WARHAMMER 40K AND THE QUEER DARKNESS OF THE FETISH-FIRST MILLENNIUM
I’ve seen this tweet bounced out by enough different people that I have no idea of the original author:
And I guess the sentiment is on the nose for a lot of Gen Xers, but here in Gen Y I was promised something even bleaker:
The future, as described in every Warhammer 40,000 book introduction:
“To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”
“I’m here to talk about how queer it all is, and how that’s fabulous.”
When day one of the Trump administration sees the deletion of all reference to climate change and LGBT rights from the White House website, it feels like the present is catching up with the grimdark. Warhammer 40,000 is the ultimate child of the 1980s, a witch’s broth of heavy metal, 2000AD, British satire, Foundation, Dune, Starship Troopers, The Lord of the Rings, anything by Michael Moorcocke and just a hint of Monty Python, stirred together by some hairy British Midlanders and then digested for thirty years in the belly of the nigh-Lovecraftian corporate entity Games Workshop. A roadmap for a new global fascism.
I’m here to talk about how queer it all is, and how that’s fabulous. Let’s start with the male body of the 41st Millennium.
Warhammer 40,000 is a setting defined by war and by extension the (overwhelmingly male) body. This permeates the design of the toy soldiers that players use in the game, the art that depicts them, the language that describes them. The male body is scrutinized and explored in a way that it never is in Star Wars or even Call of Duty and it’s often on show, whether in text, art or plastic. Here is an Imperial Guard command squad from the Catachan faction, a jungle-based military unit that only employs muscle daddies:
The genetically enhanced Space Marines who are the setting’s iconic army are the pinnacle of this aesthetic. Their bodies are altered at a physiological and genetic level to make them superior soldiers and their physique, musculature, even their sweat, is scrutinized in minute detail. Here’s one of the Space Marines’ canonical super-adaptations:
The glib observation is that the galaxy’s first line of defense is an army of oily muscle men, but consider – there are twenty of these adaptations, itemized and carefully considered. This is a classic aspect of objectification, the disassembly of the person into their parts. And Space Marines are certainly objectified, both in the literal sense that we buy and paint toy Space Marines, but also that they are referred to as weapons as often as they are men: the hammer, sword, spear of the Imperium of man.
“The galaxy’s first line of defense is an army of oily muscle men.”
The human and superhuman male of the far future isn’t presented with intentional lasciviousness, but it’s also not the contemporary hetero-normative presentation – which valorizes the fit and demonizes the fat, but rarely scrutinizes or lingers on either. It’s a queer body.
The female body is presented as well, and as you would expect from a geek property predominately designed by and marketed at men it has a lot in common with comic-book femininity – prominent busts and wasp waists. Yet in the 41st Millennium the effect is not what we might expect. Consider John Blanche’s archetypal artwork for the Sisters of Battle (nuns with guns), a piece that still defines their model line:
Form-fitting black leather, corset, boob-plate armor (skull-boobs, admittedly), and just look at that high-heeled boot stamping on that naughty, naughty skull. Canoness Veridyan is a domme, and she is not impressed with you at all, you silly little heretic. Sisters of Battle are sexy, but just like videogame domme Bayonetta, that sexiness is Not For You. It’s not clear who they are being sexy for. The dominatrices of the far future are heavily armed religious celibates.
They’re joined in their sexual non-normativity by the Dark Eldar, who male and female alike are dressed for a long night at a leather party:
Dark Eldar are merciless space elves, sadists and slave-takers. They’re the last true adherents of a cult of decadence that almost destroyed their race, existing outside conventional space and torturing other species to keep a metaphysical enemy from eating their souls. Presumably these guys fuck, and fuck plenty, but it’s not something you want to be involved in unless you’re really into “literal physical dismemberment”. They take the sadomasochistic conjunction of sexuality and violence to an extreme.
