Freedom in an Owned World
'"Curse all manling coach drivers and all manling women," muttered Gotrek Gurnisson, adding a curse in Dwarvish ...'
That's the first line of 'Geheimnisnacht' by William King, the first story in the first book of Warhammer fiction, the anthology Ignorant Armies, published in 1989. Since that beginning there has been published a whole string of books, magazines and comics, set in the universes of the highly successful war games and role-playing games marketed by Games Workshop (GW).
Partly because of the involvement of Interzone editor David Pringle, who was editor of the GW line from 1988 to 1991, over the years several prominent British writers of sf and fantasy have contributed to the various series, many from what used to be known as the 'Interzone generation'. My own involvement was modest, two short stories published in 1989 and 1990; there have been much more significant contributions from David Garnett, Kim Newman, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson and others. Today GW publishes new and reprinted fiction — great mountains of it, in fact — under its 'Black Library' imprint. But over the years GW fiction itself has been the subject of a saga of gamers and business suits, of orthodoxies and heresies, of Stakhanovites and rebels, of collapses and recoveries, of intriguing lost possibilities, and of struggles for literary freedom in an 'owned universe'.
I've been arguing for some time that somebody ought to do a proper study of this saga. Well, nobody more qualified than me took up my challenge, and if you want something done … My aim here is to set out an informal history of GW literature, especially that of the Pringle period, based on the personal recollections of those involved, told as far as possible in their own words. I'd love to see a proper academic study of this body of work some day.
My own first exposure to the GW fiction project came in autumn 1988, with a phone call from David Pringle.
To publicise GW the friends began a fanzine called Owl and Weasel. A copy of this fell into the hands of the American games developer Gary Gygax, who sent over for review a new game called Dungeons and Dragons.
Published by TSR Hobbies, D&D, as the first commercially available role-playing game (RPG), revolutionized tabletop gaming. A RPG like D&D has a 'world' — the fictional setting in which the game takes place — defined in a set of handbooks. Players define and control 'characters', with whom they often identify closely. You could use lead figurines as character position markers and so on, but in the early RPGs the real interest for the players was in the scenario and the extensible rule sets, not the related merchandise.
Jackson and Livingstone, immediately enthusiastic about D&D and other RPGs, quickly signed an exclusive 3-year European distribution agreement with TSR — though they didn't know at the time that TSR was just another fledgling company, and that D&D had already been turned down by the big games manufacturers. From the beginning GW had serious business ambitions. Cheryl Morgan, an old school friend of Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne, was involved in role-playing in the early days: 'While Steve [Jackson] and Ian [Livingstone] were both enthusiasts, they … both wanted to make lots of money …' Their instinct over D&D was right, and the orders began to roll in.
Up to May 1976 GW was run out of a flat in Shepherd's Bush. As the business grew Jackson and Livingstone opened their first real office, at the back of an estate agent in south London, but again that was quickly outgrown and in 1977 GW moved to a shop in Hammersmith. From 1978 GW sold all the major RPG titles, such as Traveller, RuneQuest, Middle Earth Roleplay. Marc Gascoigne — who would join GW as an editor in 1984, and is now publisher of the modern Black Library — says that at the time a UK edition through GW became almost the norm for any RPG.
After trading at first behind closed doors, in April 1978 the Hammersmith shop, the first GW store, was opened to the public. From the beginning it included specialist gamer staff to help create a 'hobby' atmosphere. Thanks to the publicity from White Dwarf it was a success from the beginning, and was quickly followed by sister stores in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham and elsewhere.
In 1980 GW launched its own board games — one was based on Doctor Who, another on Judge Dredd — under the slogan 'The British Empire Strikes Back!' (though George Lucas forced a change of advertising policy, the first but not the last legal tangle in this story). The first GW RPG was Judge Dredd — The Roleplaying Game released in 1985, co-written by Marc Gascoigne, soon followed by the superhero RPG Golden Heroes.
It was soon clear that there was a high profit margin to be had in selling character-related figurines, to which younger gamers (10—14) were particularly partial. Driven by the need to enter this growing market for miniatures, GW spawned a satellite manufacturing company called Citadel Miniatures, based in Nottingham. Citadel was funded by GW, who sold the models through mail order and their growing store chain. Citadel was headed by Bryan Ansell. Ansell, who 'began his career as a toy-soldier manufacturer,' according to David Pringle, had previously developed the popular Asgard product line, though like many in gaming he had begun by running a fanzine, in Ansell's case called, sweetly, Trollcrusher.
In 1983 Citadel launched the first Warhammer war game. Warhammer was a Tolkienesque heroic fantasy, co-authored by Ansell.
By the mid-1980s the market was changing. Sales of RPGs were slowing, while sales of Warhammer miniatures were growing very quickly. Though there were high initial set-up costs, the margins on lead miniatures, if marketed through a chain of stores like GW's, were likely to be far higher than on roleplay books or board games.
This was the logic, in early 1986, which impelled the Citadel management team, led by Ansell, to complete a buy-out of the parent company from its original founders. The business was to be relaunched to focus on selling lead figurines and game accessories. Cheryl recalls that Livingstone and Jackson had anyhow done well with another profitable venture, the Fighting Fantasy 'gamebook' series, RPGs in book form. 'Having made their fortunes, they sold out to Bryan Ansell ... Bryan was even more focused on money than Steve and Ian, and he gave Workshop a very tight mission which seems to have been very successful (though credit for it working may belong to Tom Kirby [Ansell's second-in-command]) … [Ansell's] whole policy was built around selling figurines through the games.'
There was controversy among the fans as GW appeared to lose its old hippy-ish, student-enthusiast feel and embraced corporatism, and White Dwarf became more obviously a glossy marketing machine. The change of management wasn't entirely welcome inside the company itself: in the last issue of White Dwarf that was produced by the original team, if you read down the table of contents page, the first letter of the description under each item spells out 'Sod Off Bryan Ansell'! But as Marc points out, such a buy-out, of a London-based firm by a provincial manufacturer with a relocation to Nottingham, would never be universally popular. Some London staff were happy to accept the change, including Marc himself (though he survived only a year under the new regime, then moving on to work on the Fighting Fantasy books).
Under the new management new character-rich games were designed, to serve as platforms for selling figurines and accessories. In 1986 an RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, was published; by now the Warhammer wargame itself was in its third edition. The Warhammer RPG was a success — according to Marc it was the best-selling RPG of 1987 in the UK, and the best-selling UK-sourced RPG for many years.
By 1988 GW had largely abandoned selling other manufacturers' games to focus on their own lines. The most significant GW games were: Warhammer, developed into a wargame and RPG; Warhammer: 40,000 (40K), a dark space opera wargame; and Dark Future, a tabletop game played with wargames miniatures set in cyberpunk-tinged alternate world featuring serious urban decay and a lot of car chases. Dark Future, co-authored by Marc Gascoigne, was evidence of a concentration on miniatures-related games as the way forward.
Meanwhile, more commercial opportunities arose. Manufacturers of RPGs had begun generating associational fiction set in their game worlds; TSR had been especially successful with their Weiss and Hickman Dragonlance series. In January 1987, with the Warhammer RPG successfully launched, GW decided to try to launch its own range of 'literary tie-ins' — anthologies of stories, perhaps even novels, set against this background.
