyone have a stab at before, but Goto's story of what happens when the cipher's routine is interrupted manages to make the subject not only interesting, but downright fascinating.

For the Emperor!


Next up is a brace of stories in which characters' faith - in the Emperor, in humanity, or in something less noble - play an important role. Oh, and there's also Acceptable Losses, Gav Thorpe's prequel to Raptor Down, which is even worse than the other Raptor story in this collection; it's so intensely boring that it's the only story so far that I just couldn't bring myself to finish.

Still, the other stories in this section are much better, especially since two of them are about the Imperial Guard fighting orks! Ork Hunter by Dan Abnett is a grim Apocalypse Now-type story about the Skinner squads that hunt feral orks in the jungles of the planet Armageddon, which is decent enough, but I mildly prefer Ben Counter's Defixio, in which a member of a penal regiment regains his faith in humanity as his tank crew fight their way out from behind enemy lines, mainly because Counter presents a more accurate vision of what the orks in Warhammer 40,000 are like - brutal, psychotic, and in it for the lulz - without making them look completely stupid and incongruous, whereas Abnett has to rob the orks of all their over-the-top, comedic elements in order to make his story work.

The remaining two stories in this section are by Alex Hammond - Ancient Lances is about a tribesman from the undeveloped planet of Afghanimongolistan Atilla, who after a term of service in the Imperial Guard leading a horse cavalry force (yes, the Imperial Guard recruits horse cavalry from low-technology worlds) returns to his homeworld to find it transformed by Imperial influence, and Emperor's Grace is about a conflict between an Imperial Guard Lieutenant devoted to the well-being of his men and a Commissar devoted to the Imperial doctrine of no surrender and no retreat. Both of them show a lot of potential, and yet both of them seem to lack a certain something, as if another couple of drafts could have fleshed them out a bit more. They're both extremely bare-bones affairs, focused on describing what needs to be described in an efficient manner, to the point where it feels more as though I'm reading a series of bullet points rather than a properly developed story. The same problem afflicts Jonathan Curran's The Raven's Claw, which isn't really about faith but has been crammed in this section anyway.

Burn the Heretic, Kill the Mutant, Purge the Unclean


This penultimate chunk of the book concerns the enemy within, the conspiratorial followers of Chaos within Imperial society who are constantly trying to bring the whole edifice down, as encountered by a few intrepid investigators who seek to bring light to the darkness. Two Dan Abnett stories are included here; one of them, Playing Patience, is a story about Inquisitor Ravenor, protege of Eisenhorn, which I chose not to read this time around since I'd rather read and review it in that context. The other is Pestilence, a melancholic and eerie story about a medic whose investigations into a plague from thirty years ago take him into very strange territory; on balance, this is probably the best story in the collection, and is one of the few which shows anything that could be described as restraint. Almost as good and almost as restrained is Gav Thorpe's Suffer Not the Unclean to Live, told from the point of view of an Ecclesiarchy priest given the miserable job of attending to the spiritual needs of an enslaved population of mutants. At the opposite end of the quality spectrum is Barathrum by Jonathan Curren, a cliched and predictable "Inquisitors find ancient evil in an archaeological dig" story, and The Lives of Fereg Lion-Wolf by Barrington J Bayley, which tempts the reader into thinking it is going to be about political machinations between powerful Chaos warlord-sorcerers, and then says "fuck you, they're not really Chaos Space Marines, it was all just a dream".

Kill Them All!


Finally we hit the end of the road with a section devoted entirely to stories featuring Chaos Space Marines, except for the now-traditional story that doesn't fit the theme at all - Barrington J Bayley's Battle of the Archaeosaurs features dinosaurs fighting Imperial Titans (think mecha designed by cathedral builders), which a fun concept that flounders in search of a plot. The remaining stories aren't much to write home about either. Snares and Delusions by Matthew Farrer has a reasonably interesting twist, but it won't make much sense to people who aren't well-schooled in eldar lore, and even if you do get it, the twist isn't entertaining enough to justify the limp buildup. Apothecary's Honour by Simon Jowett and Unthinking Justice by Andras Millward think they have plot twists, but they're telegraphed so far in advance that they really don't. Wrath of Kharn by William King takes a major Chaos NPC and makes him look completely ridiculous and laughable, tossing in stupid details like how he has a kill counter mounted in his head-up display so that he knows precisely what his score is in a battle like he's a 13 year old playing God of War. This, my friends, is what the bottom of the barrel looks like.

