Jumping the Fence

It seems that licensed and tie-in fiction is bubbling around the writerly consciousness at the moment. James Swallow talks about novelisations, Dan Abnett’s guest blog at Borders looks at tie-in fiction and comics, while Dan also had an interesting conversation with Mark Charan Newton about the literary worth (or perceived lack) of tie-in fiction.

It used to be the case that I had one foot on either side of the fence when it came to the Black Library. By day I was a games developer, evening and weekends saw me in my guise of swashbuckling author. One of the roles of the GW games developers is to liaise with Black Library, answering their questions and generally providing consultation. The BL editors are well-versed in the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 so it was usually the case that inquiries directed to games dev would concern either very specific questions, or areas where the existing background was unclear or perhaps contradictory.

For the most part these discussions revolved around extrapolations by the authors, extending areas of the backgrounds into subjects that were not relevant to the material needed for  tabletop wargames – ‘Does this sound right?’ or ‘Is this how it would work?’. It was rare that we would be passed anything that was so hideously off-the-mark that the story or novel was completely verboten (“we’ve had this story about squats…”). Far from being the black jackboot of authoritarianism, I like to think that we provided possible solutions to problems that cropped up. Sometimes an author or an editor might have a situation they need resolved and would ask for background-friendly suggestions. For instance, an author might want orks invading a moon, but was not sure how the greenies would operate on an airless world. Rather than say that would never happen, we would have a think about it and provided some viable answers (probably something with mobile forcefields in this case…).

That was the day job.

The ability of an author to write within an established setting isn’t about knowing every single detail of the background (though targeted research is always good), it is about understanding the style and ethos of that universe. With a grounding in the principles of that world, an author can extend the logic (or lack) to cover places, people and situations not explicitly detailed in the source material. That’s sort of the point of tie-in fiction; to expand on what is already published, not simply package it up in a slightly different form.

Having been inculcated in the mysteries and ways of Warhammer and 40K for years, I was in the enviable position as an author of being able to say to an editor ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it works’. After all, if they were uncertain about something, it was me they were going to ask… I was going to say this put me in a unique position, but unfortunately those Jonny-Come-Latelies  Graham McNeill, Andy Hoare and Ant Reynolds have all made the transition from games developer to author. I’m sure if you ask them on their blogs they’ll be able to tell you about their own experiences in this regard.

Gamekeeper Turned Poacher

Two years ago I abseiled to freedom from my bare cell in the Ivory Tower and embarked on a life of freelance skullduggery. For a while nothing really changed. For a start, the novels I had planned or was working on were all concocted while I was on the ‘inside’.

But that is changing… New books are still being written, new background is still being created. I no longer have the inside track. For the most part this doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s not like those fundamentals I talked about are going to change. Space Marines are still Space Marines, Lizardmen are still Lizardmen. But now there’s more about them. New characters spring into life, new battles are related, new places explored.

For me, this is no more evident than with the Horus Heresy series. I’m aware of the general picture and the major characters involved, but that series is in essence a new universe, with its own rules and logic. My first foray into the HH was the short story Call of the Lion in Tales of Heresy. This was fairly self-contained, and drew on characters and situations I had already created and come to terms with in Angels of Darkness.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my latest effort, Raven’s Flight, had a greater impact on the HH mythology and timeline. While I can blissfully charge my way through the Warhammer 40,00 galaxy and scour the face of the Warhammer world, suddenly there were toes I might be treading on, so I had to watch my step. Graham McNeil was a great help in the process of understanding this new and strange place.

I have to admit, I’m not entirely comfortable with the feeling of being in someone else’s world. Although Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are creations by others than came before me, for fourteen years I shared in that creation on a daily level and there are parts of it I think I can consider to be mine; creations that I painted on to that ever-expanding canvas. They are places where I feel entirely at home, confident I know my way around. It never felt like I was writing fiction in somebody else’s universe. The Horus Heresy is different. There’s all kinds of stuff going on that I’m not aware of; it’s a darkened room whose interior has been laid out by other people and there’s a good chance I’ll trip over something or stub my toe. I’m not sure I like the idea of someone else making up the rules…

Fire the Canon! – the Advantage of Warhammer as Tie-in Worlds

I think that Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 have a unique advantage in the realm of tie-in backgrounds: they exist to allow personal creativity. Both are backdrops, nothing more. They were created to allow people to collect armies of toy soldiers and fight battles with them. They were conceived with the idea of the player’s creative freedom being directed but not restricted. In Warhammer you can have anything from Ogres to ninjas (and even Ninja Ogres!). Warhammer 40,000 trumpets an ‘Imperium of a Million Worlds’ precisely because that leaves room for everyone to come up with whatever they like.  Hobbyists can create armies, places, worlds, colour schemes, characters and stories for themselves.