The saga of GW fiction had begun.
Mike says, 'Al and I … were offered pretty good sums and signed up. We had no qualms about it, because we felt we had plenty of scope for being creative. We figure we can produce a plot which operates on the periphery of the Warhammer universe, and avoids using as much of their game characters as possible — and, if at all possible, sends them up unmercifully …' Unfortunately, however, the authors found their editorial contacts coming and going, and some in the GW hierarchy seemed to have little idea how to handle authors and the world of book publishing: one executive, says Mike, 'made it clear he wasn't interested in quality, and indeed didn't believe it was possible in anything like fantasy fiction; authors and indeed anybody creative were long-haired pooves you could pick up in the gutter for ten a penny … We decided [the book] could only be written in a wholly unserious, picaresque vein, and even included outrageous caricatures of each other among the main characters, and of certain GW jerks as the villains …'
GW nevertheless approved Mike and Allan's synopsis, but there were disputes with GW over such items as possible infringements of Tolkien copyrights and over foreign rights. Finally the publishers abandoned the GW contract. Mike and Allan rewrote the book, removing the Warhammer references and inventing a new world and rationale. Mike says, 'Retitled A Spell of Empire, it appeared from Orbit — now owned by Little, Brown — in 1992. It was actually quite popular, appearing in four foreign editions as well. It's still one of the books for which I most often get asked about a sequel.'
After this debacle GW tried again. This time Penguin was approached as a possible publisher, and to seek out willing potential professional writers David Langford was recruited.
David was known to GW through his book reviews for White Dwarf, and was then, as now, the greasy hub at the heart of the rickety wheel that is British sf, and so was a good choice for the job. In January 1987 David sent out a form letter to twelve senior figures in the field — established 'names' were needed to sell the proposal to Penguin. The letter was tinged with Dave's unique humour about the 'sleazy proposition' he was outlining, and honest about the nature of the project: 'A god of death called Morr suggests intermittent study of etymology; a god of disease called Nurgle sounds more like the Goon show …' Payment, said David quoting GW managers, would be 'the usual rates plus maybe the odd percentage point, based on this having a greater sales potential than usual …' In February David reported back the mixed results to GW. 'In summary: three YES, seven PISS OFF, and two responses still awaited.'
Among the PO's were John Brunner, who 'strongly disapproved', Chris Evans, to whom it was 'a wholly derivative mishmash … which offers precious little imaginative scope', and Chris Priest, of whom David said, 'I asked him in person and was lucky to escape with my life'. The other PO's were Rob Holdstock, Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle and Ian Watson; the late replies were Bob Shaw and Ramsey Campbell, who later said no. David himself was another gentle refusenik: 'I doubt I could write this flavour of fantasy other than with tongue visibly in cheek.'
Two of the yeses were from Garry Kilworth and Brian Stableford, who were endearingly honest about their motives: 'Your letter arrived on the same day as my bank statement,' said Garry. The third yes came from Terry Pratchett (!): 'What a delightful world, with many original touches. In Robert Robinson's telling phrase, it looks as though the writers learned the language in a hurry in order to sell beads to the natives. But provided no one expects me to take it as seriously as it clearly takes itself, count me in as interested at least as far as knowing what the "usual rates" in this case are.' In a later note Terry wrote, 'I feel a bit like King Herod being invited to write the newsletter for the Bethlehem Playground Association.'
In the end, though, this venture failed when the draft contract proved unacceptable to the writers involved; GW evidently still hadn't got the hang of the business they were trying to enter — and Terry Pratchett never would write for GW.
In 1988, however, GW made yet another attempt to establish a line of tie-in fiction. This time it would be published by GW itself, through a new subsidiary called GW Books. GW recruited David Pringle as series editor and Ian Miller as art editor.
David Pringle recalls, 'Ian Miller … was the person responsible for getting me the job with GW in the first place ... Ian set up the office in Brighton, and he was employed full-time as art editor, on a higher salary than me.' Miller had been an art school tutor of GW art director John Blanche: what Marc describes as Blanche's 'demented Bosch-esque art' became the core of Warhammer imagery.
In 1988 Interzone was six years old, and David Pringle's was a very respectable name in the field of sf. Clearly he would be able to draw on a 'stable' of established and upcoming Interzone authors. David says his own objectives were: 'To get as much money, and publishing opportunities, for the authors as possible. And, of course, it was a living for me as well. I think I started on a salary of £13,000 per annum in October 1988, which rose to £14,000 by the time I left in October 1991.'
There may have been more benign motives too. As Ian Watson recalls, 'Bryan Ansell yearned to read real novels by real novelists set in his beloved domains. David Pringle persuaded Bryan that this could happen, using the stable of Interzone writers, if these writers were offered ten thousand quid in guaranteed royalties per volume.'
Given earlier experiences, one of David's first tasks would be to produce a new contract for his authors; Brian Stableford assisted in this.
As the fiction franchise loomed, there was a sense among some observers that GW's corporatism was worsening. David Langford says that in October 1988, 'I moved my book review column from White Dwarf to GamesMaster … They'd already dropped all independent game reviews in favour of GW product plugs, and it seemed likely that independent book reviews would go the same way — which indeed they eventually did … David Pringle took over the Dwarf book review column after I left, though I believe that stealing my title "Critical Mass" was something imposed on him by GW rather than his own choice! His reviews appeared in #107—#109 and #111. David V. Barrett then got the job — still with my title — from #112 to #115. My run stops with #116, which has no review column; DVB told me (though I don't remember exactly when) that he'd resigned following editorial pressure to dumb down the reviews coverage.'
David Pringle, meanwhile, began to contact potential contributors.
David sent me a stack of GW gaming manuals, which I conscientiously went through. The first stories were to be set in the Warhammer fantasy world, which turned out to be roughly like fourteenth-century Earth, though well stocked with wizards, elves, dwarfs and such. There was much disruption from 'Chaos', the primal stuff of the universe. The material struck me as largely cobbled together from familiar sources, not least Tolkien — Cheryl remarks that Warhammer was 'desperately derivative'. David Langford detected 'oddments from all over the shop', including traces of Lovecraft.
Whatever the origins of the mythos, this was certainly a complex world with a lot of room for stories. I came up with a couple of ideas. The first, a novella called 'The Star Boat', was based on a science fictional nugget I'd noticed inside Warhammer about a long-vanished high-technology race; the story would be about a 'Norse' — Erik the Were, tormented by a trace of werewolf blood — seeking the eponymous ancient spaceship. The second story would be called 'The Song', a light fantasy caper about an elf 'detective'. David liked the ideas, and filtered them through Andy Jones, his games-scenario contact at GW, who asked for minor changes in setting. I began writing the stories — working on trust, as I didn't yet have actual contracts for either of them. I delivered 'Star Boat' by Christmas of 1988 and 'The Song' by the end of January 1989.
In January 1989 David produced 'a few rough guidelines' for us writers. We had to imagine our ideal reader as 'an intelligent 18-year-old', we should avoid sadism and explicit sex, and 'the keynote above all should be fantastic adventure'. The nature of 'Chaos' confused us all, I think. 'It is important to bear in mind that "Chaos" and "evil" are not synonymous. There may be good Chaos gods (in fact the gods of Law themselves derive from the Realm of Chaos …'
Marc Gascoigne says that the 'Chaos' concept was inspired by Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books, which had also influenced Dungeons and Dragons; but the GW designers had an ambition to do the Chaos concept justice — unlike D&D, as they saw it. Marc says that the designers were aware of the debt owed by Moorcock in turn to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions. The Warhammer elves were, says Marc, as much derived from Anderson's The Broken Sword as from Tolkien.
