On this most festive of holidays, your Prince wishes first and foremost to extend gratitude and salutations to his small body of avid commenters, readers and raggamuffins for what is almost a half year of helpful commentary, irreverent mockery, useful linkeage and associated activities. I wish you all a merry christmas (even my occasional reader from lost, legend-haunted Uruguay), and cannot stress enough that without an audience, an author, or internet blogger, that degenerate cousin to the literary entrepeneur, is nothing but an lone voice resounding through an empty cavern.
On this fortuitous day your Prince wishes, like all others, to weigh in momentarily on that most major of space operatic franchises, beloved Star Wars, and this newest ill-conceived endaevour. I shall keep it uncharacteristically short. It was not terrible, nowhere near as bad as the prequels, it felt like Star Wars, albeit it a fan-fiction-esque re-imagining of the beloved original sans the imagination, likeable cast and flawlessly built up action that made it so wonderful. The main character was an unlikeable mary-sue, a poster-girl for modern political correctness, and as such, her exploits and arc left me bored and indifferent. Loyal Finn, though a man of dubious motivation and background that stretches even my considerable suspension of disbelief, had infinetely more growth and character then our nonsensically competent heroine, which was a shame. So too, the construction of yet another Death Star was kind of dissapointing. Overall, Han Solo was not ruined and it did capture the feel of the original rather well, for which I thank the capricious and spiteful Hollywood deities somwhat fiercely. Also, that yellow hippy lady was terrible, they should have just let the fake Mos Eisley jazz cantina be run by Yoda’s Ghost, man I miss that little green guy.
What Force Awakens HAS done, and done quite successfully, is rekindle my thirst for Space Opera of a grand and sweeping scale, with likeable characters, brave heroes, nefarious villains and dashing space exploits. Therefore I would like to take this post and dedicate it to what might very well be the greatest or at the very least longest (Perry Rhodan obviously does not count shut up damn you Gucky, you telepathic mouse-beaver, why do you torment me so!) space opera of all times, the Horus Heresy series. Set in the far distant future epoch of the 31st millenium, the Horus Heresy is a massive epoch chronicling the fall of Horus, most beloved of the Emperor of Mankind’s vat-grown demi-god sons, and the massive civil war that follows it as he turns half of his sons and their uncountable legions against the galaxy-spanning empire they themselves helped forge. Its potent evocation of ancient myth and mysticism, combined with its unapologetically grim and horrific tone, (though not without moments of the dry acerbic levity that is the provenance of the inhabitants of mist-wreathed Albion) , its gothic vision of the far future, its cast of hundreds of characters and the countless worlds of wonder that we are transported to makes it an absolute joy to read, the occasional terrible entry by authors of insufficient ability nonwithstanding.
It has since reached its 34th installment, along with a vertiable demi-legion of novellas, audio-dramas, short-stories and a graphic novel, and shows no signs of stopping, providing us warhammerfags with our fix for what I morosely predict will be at least another decade. I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to extoll its virtues and sing its praises, perhaps in the form of a list so as to conform to the current standard of clickbait articles that is popular among the wider, gayer circles of the world wide web.
Space opera, like soap-opera or rock-opera, is kept aloft by its two-pillars of great characters and great worldbuilding, and though for the die-hard science-fiction fan a well-thought out universe may perhaps compensate for deficient characterisation, I posit that Dune would not be Dune without the lecherous villainy Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the prophetic rise of Paul-M’uadib and the tragic doom of Leto Atreides, and so too would Hyperion not be Hyperion without the tragic figure of Saul Weintraub, the irreverent Martin Selenius and the inscrutable Consul. Characters, that is to say, memorable characters, are the bones on which the flesh of good world-building is knitted.