The conflict between the visual language of sci-fi and fantasy in geek culture, which tends towards sexualization, and the iconography of militaria and a push for ever-greater-grimdarkness, creates a space where BDSM and queer physicalities can out-compete hetero-normative ones. This classic illustration from 1990s skirmish game Necromunda shows a gang-fighter from a densely populated industrial world plainly dressed in a leather bondage harness; the combination of violently exaggerated muscularity and the coding of leather-and-studs for warfare have by design or accident created a very homoerotic figure:
Or these gang-fighters of House Escher, a science fiction interpretation of the Amazon myth. ’80s punk and club fashion combine with warrior-muscularity to create a model line with many queer signifiers:
Yet at the heart of the 41st Millenium is a huge ellipsis where we would expect to find heteronormative sex, and particularly its hideous shadow, sex as a tool of war. Here’s a description from the recent Traitor Legions supplement of the atrocities committed by the Emperor’s Children Chaos Space Marines, followers of the debauched God of excess, Slaanesh:
“…the Emperor’s Children invaded Earth but took little part in the fighting around the Imperial Palace. Instead they descended upon the civilian population… While their allies fought and died the Emperor’s Children slaughtered more than a million people and rendered them down to create endless varieties of drugs and stimulants. Countless thousands more died to give the Emperor’s Children more direct, if cruder, enjoyment.”
While the idea of turning people into drugs couldn’t be more metal if Nathan Explosion came up with it, notice how there is no explicit acknowledgment of the sexual dimension to the Emperor’s Children’s crimes. Likewise the Dark Eldar’s torture of their prisoners is described in sometimes worrying detail, but not their sexual assaults. Space Marines are not even acknowledged as sexual and have a surrogate reproductive method that involves transplanting germinal organs into an adolescent subject. Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels might admit to sexual attraction between characters, but it is never more than a brief aside from the high-octane violence and cod Latin. We can speculate on the reasons for this. Obviously sexual violence is a bridge too far for a toy retailer (while genocide is not), and positive sexuality is largely beside the point of a property defined by violence.
Perhaps the success of the Space Marine power fantasy is telling: Space Marines are ordinary boys abducted from the confusion of adolescence and indoctrinated into an exclusively male, sexless military order, made powerful beyond imagination, duty-bound to high-octane warfare, with no space for the doubts and confusions of conventional human relationships. The adrenalized simplicity of warfare, as perceived by an adolescent non-combatant, is an attractive escape from the emotional complexity and challenge of sexual adulthood – a compelling fantasy for the man-child of the Western world. Regardless of reasons, the masters of the Warhammer 40,000 universe are so averse to talking about sex they can’t even acknowledge in print that the adherents of Slaanesh, god(dess) of lust, excess and sensation, whose demon servants are lithe, naked and sport anywhere up to six fulsome breasts, sometimes engage in a spot of nooky.
“If the grim darkness of the far future has ample room for queer reality then we in the present can make damn sure it fits in here.”
The inability to express sexual reality creates a gap into which queer sexualities can creep, and the bigger the gap the queerer a reader, fan theorist or slash/fic author can be without doing violence to the fiction. Hetero-normativity fails to assert itself. So I can claim that Space Marine chapters are arranged into pairs of male lovers, in the style of the ancient Greek Sacred Band of Thebes, or that the secret Wolf Lodge in Horus Rising has resonances with a San Francisco gay bath house, and the text says nothing back. Space Marines don’t acknowledge sex, and they don’t acknowledge the lack of it, to the extent that it’s hard to say they are even definitively asexual. Behind such a wide veil there could be anything. The attempt to realize the blackest black has made a negative space in which we can infer the pinkest pink.
Back in reality the business of living is about to get harder for non-hetero-cis white males in the USA. Gamers should already be familiar with the beast; the effluent tide that swept Trump into office began to rise with Gamergate. God knows what it’s going to take to deal with this – protests and punching Nazis. And those of us who are far from the front need to claim as much of reality as we can, as much of the territory of ‘normal’, make sure that every fiction is an intersectional space where by design or omission the only coherent paradigm is “love who you will, be who you are.” If the grim darkness of the far future has ample room for queer reality then we in the present can make damn sure it fits in here. Fuck the alt-right. Push back the front line of what is normal. Always paint your Space Marines pink.