For us authors, though, this kind of thing could be baffling, and not always derivable even from the gaming manuals. But it wasn't arbitrary; we writers learned that the Nottingham priesthood, led by Bryan Ansell himself, guarded their lore carefully. I'd already had editorial comments on my stories from David, but now more comments came from Andy Jones, and also from Ansell. Some of these comments were to do with obscure details of the game world, but others were about the story structure itself, which you would think would have been David's domain. Later, still more comments came in, from William King. Bill was an Interzone writer but he was also a Warhammer gamer with a lot of specific knowledge who would shortly go to work for GW himself. Alex Stewart remembers these experiences with annoyance: '[Bryan Ansell would] issue these pointless dictats like "stories must never be written in the first person" after you'd already delivered a perfectly serviceable draft, for instance.'
With hindsight I can see this wasn't unique to GW; the source material of other franchises like Star Trek is equally tightly controlled. At the time I found it hard to hold my stories together, with one revision after another demanded by a clamour of different voices. But it was all part of the job, I supposed, and I put it down to experience. As it happened, the hardest change I had to make was to turn the elf protagonist of 'Song' into a 'halfling', a character introduced by Alex in another story!
It was difficult for David Pringle too, however. Details of the games 'kept changing from On High, so it was difficult. I was working from an office in Brighton … I used to go up [to Nottingham] about once a month, at least in the first year or so, but on the whole I was cut off from the centre of things and all the day-to-day changes in the games set-ups. Mind you, I wouldn't have had it any other way — it would have driven me crazy to work in Nottingham, in the rather strange atmosphere of GW's main office.'
My 'Star Boat' appeared in the first anthology, called Ignorant Armies, along with stories by William King, Charles Stross (as Charles Davidson), Nicola Griffith, Brian Stableford (as Brian Craig), Kim Newman (as Jack Yeovil), and Paul McAuley (as Sean Flynn, pen-named after Errol Flynn's dead son!). Authors in other early anthologies included Storm Constantine, Eugene Byrne, Charles Platt and Alex Stewart. It was a respectable line-up by any standard.
The book itself was a paperback original but handsomely produced, with a full colour frontispiece and internal illustrations by artists including Jim Burns — although some would think that the 'idiosyncratic cover design may have affected [the book's] general visibility' (Peter Garratt in Interzone 70, March 1991). Marc notes that the first print runs were in the larger B-format, before that format became common in the bookshops, which may also have led to marketing difficulties.
Not everybody used pseudonyms. I used the cunning disguise of 'Steve Baxter', intending an 'Iain M Banks' device of showing it was me but doing something different. I didn't see the point of concealing myself from readers who might be drawn to my other writings, and anyhow I wasn't ashamed of the work. Nicola Griffith similarly recalls, 'I chose not to use a pseudonym for the work-for-hire writing. Almost everyone else thought I was mad … For me it came down to this simple belief: that I shouldn't ever publish anything I wasn't proud and pleased to hang my name and reputation on.'
As for other of the newer writers (including myself), for Nicola the GW work was a learning experience. 'Writing the Warhammer stuff was nothing but good for me … Most importantly [I] learned how to consciously put a story together. By story I mean the character's internal journey plus plot. Up until working on Warhammer, I had used the sit-around-and-wait-to-be-struck-by-the-muse method of story generation (which tends to rely upon the uncertain movement of vast psychological masses which are largely hidden from my conscious perception). In other words, I used to feel a story rather incoherently, then try to write it down. Obviously if you're doing work for hire, that just won't do. With money and deadlines and certain constraints as my goad, I learned to harness feeling (all that lovely literary stuff, the themes and metaphors and interior yearnings, etc) to a sturdy little plot cart. I thought it was a pretty neat trick, and it would have taken me a lot longer to figure out without an imaginary David Pringle hovering over my keyboard saying, "Yes, yes, that's all very well, but something has to happen."'
We enjoyed a launch party for Ignorant Armies. Nicola recalls, '[It was] my first ever book signing — I remember it clearly: me and you and Bill King and Alex [Stewart] and Kim Newman and others signing away in a row at some nasty hotel in Birmingham, drinking free beer. The free beer is why I remember the evening. "Beer" and "free" were two words that in my experience had never been linked before. I'd never done a signing, either, and thought it was all pretty cool.'
The anthology was generously, if a bit incestuously, reviewed in Interzone (no. 33, Jan 1990), by Neil McIntosh and Neil Jones. The latter would later go on to work for GW itself, and the former would one day write for the line. They said, 'So the verdict is a success ... It's a well-balanced and highly entertaining read, both for the gamer (on whom the book must primarily be targeted), and for the orthodox sword-and-sorcery fan.'
The first GW novels meanwhile, also published in 1989, included the first of Brian Stableford's 'Orfeo' trilogy, Zaragoz, and Kim's Drachenfels, the start of his 'Genevieve' vampire series. Brian Stableford enjoyed the work: 'The Warhammer scenario provided me with a golden opportunity to sell work of a kind that I had always been enthusiastic to do, and some of the short stories I did within that scenario are among my most fondly-regarded productions.'
Kim's Drachenfels was reviewed by no less than John Clute in Interzone (no. 35, May 1990). Clute railed a bit about the corporate nature of the project, but detected a subtext in Kim's plot about actors, and in apparent references to various movies, as if 'the whole plot … manages to acknowledge its relationship to the owned world, while at the same time asserting a final freedom'. Kim himself said the plot was inspired by Busby Berkeley.
Something about the Warhammer air inspired Kim. With enviable fluency he would produce seven novels for GW in those first years, as well as contributions to the anthologies. Kim was certainly inventive and playful with material others found constricting. 'I thought [playfulness] was inherent in the material, which had some jokey aspects — the town in the Warhammer version of Spain which is equivalent to Bilbao is called Bilbali, the history of the Empire features an Empress Magritta who came to power in 1979 and oppressed everyone, and in 40K there was some talk that the immortal emperor should be revealed as Cliff Richard.' Marc contrasts this aspect of Warhammer — British and wryly sarcastic — with the humourlessness of D&D. Kim says, 'I naturally responded to some of that and put in the odd satirical or silly touch — from my limited experience of role-playing, I remember that most groups would include a comedian who'd try to be ridiculous, so I guess I was doing the equivalent of that. I also put in some "serious" material as well, mostly about social problems or political corruption, which perhaps balanced the whimsy.' Marc recalls affectionately a section from Genevieve Undead entitled 'The Cold Stark House', a parody of Cold Comfort Farm with vampires. Few readers noticed such touches, however.