This is of course, barring some less memorable entries by hacks, entirely applicable to the Horus Heresy. Through literary alchemy and what must surely be the bargaining with ancient devils, the authors in charge of this mammoth epoch manage to inject life and colour in that most challenging of literary characters, the transhuman space-marine. Endowed with superhuman abilities by ancient genetic wizardry, the Space Marine is almost fearless, superhumanly durable and strong and endowed with a keen mind devoted not to the pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh but the buisness of war in all its infinte forms. By the penmanship of these literary titans this hollow mannequin is turned into a hero from a homerian epoch, and tales of brotherhood, bravery, betrayal and honour are the human drama that allows us to consume the events on a galaxy-spanning backdrop. This is not to say there is not plenty drama originating from human characters or weirdo cyborg machine cult characters.
So too, the motivations of our heroes and villains are excellent, evading the trap of overly cerebral motives or trite all-consuming, nihilistic hatred or mind-control to fuel our villains. Instead, in a callback to tales of old, the motivations are fundamentally human. Our villains fall, in the figurative and the literal sense, to evil because of character flaws, be it hubris, envy, arrogance, a desire for freedom or revenge. Our heroes face challenges not only in the logistical or strategic sense, but also on a deeply personal level. The despair of Loken, the stoic determination of Rogal Dorn, the wavering, resentful service of John Grammaticus and the pragmatism of Roboute Guilliman that leads him into heresy are every bit as fascinating as the corruption of Fulgrim, the regret of Perturabo or the struggles of Kharn and his World Eater legion to save their general and father from a descent into sociopathic killing rage. The shades of grey make the overall work more compelling, adding moral ambiguity to make it not a tale of black versus white, but a tale of black with shades of grey versus white with shades of grey (and black).
Warhammer 40k and thus the Horus Heresy, its prequel ten millenia earlier, hold a strange and irresistable fascination for me, and this is in part to the setting as much as the characters. Horus Heresy gives us an entire galaxy to explore, with huge swathes of unknown stars, as well as thousands of crevasces, gullies and secret chambers on already familiar worlds to lend the entire setting an atmosphere of great antiquity and mystery and not to mention, lurking horror. Humanity alone has experienced now forgotten epochs of undreamt of technological wonder and galaxy-spanning might, ending in the 5 millenia long devastation of the Age of Strife, and now rises anew, reborn and made wiser, to conquer a hostile galaxy in the name of mankind, filthy aliens be damned. A million worlds or more are conquered in the span of but two centuries, the greatest endaevour humanity has ever undertaken. When victory is in sight they falter, and the unthinkable happens as the Imperium is fractured from within by the machinations of nameless powers from beyond reality and the madmen, opportunists and zealots that do their bidding.
Every world has a sense of history to it, every culture feels diverse, avoiding the sterile monoculture or planet of hats trap that Star Trek will often fall into. We receive not planets of depression-era mafia-men or the sterile park-atmosphere of starfleet academy. Terra is a baroque, war-ravaged planet, littered with buried secrets, its oceans long since evaporated, the himalaya mountains turned into a continent-sized palace. Mars an industrial superpower littered with pyramidal temples of the cyborg Machine Cult and a thousand vaults harboring forbidden technology from the nightmare past. We have planets of beautiful roman architecture and natural wonders, harsh ice-locked death-worlds and desert worlds where natives pit giant crocodile creatures and vile sorcery against the numberless legions and technological might of the Imperium. Even though most of the fighting is done against brothers, for it is a civil war, the references and descriptions of the wars against different strange alien races of lizardmen, worship-devouring statue creatures, spider-things or bottle-world dwelling cyborg-aliens make the universe feel lived in and large and full of nightmares.
The technology in Horus Heresy is already ancient and has been rediscovered, and is immense, mighty and as baroque as the inhabitants of the Age of Enlightenment. Ships are miles-long flying cathedrals studded with great rows of gunnery. Battles are as much a matter of long range artillery duelling and high tech weapons as they are savage melees fought by power-armoured giants with chain-swords and photonic-edged swords. Robots are replaced with grotesque lobotomised cybernetically-enhanced slaves. Battlefields are dominated by legions of genetically engineered super soldiers and gigantic city-destroying war machines. The sterile futuristic imagery of the phaser is replaced with the brute, blocky killing potential of the boltgun. It feels like the myths of olden days have been recast in a baroque, future image, where sorcery and daemon-things can co-exist and indeed seemlessly blended with plasma cannons, force-fields and genetically engineered super soldiers.
