Monday, December 27, 2010

Ian Watson's "Space Marine"

Black Library’s novels situated in its 40K universe are dark, claustrophobic, mesmerizing, habit-forming, and purposefully Gothic. Over the last twenty years it has gathered some of the most talented young writers in the intellectual property arena to develop its mythology and fluff; however, before William King, Dan Abnett, Graham MacNeill, and Gav Thorpe penned a word, Barrington J. Bayley and Ian Watson forged through the Warp to create a mythos.

Watson, one of Britain’s most creative science fiction authors, birthed the puissant and baroque world of 40K in his novel, Space Marine, by reading Game Workshop’s table-top games’ manuals and rulebooks. A decade after its release, in an interview with Attila Galambos, Watson testified that in order to make the book believable “he hallucinated himself into the characters.” He imagined the 40K universe as a “place of madness,” ruled by a psychic corpse, and a world, where in order to survive one had to go mad. He likened the 40K universe to a dream world that one escapes to experience a transformational reality, akin to the trance-like states of a shaman.

Although Watson was very proud of his work, the novel went out of print for many years. As a result, a robust market in used copies developed on e-Bay and even I found myself shelling out seventy-five Australian dollars to a bookseller in Sydney many years ago for a ragged copy of the book. But now Black Library has re-issued the novel in an attractive POD (print on demand) edition which cost me considerably less than the used paperback.

Upon re-reading the novel, I must say it is one of the strangest, most bizarre examples of psychotic poetry to emerge from a genre revered and distinguished for its ability to generate unique images and fantastic ideas. Watson writes that David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus is his literary lodestone and its influence is felt.

Unfortunately, I will wager that some of the current die-hard 40K fans will be disappointed because Watson’s fluff does not fit the current mythology and perhaps is more literary than they would like (i.e. poetic). Ultimately, true aficionados of 40K and mainstream science fiction should embrace the novel as a classic and enjoy it for its strengths and inventions.

The novel begins with three young protagonists, citizens of the Trazior Hive, an arcology on the planet Necromunda, engaged in gang warfare. In a spare three pages, Watson introduces his three young protagonists: Yeremi Valence, the son of a technician, Biff Tundrish, a scumnik, and Lexandro d’Arquebus, son of the Calculator Maximus. Each protagonist belongs to a gang and the novel begins with the collision of three levels of the hive, represented by three young gangs, battling each other in brutal warfare.

Because of a trade war between rival hives, the Planetary Defense Force dragoons the gangs to serve in the PDF and, as Watson puts it, fortuitously brings the three warriors within the purview of the Imperial Fists Space Marines. The Imperial Fists are sine qua non of the space marine mythos. Their primarch, Rogal Dorn, during the rebellion, was assigned to guard the Emperor; and, as such, they developed their abilities for defense and attack. They fortified Terra and defended the earth and the Emperor. In the 41st millennium they are based on the Phalanx, a gigantic space ship, and their task is to defend humanity against the incursion of vile aliens and the daemons of Chaos.

From their induction into the Imperial Fists, the three youths struggle to survive and succeed. However, they bring with them their antipathy against the other, although as citizens of Necromunda they are more alike than different. Through the catalyst of marine induction, a bond develops between the three in which they each assume a role in an odd triumvirate and learn that their respective survival depends on the other. Remembering Watson’s analysis of the 41st millennium as a time of madness, the bond between the three men is dysfunctional and psychotic. It is this fact, this psychological nuance, which raises Space Marine from the ranks of space opera to literary science fiction.

In addition to the novel’s psychological complexity, there is also exquisite language. Each sentence is poetical and rigorous. At times, I found myself reading the prose as if it were poetry. Some of the sentences actually scan and Watson uses alliteration to dramatic effect. Here is just one of a myriad of examples: “The triple, bleached spires of Trazior arose from deep drifts of desiccated industrial excrement to pierce foul clouds on the far southerly fringe of the Palatine mega-cluster.” The sense of literariness continues through his use, like Gene Wolfe, of obscure vocabulary and technical terms from science and philosophy, as he quickly follows the three men’s rise to become battle-brothers.
Within the story of their maturation, Watson introduces the reader to the world of 40K. In his mythos, though, orks, the signature villains of the current crop of 40K novels, are simply space-faring pirates, and squats (dwarfs) are minions of Chaos, while the true enemies are the daemons oozing out the Warp and the ruthless Tyranids, who manipulate genes of sentient creatures to create monstrous armies of illimitable size.

Watson’s novel is a thrilling foray into the beginning of the 40K mythos and its literary prose, its psychological underpinnings, and its fantastic images of gore and mayhem make it a fun and unnerving read.

Ultimately, Space Marine contains the gene-seed of all later 40K space marine novels and can properly be called the godfather of its genre. On a literary historical level, it stands with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, and John Steakley’s Armor and illustrates most definitely that the Black Library franchise is one the most literary of the intellectual property imprints. Watson’s pioneering efforts marked the trail for the likes of Abnett, MacNeill, King and Thorpe.

As a companion to Space Marine, I also recommend Deathwing, a collection of 40K short stories, and Gav Thorpe’s Angel of Darkness.

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