Not everybody was polite about the enterprise. In a column for The Face (March 1990) on the state of British sf, Colin Greenland sensed a reinvention of the pulp tradition. 'GW's list is being filled by eager, aspiring novices hiding behind pseudonyms, turning out formula fantasy to editorial direction, just the way it was when Michael Moorcock started 30 years ago'. And in a generally favourable review of Drachenfels in his August 1990 GamesMaster International book column, David Langford wrote: 'Owing to misgivings, I've delayed dipping into Games Workshop's books based on, or set in the world of, or generally tainted by, their Warhammer games. Long ago I was invited to contribute, but after reading the sourcebooks I just couldn't. Perhaps the game plays brilliantly, but its literary background is basic junkfood fantasy and desperately derivative … "Well," said one author who signed up, "sod all that. I did a straight adventure novel and scattered a few Warhammer references to keep 'em happy."'
Even the process of reviewing itself engendered controversy. In an Interzone review (no. 70), Peter Garratt touched on cynical expectations that David Pringle would fill Interzone with GW reviews, noting that on the contrary the books had actually received 'surprisingly little attention considering that they are intelligent, well-crafted modern fantasies'. David Pringle had actually been gratified by the books' wider reception. 'What was particularly pleasing was the excellent reviews several of the early books, particularly Kim's Drachenfels, got in Locus. Obviously, the Locus reviewers had no axe to grind, and they thought the books were pretty good of their sort. So if they were worth reviewing in Locus, for a general sf/fantasy readership, then they were worth reviewing in Interzone too.' An Interzone review by Gwyneth Jones of two 40k books (in no. 46, April 1991) was much more hostile, showing a certain even-handedness.
As for me, I visited the GW headquarters in Nottingham with David in February 1989. I was shown around the small factory, Prince Charles-like, where the game models were painted by hand, and met Bryan Ansell and others. The sense of ownership of their imagined worlds was tangible; it was like a visit to the Vatican.
I continued to develop ideas. As I reworked 'Star Boat' I proposed a long follow-up tale I called 'Wood and Iron', about an invasion of Erik's medieval-fantasy world by high-tech bandits from the 40K world, and for a further follow-up called 'Titan vs. T Rex', in which I would pitch a 40K ambulatory robot against the king lizard. Also by March 1989 I had come up with a 40K novel idea, called Assassin. David took all this stuff in for consideration, and asked me to go ahead with 'Wood and Iron', though again in advance of a contract.
Behind the scenes, though, things were already changing. David Pringle recalls, '[Ian Miller] only lasted a year or so. There was some sort of blazing row between him and Bryan Ansell and Tom Kirby … But I don't know the full details, or I've managed to forget them. I just kept my head down and carried on editing books. So eventually Ian left in a bad temper, and the guy he had brought in as an assistant to us both … also left. So, by late 1989 or early 1990, I was in the Brighton office on my own. After the dust had settled, I suggested to the powers that be that I be allowed to bring in Neil Jones as assistant editor, and that was okayed.'
David was another writer with a playful attitude to the material. 'Character names — often when choosing a name, I'll invent one by taking the first syllable of a surname and adding the last syllable(s) of a different one. Warhammer having such a Germanic influence, I devised various names by using a list of the 1990 (West) German World Cup squad. When we had a couple of German friends staying here, they helped me make up some names which had a particular resonance in German — one of these names being "Litzenreich" (a renegade wizard in the trilogy). Because Gertraut and Rita helped me with these names, I used their names for minor characters in Shadowbreed [Book 2]. But when the book came out in Germany, as Schattenbrut, "Gertraut" was changed to "Gertraud" (but non-Teutonic Rita is still Rita).'
The first book, Konrad, appeared in 1990. David Garnett's strategy had worked; as an Interzone reviewer remarked (no. 74, August 1993), the reader is '[lulled] into the world-view of his central character, who for a long time has little idea of what is going on around him', but the result was that 'the general feel of a complex, fantastical world is impressive'. The 'Konrad' books were less well received critically than some others, but seemed among the most popular with the target market.
Also in 1990 the first books in the Dark Future universe appeared. Kim Newman's Demon Download was the first of a projected series, set up by Kim's novella 'Route 666', published in an anthology of that name.
Dark Future inspired some of the most interesting GW work. Cheryl Morgan recalls, 'Dark Future … started life as a plan for a cyberpunk style role-playing game inspired by books like Neuromancer, Stand on Zanzibar, Make Room Make Room, Bug Jack Barron, The Sheep Look Up, The Space Merchants and so on.' This had been Marc Gascoigne's pet project in his year in Nottingham, and would have been the first cyberpunk RPG, launched just as Gibson's Count Zero was due to hit the shelves. But, Cheryl recalls, 'Then someone at Workshop decided that what they really wanted was a Mad Max style car fighting game. In retrospect that was far more in line with their stated policy of catering for teenage boys who had not yet discovered girls or motorbikes. And of course it would sell a lot more miniatures.' Still, as Marc recalls, as the game's rules editor he was able to transfer much of the background to the original RPG into the car game's rulebook. This echo of the original concept then fed into the novels, especially Kim's.
Kim recalls, 'Because the basics of the game were so thin, there was a lot of latitude to make stuff up, and David Pringle, Alex Stewart, Eugene Byrne, Brian Stableford and I all filled in lots of things. It gets complex because I know Alex and Eugene wrote books that didn't come out in the Dark Future line; my original plan was for two trilogies, but five books — there would be two books about Sister Chantal (my Demon Download, and Eugene's finished but not published Violent Tendency, which we plotted together) and two books about Krokodil (Krokodil Tears and Comeback Tour), with a final collaborative volume (United States Calvary) in which the characters meet and all the plots are resolved. This was to be a collaboration between me and Eugene and we did an outline (it might easily have ended up as more than one book, since there was a lot to get through).' But with the publishing travails to come, this programme was never completed. 'I looked at the outline [of the saga] again recently, and the time has probably passed for it — it's set in the year 2000 and has a lot of now-old-hat millennium material.'
I had been worried by the fact that Assassin would be my first novel, and asked for a year to complete it. But at the time Kim could produce a 70,000-word final draft in just four weeks: 'The schedule I stuck to for most of the GW books was something like this. 7,000 words five days a week for a fortnight, then a week off, then a week to revise. … It did help if I could clear the decks of all other commitments to get a good run at the individual books, and I hope that the momentum I got from writing quickly compensated for the odd rough patch of prose.' Kim said of his Dark Future novel Comeback Tour that three weeks was about as long as he was interested in the idea of Elvis as a mercenary anyhow! Kim's strategy worked, as noted by Peter Garratt in Interzone (no. 70, March 1991): 'The author is said to spend far less time on his writing as Yeovil than as Newman; yet as an inheritor of the pulp tradition, he does best as Yeovil'.
Given my hard-sf credentials, David had asked me to pitch ideas for this space-operatic universe. But I had found 40K a challenge from the start. In the face of overwhelming threats almost all freedom has been sacrificed, and humanity is controlled by the telepathic powers of a bloated, grotesque Emperor. My novel idea, Assassin, was about a rogue imperial guard who hatches a plot to assassinate the Emperor himself. But the GW theocracy said that a rogue guard would simply immediately be killed by those around him, or if not they would be killed in turn. I couldn't see how to generate story ideas in an environment where conflict is impossible and any change suppressed; it was like trying to write stories about an ant hill.
