(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter Warhammer 40K) is epic space fantasy at its most nightmarishly dystopian. As in many other science fiction and fantasy scenarios, humanity must be defended at all costs. A military roleplaying game developed in the UK in the 1980s by Games Workshop, Warhammer 40K evolved into a multifaceted setting. The RPG presents many examples that could answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?" On this occasion, I'm choosing to focus on the Space Marines.
In the far future, the human race has many enemies. These range from political dissidents to religious heretics on one end to ravenous aliens like the Tyranids, the corrupting influences of Chaos daemons, and the ever-present Orks. (Unlike Tolkien's creations, Games Workshop based their Ork design on soccer hooligans.) How is humanity even to stand a chance amidst all the daemons, heretics, and aliens? I don't play the game, but I am an avid reader of Black Library's countless novels associated with Warhammer 40K. It's Guilty Pleasure reading I discovered while a grad student. While writing quality varies with the writer, the game setting is wonderfully complex and the set-piece battle scenes are enjoyable to read.
The Imperium of Man operates as the bulwark against these various enemies. Aiding in its perpetual struggle, the Imperium possesses Inquisitors, Commissars, the Imperial Guard, and the Space Marines. Wasn't expecting the Inquisition? To those who don't, they have harsh punishments. This dystopia is utterly lacking in comfy chairs, soft pillows, and two, no three! three last chances. Commissars are styled after the ones in the Soviet Union and their uniform design is reminiscent of the Nazis. The Imperial Guard is the Imperium's vast Redshirt Army (the trope name taken from Tvtropes.com) of the untold billions who were recruited or volunteered. But the cream of the crop are the Space Marines, humanity's last best hope for salvation.
Space Marines are nothing like their human counterparts in the Imperial Guard. Standing at nine feet, genetically modified, with redundant internal organs, and, on occasion, other specific superpowers, the Space Marines push the envelope of humanity. Herein lay the internal paradox of Warhammer 40K. The Imperium of Man is, by necessity, hierarchical, absolutist, dictatorial, religiously tyrannical, and racist. But not racist in the narrow sense like with Nazi ideology or the KKK, but in a broader sense, one that sees humanity as the Superior Race. Does that make Space Marines superior to humans? Some, like the traitorous Warmaster Horus, seem to think so. He rebelled against the Emperor, sided with Chaos, and set about tearing the Imperium asunder in a galaxy-spanning civil war.
The paradox of the Space Marines would never be voiced in-game by a character, since he or she would be crushed or annihilated for spreading such foul thoughts of sedition. But how can one defend the genetic purity of the human race with genetically modified superwarriors? It's an inescapable conundrum, because without the Space Marines, humanity would face immediate obliteration. Space Marines do not reproduce like humans either, with dead Space Marines having their gene-seeds harvested by Space Marine medics. They are closer to clones, albeit with the exceptional actual human recruited into the fold. Unlike humans, Space Marines do not die from old age, although they definitely can get killed. The immortality and clone-like nature set them further apart from humanity. In addition, a legion like the Space Wolves have non-human superpowers. Space Wolves, when given to a certain warfare-induced madness, unsheathe a set of wolf fangs and behave like Viking werewolves. (Yes, these are the good guys.) Except for being bipedal and having opposable thumbs, the Space Marine has very few similarities with the humans they are sworn to defend. (A more realistic example would be France's Foreign Legion, sworn to defend France yet comprised of foreign and colonial volunteers.)
During the Great Crusade that occurred in the 30,000s, prior to the Horus Heresy, the Space Marines fanned out from Earth to reclaim the millions of inhabited worlds for the greater glory of the Emperor. In these campaigns, the Space Marines committed countless acts of genocide. The genocides came in various forms -- against alien species, humans under daemonic possession, and political dissidents. In one story, the Space Marines slaughter several thousand humans, not because they worshiped the Emperor as a god, but because they were worshiping him in the wrong manner.
Over the last couple years, the Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop, has published an ongoing series chronicling the Horus Heresy. Unlike Warhammer 40K with its decrepit Emperor, crumbling galactic infrastructure, and perpetual threat of human extinction, readers of the Horus series enjoy seeing the Imperium of War in its nascent glory. Amidst the countless conquests and victories, we see the Emperor in his youthful vigor. Put another way, the Space Marine is superhuman, the Primarchs who run the Space Marine legions are superior Space Marines, the Warmaster Horus stands superior above all the Primarchs, and the Emperor of Mankind stands above Horus like a living god.
In the dark dystopian vision of Warhammer 40K, being human means life in the most Hobbesian sense: cold, nasty, brutish, and short. Yet the preciousness of humanity means creating an arrayed internal and external defense system to preserve this weak little species. Coming to the human's aid is the Space Marine; and while not human in the pure genetic sense, the Space Marine will die to save the human species from any foe foolish enough to cross his path. Chainsword optional.
Coming May 4: The "Culture" Novels of Iain Banks