Oh, wait though, what's this? In Into the Maelstrom, Chris Pramas writes an utterly predictable story that is spiced up by the return of the sort of sadomasochistic Space Marine manlove that made Ian Watson's Space Marine novel seminal in more ways than one. Check out this exchange between Sartak, a Chaos Space Marine with regrets, and Arghun, a loyalist Space Marine who is struggling to trust him.
Almost unconsciouisly, Sartak ran his fingers over the heavy collar around his neck. As always, he could not find any kind of seam.

Watching with amusement, the White Scar laughed. "What's wrong? Don't you like being Arghun's dog, Corsair? It's the only way to teach you discipline and obedience."
lol space mariens r teh ghey lol

Conclusions


Now, don't get me wrong; I'm glad I have Let the Galaxy Burn, it's got some great stories in it. It's just that it's very, very variable. About 50% of the stories in Let the Galaxy Burn are great, and about 50% are poor. Of course, it's entirely possible that no two readers will agree on which specific 50% is the good part, and this is one respect in which the wide variety of authors presented works against the collection - even if you're really into Warhammer 40,000, the chances of you enjoying all the writers whose work is on offer here are pretty slim.

That said, I don't think that's the only issue. If this is genuinely the best short fiction from the pages of Inferno!, then to be blunt I am not surprised that it has been cancelled, but at the same time this is in fact in no way the best short fiction from Inferno! - the really top-notch material from Inferno! was skimmed off to become the foundations of novels, like the stories which became the first Gaunt's Ghosts and Gotrek and Felix books, and as a consequence what we're left with here (aside from the stories exclusive to this collection) are all the tales which weren't quite good enough to justify expanding into a full series, plus some very good stories which nonetheless didn't lend themselves to expanding into a range of novels.

Of course, another part of this is the nature of Inferno! itself. Although it did publish stories by established authors, it went out of its way to solicit tales from unpublished authors, because the part of the point of the project was to cultivate a stable of writers for a new Games Workshop novel line. As such, a lot of the stories here represent the authors' first few tentative steps into fiction writing, and some of them (bless 'em) should perhaps have stuck with the day job. I wasn't impressed by either of Chris Pramas's contributions, for example, and I suspect they made the cut at least partially because he's the head of Green Ronin Publishing, who are the company that Games Workshop outsourced the design work for the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to. To put it kindly, his talents are best expressed in the field of game design, and the same is true of a few of the other designers-turned-authors who appear in the compilation. Another downside is that Inferno! seemed to assume a higher level of Warhammer background knowledge than most Black Library novels seem to require of their readers - perhaps because it was produced at a time when the Black Library had much less visibility, but possibly also because the short story format doesn't lend itself to extended exposition.

The Black Library are always looking to expand and improve their stable of authors, of course, but I think they cancelled Inferno! they've found better ways to hunt for talent. These days, they run annual short story contests for new authors, with the winning entries appearing in a book-length compilation. (Their hottest new talent, Henry Zou - about whom Dan Abnett has some very enthusiastic things to say - was discovered through precisely this avenue.) I suspect the Black Library find that they are still able to get a decent number of submissions from new authors through this avenue, and simply through the high visibility the Black Library range enjoys these days, and the advantage of this method is that they only have to publish one book a year of short stories rather than filling a magazine every couple of months; this allows them to be significantly more selective in which stories they actually publish, and thus ensures the brand isn't diluted by a glut of less-than-brilliant tales.

As a historical record of the Black Library's early years, Let the Galaxy Burn is extremely interesting, so if you're seriously into the Black Library as a whole you'll probably want to get it anyway (though if you already have the three collections that form the basis of it, I don't think the extra three stories are worth it, especially since Playing Patience is available in the Ravenor omnibus). I would tentatively recommend it to readers who've dabbled a bit in the Black Library and want to work out which authors' work they want to explore next (I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for Ben Counter's material), with the caveat that I don't think many of the stories actually represent the writers at the peak of their game. I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's coming fresh to the Black Library range, especially considering the higher level of Warhammer 40,000 background knowledge the reader is expected to possess.

I'd like to thank Rami for giving me his old copy of Let the Galaxy Burn.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 19:44 on 2009-07-24
You're welcome - glad someone could make use of it!