Clearly other writers had the same difficulty. Barrington J. Bayley turned in a few stories on spec, and visited Nottingham to meet Bryan Ansell and others. Seeking room to work in, Barry pitched ideas about non-human 40K characters: the Tyranids, intelligent social insects, and the Eldar, hyper-technological elves. Nothing came of these interesting suggestions, however, despite David Pringle's support. David recalls, 'We had terrible trouble getting GW to accept Barry's stuff. I don't think Bryan Ansell liked it. Luckily, they were willing to take him on later, when they started Black Library, so all his earlier efforts didn't get wasted.'
Charles Stross recalls, 'I remember being sent an invitation to a day-long seminar and being trucked down to Nottingham on a coach to sit in on a session at which [Bryan Ansell] and his minions explained how the spiky space wombles' ethos (which could be summed up as Total! Maximum! Violence! Now!) worked, and how we weren't to take any liberties with their intellectual property. Which they gloated over eerily and at length.'
I did think there was some intellectual depth to it all, though. In Nottingham I had argued with Bryan Ansell over 40K, saying it lacked humanity. Ansell pointed to such examples as teenage Iraqi boys riding scooters across minefields ahead of advancing troops, secure in their belief in a reward in paradise. Even our modern world is full of belief systems quite alien to those assumed by most western sf, he said. Ansell clearly had a strong mind, and a certain vision of what he wanted. But some felt that the design of his 40K universe, and perhaps the Warhammer fantasy universe too, might have been influenced by his personal politics: Cheryl recalls, 'I only met [Ansell] a few times, and the thing that struck me most was his desire to live in a gated community with machine guns on the gates so he could keep the riff-raff out. He had a very Texan view of life.' As Marc recalls, even for those within the company, Ansell was a difficult boss, driven but at times erratic and given to varying impulses; Tom Kirby seems to have exerted a controlling influence.
For me, Ansell was not an easy customer. He exerted a strong ownership of his imaginative domains, and he was certainly not a man to fall out with. I did feel he might have got more out of the high-calibre writers David Pringle had attracted to the project, and to whom he was paying handsome fees, if he had allowed them more creative freedom.
Others found Ansell more nurturing, though. Kim says, 'Bryan Ansell… really liked Drachenfels, and I think overruled some nit-picks about the specifics of the rule-books, which were changing all the time anyway. I remember one of my few meetings in Nottingham, based on the outline of Drachenfels, when someone said that their rules for vampires precluded having one as a heroine and suggesting that Genevieve be an elf and Bryan saying it would be better to change the rules. I used that "couldn't she be an elf?" line in the book, when the nasty actress doesn't want to play a vampire.'
Meanwhile Ian Watson had begun to find his own way through the 40K maze. When initially approached by David Langford in January 1987 he had passed. 'I would have this terrible ethicopolitical problem of writing for a vol to be called Warhammer. Had it only been called Peacefeather!' But, he says, 'Time drifted by till I realized that I rather urgently needed thousands of quid. (This was before Stanley Kubrick came into my life.) …
'When David [Pringle] originally asked me to join in, he tried to steer me towards 40K because I'm an SF writer not a fantasy writer … So I learned the Encyclopaedia Psychotica Galactica and I wrote a trial 40K short story which initially read a bit like a piss-take. Scourged by David, I then hallucinated myself into the 40K milieu, and began to have enormous mad fun in broodingly, Gothically, luridly going over the top. That's when it all gelled, and the "Inquisition War" trilogy came about.'
Inquisitor, the first of Ian's projected trilogy, was published in 1990. The design of Ian's books was cunning. All stories need conflict; the conflict for Ian's hero, Jaq Draco, comes not externally from theologically-dubious cracks in the GW universe itself but from within, as Draco has to shed his humanity to become a tool of the Emperor. Peter Garratt said (in Interzone 70) that Ian delivered 'a convincing portrayal of a desperately flawed society which has to be defended for fear of even worse'. Ian was, said Garratt, 'the Jack Yeovil of the far future'. Ian was pleased with his work; he was another who didn't use a pseudonym for his GW writing.
Ian Watson visited Nottingham a few times, 'most importantly for a meeting aflow with wine and canapés where various of us writers were supposed to thrash out a collaborative novel about Space Marines. One writer would establish the characters and background, then the other writers would follow on in turn. I did the set-up … and nobody else did anything, so I wrote the whole novel, Space Marine, and again had enormous, lurid, hyperbolic fun with it. This was actually in between writing Inquisitor … and writing Harlequin ['Inquisition War' Book 2], into which I recruited one of my space marines as a main character. So really Space Marine belongs with the "Inquisition War" trilogy.'
As for me, I continued to wait for a reaction to my novella 'Wood and Iron', and to my other ideas. But unfortunately, in 1990, I fell out with GW over a late payment. GW promptly cancelled my future projects — including 'Wood and Iron', to my annoyance, which I had completed pre-contract, on trust. GW eventually completed the late payment.
GW could be hard-nosed and even now was not an experienced publisher, and I wasn't the only person bruised in this sort of way. David Pringle recalls, 'Angus Wells … wrote a whole GW novel in the space of a few weeks … I advised him not to, until a contract was signed — and it was duly rejected by Ansell & co. Angus was extremely angry.'
Since I had basically enjoyed the work — indeed I still find it interesting — I thought this was all rather a shame. I was eventually able to rework 'Wood and Iron' and sell it elsewhere. 'Titan vs. T Rex' never saw the light of day, alas; I still think it was a neat idea! Still, I learned some lessons about professionalism for the future.
But the 'Interzone' days at GW were numbered anyhow.
Then came more changes at GW, as Tom Kirby led a new management buy-out. Bryan Ansell, who had wanted to realise some wealth from his assets, retired to Jersey, and went on to run a small wargames company called Wargames Foundry. Though with undoubted strengths, Ansell had been a difficult boss and customer, and some welcomed his departure.
But with Ansell no longer running the operation, the support for the books project reduced further, and the writing opportunities rapidly diminished. Charles Stross says, 'I'd written two stories but failed to convince Dave [Pringle] that maybe he should commission a novel (probably a mixed blessing), and then the supply of anthology contracts dried up … So I was about to start a second 40K story when I got the news: sorry, but only a select few Stakhanovite types were going to stay on, and I wasn't one of them.'
After his single Warhammer story, Paul McAuley had been approached about further work. 'I … had some discussion about doing a space opera series with them, following up Ian Watson's success. I had a jolly nice visit to the offices, and the home of the very hospitable Bryan, admiring his collection of cars, Van Morrison bootlegs, etc. All very civilised …' But this intriguing prospect was never followed up, and Paul did no more work for GW.
As the list went quiescent, authors with unpublished but completed titles became alarmed. David Garnett and Ian Watson both had uncompleted trilogies. Eugene Byrne in fact already had one Dark Future book left in limbo after the game had been discontinued, as did Alex Stewart — though Alex feared he had fallen out with Bryan Ansell over not 'treating his sacred game worlds with the appropriate reverence …' Alex had been quoted in Colin Greenland's Face piece: 'They told me to take out the character development and put in more violence. It's no good learning to work to a formula if it runs counter to everything you're interested in writing about.' As a result, Alex fears, 'My Dark Future novel was dropped from the schedule … the official excuse was either that they were axing the game so they weren't continuing with the books or that Kim's development of the world had moved so far from the source material that it didn't quite fit any more, depending on who you talked to, but I heard from a couple of sources that Ansell had decided to spike it …' Alex negotiated a satisfactory 'kill fee', but there is nothing an author hates more than to be left sitting on unpublished work.