There is some real diversity to be found in the galaxy(I refer to the original use of the word, not diveristy in the lobotomised social justice sense, though even in this case I guess HH would pass the test with its plethora of dudes from different planets, cripples, lady characters where they make sense i.e not being spacemarines and i guess that weirdo hermaphroditic daemon thing from the 21st installment checks in a lot of boxes). Most of the legions differ not simply in terms of preferred combat doctrines but also in terms of culture, outlook, history and so on. Even the human troops and organizations have this feel to it, unless they are written terribly, by a shit author.
Science fiction authors, particularly screenwriters, have trouble with scale. Imagining the size and scope of a galactic civilisation is no small matter and not everyone truly realises the amount of resources that are in play when we speak of such Empires. This how the earth of Enterprise (the terrible series that mimicks Star trek and mimics it poorly indeed) can have a single spaceship (completely eschewing the need for planetary defences, picket ships without ftl capabilities and so on) M’uadib may slaughter billions on thousands of worlds with his armies of millions of Fremen and the Republic Grand Army can consist of 3 million clone-troopers i.e less then Nazi Germany to fight a galaxy spanning war over tens if not hundreds of thousands of planets against an enemy that can produce about 1 robot per 3 seconds per factory. My suspension of disbelief has a limit.
Now Horus Heresy is not entirely blameless in this regard, and sometimes it will insist upon showing worlds being overthrown by but a paltry handful of Speehs Muhrines taking a single city (though of course it makes sense to have a central major settlement if the world is colonised and whatnot), but it has the excellent policy of either keeping it vague or naming numbers that are fine or at least somewhat believable. A Hundred Thousand or more Speehs Muhrines per legion, each capable of besting a hundred normal men in battle or so it is whispered. Each battlegroup with millions of human auxillia to do the mopping up. Single worlds defended by millions of troops, huge tank battallions, titans and whatnot. Thousands of expeditionary fleets. Entire planets devoted to the industrial processess needed to supply such a vast warmachine with ammunition and fuel. By and large, it gets it entirely right, and thank
god the Emperor for that.
The Horus Heresy has a mood and theme to it that is almost unique in contemporary space opera. Now don’t get me wrong, I like light-hearted space adventure as much as the next guy. But I also like dark, violent, tragic space opera, and HH goes full on grimdark. Planetary populations are massacred, armies betrayed, soldiers sacrificed to hideous lovecraftian horrors that lurk beyond the thin boundaries of reality, warriors with good intentions come to see themselves becoming monsters and so on. Victory for the good guys is not guaranteed and usually involves great cost, be it physical in the form of lives, or mental in the form of some action that was previously thought unthinkable. Sometimes the only solace that can be found is dying with dignity whilst doing your duty. Sometimes villains are permitted a moment of reflection or regret over the path they have chosen. All of this combines to give it a very distinctive feel, and one I really enjoy.
As previously mentioned, Horus Heresy is, like Star Wars, essentially a fantasy tale with spaceships. And while Star Wars is the hero with a thousand faces, HH is Paradise Lost, Macbeth, the Illiad, the battles of the old world and the pagan myths of the ancient greeks. Prophecies are spun, cities put to the torch, treachery is plotted, defiant last stands are had so that others may live to fight another day, and sometimes, after several thousand pages of blood-splattered slaughter, we get a quiet little moment of reflection or mourning at the loss of something noble. There is no modern day political correctness or disney-esque happy ending or romance shoved in for romance sake, it is a glorious throwback to ye olden days retold in popular format and with laser guns. Even though everyone knows how it will eventually end, and even some of the characters in the books know (i.e Horus laying siege to the Imperial Palace and confronting his father directly), watching the buildup and the twists and turns that lead up to this epic confrontation is incredibly engrossing.
People enjoy ratings but I cannot truly rate the Horus Heresy with any sort of objectivity. Its not done yet. It might end on a terrible note. It wont though. It will rock. I love it to bits.