I actually bought it some time ago but couldn't really understand it and put it on a shelf for a while, during which I read a lot more of the more recent Black Library and then was able to rediscover it in my book-pile and enjoy it. I'm impressed that you waded through the whole thing, too -- some of the more awful stories I just skipped after a page or two.
Shimmin at 23:05 on 2009-07-24
If you're really on this WH40K roll, see if you can find the "Inquisition War" books - which whatever various websites may claim to the contrary, were damn well NOT first published in 2004. I remember them with cringing horror and betrayed outrage, particularly "Harlequin".
Arthur B at 12:43 on 2009-07-25
I have the Inquisition War books (in their pre-Black Library forms, so the squat character is still a squat...), and I've been working my way through them sloooooowly. (As in I read the first one a while back and haven't gotten around to reading Harlequin yet.)
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 05:47 on 2010-03-07
Your commentary on Graham McNeill has made me think about him. So far, I've read the Ultramarines omnibus, the Horus Heresy book False Gods, and the Chaos Space Marines book Storm of Iron that it turns out the last Ultramarines book is a sequel to. Of those five, the only remotely tolerable ones were Dead Sky Black Sun and Storm of Iron, and even then just barely. There's already fourth and fifth Ultramarines books, with a sixth coming out later this year, and I fear that Ultramarines: The Second Omnibus isn't too far away. At least The Lost comes out in paperback soon, and Abnett is working on a third trilogy in the Eisenhorn/Ravenor region. But I digress from my main point, which is agreeing with your excoriation of Graham McNeill.

(As an aside: When I read Hammer of Daemons, I was struck by how it was similar in premise to Dead Sky Black Sun but ridiculously, ridiculously better, and was actually somewhat put out when I found out that Ben Counter's book came out years after McNeill's. Major differences between the two: Alaric is proactive and at least decently characterized, whereas the rod up Uriel's ass has a rod up its own ass and all he does is wander around the Chaos planet and wait for the Chaos Space Marines to kill one another.)

One of the most annoying things McNeill does is bog his books down with utterly boring political machinations. It's the bland stuff in Storm of Iron and Dead Sky Black Sun, and his tales of underhivers and Arbites in Warriors of Ultramar are virtually unbearable. It sounds like he indulged himself with more of the same in "Business as Usual".

The other annoying thin McNeill does is give awful, horribly static characters. When I first read Horus Rising, I was so impressed by its characterization and suggestive demands-a-resolution plot that I grabbed the next two Horus Heresy books and at least one Abnett omnibus. Reading False Gods pissed me off because McNeill chucked all of Abnett's deft characterization out the window and replaced it with zero-dimensional Angry Marines, who do nothing but alternate between fits of sulking and fits of pointless, stupid rage. The subsequent Horus Heresy books by Ben Counter and James Swallow were much better, and at least had some interesting portrayals of the spread of a new faith, but Abnett's enthralling characterization of the Luna Wolves never really came back. Disappointing.
Arthur B at 10:24 on 2010-03-07
I confess that I only read as far as around two-thirds of the first book of the Ultramarines omnibus I tried to read. But I did actually think there was promise to the political machinations and the rebellion that served as a backdrop to that book. The thing about the Space Marines is that they are basically used as tools by the rulers of the Imperium, so their work would logically often be inextricably tied in with the internal politics of the worlds they visit.

The problem was that McNeill handled it so woefully badly. He basically used the political subplot as filler to cover up the fact that he couldn't fill an entire novel with a story about Space Marines.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 18:34 on 2010-03-07
I actually don't particularly remember the politics in that first book, but then I don't really remember much of anything, other than it had necrons and one of the C'Tan in it.

The most memorable moment, I think, came in Warriors of Ultramar where Uriel and That Other Guy managed to take out the entirety of Hive Fleet Behemoth by themselves. Well, okay, no, someone gave them the Anti-Tyranid Syringe, which they took by themselves into the queen and injected her with, blowing up everyone.

Also, good lord, I just found that he ended Warriors of Ultramar on an underhive ganger repeating "Business as usual" to, I think, a hot be-catsuitted female sidekick. Was a guy named Snowdog one of the characters in "Business as Usual", because if so he reappears and takes up vast wodges of Warriors of Ultramar.
Arthur B at 22:22 on 2010-03-07
Snowdog is, indeed, the protagonist of the hilariously bad Business as Usual.
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