The fact was, however, that there would be no more GW book commissions. David Pringle had been left isolated in Brighton by early 1991, after Neil Jones had completed his planned one-year contract and gone back to his teaching work. And then a freeze was imposed by GW. David recalls, 'The third year [of my employment] was in effect a salaried sinecure for me, because I just carried on my Interzone work from the GW office for that final year — they wouldn't let me publish any more books!' What turned out to be the last GW Books titles were published in May 1991: Brian Stableford's Dark Futures title Ghost Dancers, and Kim Newman's Beasts in Velvet.
In October 1991, David Pringle was made redundant. By November there were rumours that GW Books would fold altogether. GW said they would revive the list in a few months, but this didn't happen.
The story was far from over, however.
David Pringle was consulted. 'I went up to London for a meeting with them, and they offered me a consultant editor's position on the revived line. But there was to be no salary, nor retainer, just a vague promise of a few hundred pounds fee for each new novel successfully commissioned — so I said "no."'
There were ambitious plans to publish the Garnett 'Konrad' books and Watson 40K titles in January 1993, and then Dark Future titles in August 1993. But then the story took another twist. In November 1992 a legal battle broke out between GW / Boxtree and the publishers Bantam/Transworld. The latter had begun to produce a young-adult sf series by the author Laurence James called Dark Future. It was actually Kim Newman who pointed out the coincidence of names. Even though their game had by now been discontinued, GW sought and won an injunction; in early December Transworld were ordered to remove their books from the shops within a week, and were landed with £60,000 costs. With appeals, though, the legal battle dragged on into the next year.
The relevant law, on trademarks and copyrights, is confusing at best, and in this case downright obscure. Laurence James himself compared the wrangle to the Schleswig-Holstein dispute. The result, and what was seen by some as heavy-handed tactics by GW, met with some controversy (for details see Ansible 66 and 67). Kim says, 'The dispute struck me as silly, partly because Dark Future was an inactive game and there were no plans to do more with it. The name wasn't so strong or appropriate to the series (which was set in an alternate world anyway rather than the future) that it couldn't have been changed for something better — my vote was for Route 666, which has been used by books, movies and t-shirts several times since.'
In all this controversy the launch of the first Boxtree titles was put back to February 1993, when Boxtree published David Garnett's 'Konrad' trilogy, including its stranded last part Warblade, Ian Watson's Inquisitor and his unpublished 40K novel Space Marine, and a Jack Yeovil book. We had an enjoyable launch event at a bookshop in Oxford, as I reported for Ansible (no. 68): 'The lead authors gave brief talks and answered questions from a tolerant audience. D. Ferring told us how he'd taken all the jokes out of the "Konrad" books, J. Yeovil told us how the lead in Drachenfels is based on Orson Welles, and I. Watson told us how war-gaming dates back to HG Wells in 1913, and went on to explain to the startled gathering that Warhammer fiction has a certain integrity because — just as in the Warhammer game — for most of history humanity has been driven by mass psychoses based on power fantasies. "Yes, but look on the bright side!" we all cried.'
This recalls comments by Barrington J. Bayley in a recent interview (Interzone 184, Nov/Dec 2002). Because of the detailed 40K background there was 'a lot of labour … before you can even start [working in the 40K universe]', but 'I … like it for its unadulterated grimness. All that's horrible about the 20th century — the murderous authoritarianism, the ruthless racism — are there but are necessary. Humanity would perish without them.'
Over the next couple of years Boxtree reprinted Brian Stableford's 'Orfeo' books and the Pringle Warhammer anthologies, and published for the first time the second and third parts of Ian's trilogy, Harlequin and Chaos Child.
As for original titles, David Pringle had recommended Neil Jones as a consulting editor to Boxtree. 'However, I think Neil found it very frustrating and didn't get a penny out of Boxtree for his efforts. I know he worked with Bill King, commissioning the first of the "Gotrek & Felix" [books] … and he also worked with his friend Neil McIntosh (whose first novel has just now, years later, appeared from the Black Library). I remember I tried, with Neil, to get Boxtree to commission John Meaney as a writer of 40K fiction. I still think John would have been ideal for 40K — that mixture of mysticism and martial arts, hard science and weird ideas, that he goes in for and, indeed, at one point John was primed and willing (I think I got him to read Ian Watson's novels) ... but it wasn't to be.' Another intriguing lost possibility!
Boxtree did commission Kim's fourth and last Dark Future book, Route 666, in October 1993. Kim recalls, 'Route 666 was an expansion of a novella that sets up the whole series … A lot of readers skipped [the novella] and started with the books and got confused by the backstory, so when Boxtree republished I transformed the novella into a novel. This means that the saga now has a beginning, but no real end … Boxtree, who had no gaming background, were perhaps keener on Dark Future than the other, more popular franchises because they could relate to the material more … I liked the people at Boxtree and even talked with them about other things that never happened.'
There was always some tension, however, between GW and its publishing partner. In October 1994 Ian Watson attended a gaming event in Birmingham to celebrate the launch of Harlequin. Boxtree bravely took along three hundred copies of an expensive hardback collectors' edition of the book, wondering whether they could possibly sell so many. All the copies sold out before the signing session ever started. GW promptly banned the sale of the hardback from all of their shops, declaring that it was the wrong size for the shelves (though Ian surmised that at that price maybe it conflicted with the sale of games, on which there was a much higher profit margin). But Ian also feels the keepers of GW truth were hostile to his books for their deviancy: 'The various 40K games were evolving (alternatively, I'm told by various gamers from the High Goth times, they were devolving to capture a younger market), and my books came to seem to GW (a) too idiosyncratic, (b) too wide-ranging, because the focus shifted to more localised actions, and (c) unrepresentative of the state of play, and selling the games was what it was all about.'
Perhaps the relationship between GW and Boxtree could never last; their objectives were too different. In the end Boxtree's licence with GW expired, Boxtree were taken over by Pan, and the project was over. Ian Watson's Chaos Child was the last new GW / Boxtree publication, in June 1995.
On the whole Boxtree had showed its heart was in the right place, even though (as reported in Ansible in December 1993) one PR rep would boast: 'We commission the very best writers — authors like Ian Newman and Kim Watson'.
In 1997 GW began a new publishing programme called the 'Black Library', largely inspired by Tom Kirby. It was to be an imprint of Black Library Publishing, a fully commercial publishing house within the GW group of companies. Marc Gascoigne rejoined GW in 1997 to serve as Publisher, with old hand Andy Jones as CEO. In July 1997 GW launched a magazine of original Warhammer fiction called Inferno! (sic). The first story, just as it had been in Ignorant Armies, was a Bill King piece about Grotek the Trollslayer and his human companion Felix. In August 1999, GW began to publish new Warhammer novels under their new imprint, and would soon republish older titles too.
In the intervening years the core GW business has grown spectacularly. GW has become a multinational, listed on the Stock Exchange, with annual sales of more than £100 million — a long way indeed from its student-enthusiast origins. Ironically GW now markets Lord of the Rings games, thus returning to the heavily mined source of much of its fantasy world. Today Black Library Publishing comprises Black Library, Warhammer Historical Wargames and GW Partworks. The Black Library itself is divided into three units: GW-licensed novels, magazines and special projects. In the future it plans to publish non-GW novels, such as tie-ins with other sf/fantasy franchises.
The Black Library is a much more slick marketing operation than in the past, and its output is enormously more voluminous. The Black Library programmes two releases a month, one Warhammer and one 40K. The books are published in the US and Australia through Simon & Schuster, and are licensed into eight other languages (German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Finnish, Czech and Hungarian). Also, in 2002 alone, there were five graphic novels, thirteen comics, six editions of Inferno!, and four background/art books. White Dwarf is not a Black Library title, but it continues to support the GW wargames; it sells more than seventy thousand copies in the UK every month, and nearly a quarter of a million worldwide. There is even a Warhammer comic. The books are fairly central to the GW project these days. David Garnett says, 'I've recently been told by one of the GW shop managers that the big, detailed manuals [which we used as reference] no longer exist — and that the best way for gamers to find out the background to the Warhammer world is through the novels.'
Nowadays, though, the books are reviewed in SFX rather than in Interzone — I suppose a sign that Black Library know their market better — though GW do send David advance copies of all their novels. SFX reviews are not unintelligent, however: 'Although all the Warhammer authors are working within the same universe, it's interesting to see how each of them finds their own corner of it to mine and explore …' (Eddie Robson, SFX December 2002). And they can be critical: 'Writing according to a predetermined codex of monsters, weapons, spells and tortuous clichés seems, well, like literary karaoke' (Sam Croft, January 2003).
Over 2001—2 many of the old GW Books works were brought back into print — including my own story 'The Song', in a collection called The Laughter of Dark Gods — and books by Kim Newman, Brian Stableford and Ian Watson. David Garnett's 'Konrad' books have been republished. Kim has published a short story collection: 'I proposed that all my shorter Warhammer fiction be collected — there was an unpublished novella ("Warhawk") from the first run and I did a new one ("The Ibby the Fish Factor") to make the collection book length and provide some sort of closure for a few of the overall plot threads I was working on. It also means I could follow the Tory-bashing of the old books with a few digs at New Labour … The Black Library folk seem to be enthusiastic and interested in a way GW missed after David Pringle and Neil Jones left the set-up.' As the Dark Future game remains discontinued, arguably Kim's best books as Jack Yeovil have been long out of print; but Marc Gascoigne says that a reactivation of Dark Future is a possibility for the future.
Meanwhile the challenge of complying with the Warhammer universes continues beyond the grave, so to speak. For a long time Black Library remained reluctant about Ian Watson's 'Inquisition War' books. 'My books looked as though they would never be reissued, despite me receiving umpteen e-mails from Desperately Seeking in America, Australia, Germany, wherever. After I had banged on at the Black Library for several years about all these e-mails I had to answer, GW finally decided to reissue my "classics" with fictional prefaces denouncing the books, my suggestion, as tissues of heresy and lies, the ideal solution …
'This was preceded by a bit of a tussle between the Black Library and the games designers. In the reprint of my earlier story "Warped Stars" in the new Deathwing anthology, my lovely Grimm the Squat with nits in his beard, a comic foil, was altered to boring Grill the Tech Priest without me being consulted. The games designers insisted on this because the Squats had been expunged from the 40K universe and were no longer current in games. If the same thing had happened to my "Inquisition War" reprints this would have seriously damaged them because Grimm the Squat plays such a central narrative role as a foil. But the Black Library held out successfully for retaining him …' The books eventually reappeared, though Inquisitor was retitled Draco to avoid confusion with a similarly-titled product.
Ian says, 'I think I probably would do a fourth book in the … "trilogy" because I had intended to (Boxtree certainly wanted me to). My characters are left in a bit of a predicament, one mad, one dead, and I should do something about this since I rather care for them. But I would have to do the book in the same spirit as the previous three, or else it wouldn't make sense, so it would need another preface denouncing it.' Marc says that a conclusion to the 'trilogy' is under discussion. Space Marine won't be returning as, apparently, its central concepts are too far from the changed world of the game, but Black Library are considering making it available online.
But Ian's more literary efforts no longer sit so well in this somewhat more downmarket milieu, where more basic story-telling qualities are prized. 'There's a mannered quality to Watson's writing that runs through the whole novel, to the point of distraction,' opines Eddie Robson, in a review of the reissued Harlequin (SFX December 2002).
Brian Stableford has published two new books, including a 40K novel called Pawns of Chaos. But the old constraints remain. Pawns was 'rather unsatisfactory from everyone's viewpoint, but [I] was unable to do any more because I found it impossible to adapt my working practices to the straitjacket of their guidelines.'
Alex Stewart has also gone back to GW. '[After GW] reprinted my old Warhammer story in The Laughter of Dark Gods ... I ended up being invited to do some shorts for Inferno! … They liked the first one so much I'm doing a series for the magazine about the same character [the Flashman-esque Commissar Ciaphas Cain], and I've just signed a contract to spin him off into a novel [to be called For the Emperor!]. I have to say they're a lot more professional and easy to deal with these days … The Stalinist horrors of the Ansell era are long gone ... Feedback is quick and supportive, rewrites are only requested for continuity reasons or to make something work better, and I'm positively encouraged to subvert the source material if I feel like it.'
Other familiar names show up in the Black Library from time to time. Though he didn't sell to the original GW Books line, Barrington J. Bayley contributes to the fiction magazine, and has published a 40K novel called Eye of Terror. He had plans for a sequel, but this has not been commissioned. Intriguingly for me, one of Bayley's stories, published in 1999, is a 'Titans v dinosaurs' story called 'Battle of the Archaeosaurs' …
One member of the Interzone generation who never emerged from his immersion in the GW universes is William King. Now in his forties, Bill continues to write for the magazines and novels in both the 40K and Warhammer worlds. That innocent-looking first story in Ignorant Armies fourteen years ago, about Gotrek and Felix, has spawned a series of seven books so far (some of this material developed from the short stories), starting with Trollslayer. Bill is also working on a 40K series about a warrior called Ragnar, whose 'ancient primal instincts [are] unleashed by the implanting of the sacred Canis Helix' (to me, Ragnar sounds a bit like my Erik the Were!). Bill dabbles with original fiction still, but gaming was his love long before he was a published writer. I am pleased for him, but I admit I'm happy I'm not still writing about Erik!
There are also many new names, however. Marc lists his key current authors as Bill King (Gotrek & Felix, Space Wolf, the Eldar series), Dan Abnett (Gaunt's Ghosts, the Eisenhorn series), Graham McNeil (the Ultramarines series), Gav Thorpe (Last Chancers, the Slaves to Darkness series), with another dozen new writers on their second or third title. Dan Abnett, who has written for a variety of franchises from Scooby Doo to Thunderbirds and 2000AD, has contributed (to date) some nine 40K novels and two Warhammer novels to the Library, along with various graphic novels. Marc says Abnett is the Black Library's best-selling writer; the first Gaunt's Ghosts book sold more than 50,000 copies and his total sales are fast approaching 325,000 copies, with Bill King not very far behind those figures.
Abnett's Honour Guard, a 40K epic published in 2001, is perhaps typical of the modern output. The premise is intriguing enough, as maverick commander Ibram Gaunt leads his loyal band of 'Ghosts' on a quest to save the relics of the ancient saint who first led humanity to the stars. The core of the book's appeal is surely soldiering's black and timeless glamour: Marc says that Abnett's original brief was 'Sharpe in space', but Gaunt has grown into a war-set Band of Brothers soap opera: through endless battles, the Ghosts are welded together by loyalty to each other and their commander. Even in this tightly controlled universe these troopers will argue with the pig-headed buffoons back in HQ, and will defy orders to save each other. The characters are not cardboard; one soldier submits to a kind of shell shock, and when things go wrong, Gaunt is willing to drink himself to oblivion.
But this is no ordinary war-porn shocker; inhabitants of the 40K universe, the Ghosts are soldiers of the God-Emperor of Mankind. Endless war is seen as man's natural condition: 'The Imperium is great, its wonders are manifold, but what of it would remain but for war? … Nothing … War is eternal. It is only mankind that is finite' (p. 210). Civilians envy soldiers, and the small things of 'normal' life — markets, churches, homes — are just the backdrop for the soldiers' biographies.
And in the 40K universe — as in Greek dramas — saints and demons are real entities who intervene in mortal affairs. The 40K pantheon may have a space-operatic justification in alien intruders and ancient technologies — 'We have detected an enemy fleet massing and moving through the immaterium towards us' (p. 92) — but 40K has little to do with the rational tradition of much hard sf. In this universe, to misquote Arthur C. Clarke, technology is indistinguishable from miracle. Gaunt and his crew are deeply religious: they really believe that 'the Emperor is god in flesh, and [they] live to serve him in peace and war'. And so they have absolutely no moral doubt about what they're doing. Perhaps they are like the more zealous of the Crusaders.
You have to admire Abnett's achievement in generating conflict, essential for any story, without violating the rules of the 40K universe: Gaunt will break orders, for instance, if they conflict with his faith, which supersedes everything else. And Abnett certainly succeeds in giving you a sense of what it would be like to inhabit such a universe. But in the unironic depiction of Gaunt and his warriors I sensed resonances with the modern world, in which the troops of Bush's America, armed with high technology and, it seems, unshakeable conservative-Christian faith, descend on places like Bosnia and the Gulf. Perhaps Barry Bayley and Ian Watson were right; perhaps the nightmarish vision of 40K is more like our own world than I am comfortable admitting.
However I'm not decrying the achievements of the GW fiction project. Marc says the Black Library ethos today is to produce 'solid, pulp entertainment that harks back to the books that lured us all into sf and gaming (Moorcock, Leiber, Anderson, etc) — but not cheap, slapdash junk. We have to be proud of what we produce, and we are. And these are books to be sold to all fans of sf/fantasy entertainment, in bookshops. In 2000 GW won a National Library Association gold award for services to literacy — it seems we're helping 14 year old boys to come back into libraries. We're rather proud of that. Oh, and some of our novels are most assuredly written in the first person, and very good they are too.'
Many of the writers involved look back with reasonable fondness at the GW experience. Brian Stableford says, 'I am very grateful to Games Workshop for the crucial contribution they made in enabling me to become a full time writer (all too briefly, alas) in 1989. Any slight problems that have arisen over the years — some because they had little experience in publishing when they first set out, others in consequence of changes in their overall policy dictated by events and fashions in the game market — pale into utter insignificance in my eyes by comparison with the enormously beneficial effects they have had, from time to time, on my ever-meagre finances … The Warhammer scenario has shrunk considerably over the years, and the opportunities for invention have shrunk with it, but I was still able to work productively within it until very recently; I am very glad to have had the opportunities that it provided … I hope their publishing arm (and, indeed, their entire operation) continues to flourish.'
Nicola Griffith is considering a return to her Warhammer tales, but on her own grounds. 'I've been thinking about writing a big ol' sword-swinging fantasy novel based on some of the characters I created for "The Other" (which was in Ignorant Armies) and "The Voyage South" (Red Thirst). The people at Games Workshop were kind enough a few years ago to give me permission to use the characters and plot as long as I change their names and leave out any proprietary Warhammer stuff … I've been thinking more and more about the young woman in "The Other", who she is, what it must have been like to live in that milieu, how it might feel to go through that kind of change, to constantly fight to maintain a kind of interior balance, and I want to see what happens. But that's what all my work is about, in the end: change.'
Writers cherish all their work, whatever the marketplace. Kim Newman says, 'I like the [old GW] books. Maybe because I did them so fast, I can be surprised by what I've forgotten was in them. I was also pleased that readers and critics responded to the fact that they weren't cynical crap — which, in my ignorance, I assume the average role-playing spin off or even "original" fantasy trilogy to be. I think it's a shame that they never "crossed over" and were read by a general fantasy audience outside GW's already-devoted role-playing lads (I always tried to write stuff girls would enjoy as much as boys), but I suppose that could still happen.' (Marc says, though, that this kind of crossover is happening in the US, where perhaps 50-60% of sales are to people who are not familiar with the games.)
Ian Watson says, 'My 40K fiction, which is rather unlike anything else that I write, is possibly my most popular in terms of sales and fan-mail … So I feel no qualms at all about having written 40K fiction and putting my own name on it … The interaction I've had, and still have, with a whole different range of people beyond the core SF community, is rather rewarding. I have actually had fan-mails from some readers of my 40K fiction saying that I had "changed their lives." For me, that's what writing is about.'
Dan Abnett, Honour Guard (Black Library, 2001; page numbers from this edition).
Barrington J. Bayley. Warhammer 40K: Eye of Terror (Black Library, 1999).
David Garnett (as David Ferring).
Warhammer: The 'Konrad' trilogy:
Konrad (GW Books, 1990).
Shadowbreed (GW Books, 1991).
Warblade (Boxtree, 1993).
Kim Newman (as Jack Yeovil).
Drachenfels (GW Books, 1989).
Beasts in Velvet (GW Books, 1991).
Genevieve Undead (Boxtree, 1993).
Silver Nails (Black Library, 2002).
Krokodil Tears (GW Books, 1990).
Demon Download (GW Books, 1990).
Comeback Tour (GW Books, 1991).
Route 666 (Boxtree, 1994).
David Pringle, ed. Warhammer:
Ignorant Armies (GW Books, 1989).
Wolf Riders (GW Books, 1989).
Red Thirst (GW Books, 1990).
The Laughter of Dark Gods (Black Library, 2002).
Route 666 (GW Books, 1990).
Death Wing (GW Books, 1990).
Brian Stableford. Warhammer: the 'Orfeo' trilogy
Zaragoz (GW Books, 1989).
Plague Demon (GW Books, 1990).
Storm Warriors (GW Books, 1991).
Wine of Dreams (Black Library, 2000).
Ghost Dancers (GW Books, 1991).
Pawns of Chaos (Black Library, 2001).
Space Marine (Boxtree, 1993).
The 'Inquisition War' trilogy:
Inquisitor (aka Draco) (GW Books, 1990).
Harlequin (Boxtree, 1994).
Chaos Child (Boxtree, 1995).
Stephen Baxter is the author of numerous novels and short story collections, most recently Emperor and Resplendent.
This article first appeared in Vector 229. Back issues of Vector are available from email@example.com