Often folks ask if Black Library books are ‘canon’. With Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, the notion of canon is a fallacy. There are certainly established facts – the current Emperor is Karl-Franz, the Blood Angels have red armour, Commissar Yarrick defended Hades Hive during the Second Armageddon War. However, to suggest that anything else is non-canon is a disservice to the players and authors who participate in this world. To suggest that Black Library novels are somehow of lesser relevance to the background is to imply that every player who has created a unique Space Marine chapter or invented their own Elector Count is somehow wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 exist as tens of thousands of overlapping realities in the imaginations of games developers, writers, readers and gamers. None of those interpretations is wrong.

Whether a particular author’s take on the world matches up with an individual gamer’s or readers is another matter. The fact that each of us is allowed to take possession of that world and envisage it to our own ideal means that it is inevitable our vision will sometimes clash with the vision of others. Such conflict does not render either vision obsolete.

In this regard it is the job of authors and games developers to illuminate and inspire, not to dictate. Perhaps you disagree with the portrayal of a certain faction, or a facet of their society doesn’t make sense in your version of the world. You may not like the answers presented, but in asking the question you can come up with a solution that matches your vision. As long as certain central themes and principles remain, you can pick and choose which parts you like and dislike.

The same applies to transference from Black Library back into the gaming supplements. If the developers and other creative folks believe a contribution by an author fits the bill and has an appeal to the audience, why not fold it back into the ‘game’ world – such as  Gaunt’s Ghosts or characters from the Gotrek and Felix series. On the other hand, if an author has a bit of a wobbly moment, there’s no pressure to feel that it has to be accepted into the worldview promulgated by the codexes and army books. And beside, there simply isn’t enough room in those gaming books to include everything from the hundreds of novels – good, bad or indifferent as we each see them – so the decision must ultimately rest with the taste of individual readers and gamers.

Tie-in Fiction is not Easier

There’s a misconception that writing in somebody else’s world is somehow cheating. Certainly world creation is given a lot  of weight in genre fiction circles (too much in my opinion). The fact is, it doesn’t matter how much material there exists for a setting, the world must be created anew by the author every time they write a story or novel. It is the writer’s ability to evoke the world through their words that is important, and that doesn’t get any harder or easier whether you created the world yourself or are borrowing someone else’s.

Having written my first non-BL novel, The Crown of the Blood (out in the summer ;-)), I can say that the process of portraying the world was exactly the same as it is with Warhammer and 40K fiction. There’s still so much that you need to invent even with a tie-in world just to get a story to work, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing by your rules or someone else’s.

Let me put it another way. Is there any less literary quality in a story set within the real world? Books set in real places, contemporary or historic, receive recognition and awards all the time. They haven’t invented a world at all! ‘All’ the author did was come up with a story and characters, how lame is that? Of course, nobody thinks like that, because such books are judged by the way they evoke the real world, and the same should be true of all types of speculative fiction.

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm  Comments (14)  

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s great, insightful and encouraging.
    Many thanks Gav & Mech-Ham


  2. I agree with u gav. Just finished ravens flight. Wanted to say u did an excellent job. Glad u shed more light on the dropsite massacre. You did the Horus heresy justice. Liked your audio compared to a couple of novels.will u do more HH in the future? Me and my friends hope u you return to it.


    • I expect to be writing more HH stuff in the future, whether that’s audiobooks, short stories or novels, we’ll have to wait and see.


  3. hey Gav,

    enjoyed Raven’s Flight immensely, but just wondering; 80,000 marines in the Raven Guard?? everyone on every forum constantly argues about the sizes of legions, and while i enjoy reading the debates, ive never engaged. however, it is true that Fulgrim states there are roughly 60,000 marines at Isstvan V overall… what are your thoughts? is this ambiguity done to ‘distort the history of the heresy’ as some claim (that’s actually my real question)?

    many thanks, and apologies if this seems picky!! 🙂


  4. hey Gav,

    enjoyed Raven’s Flight immensely, but just wondering; 80,000 marines in the Raven Guard?? everyone on every forum constantly argues about the sizes of legions, and while i enjoy reading the debates, ive never engaged. however, it is true that Fulgrim states there are roughly 60,000 marines at Isstvan V overall… what are your thoughts? is this ambiguity done to ‘distort the history of the heresy’ as some claim (that’s actually my real question)?

    many thanks, and apologies if this seems picky!! 🙂


    • The short answer is that I don’t know who is right. From conversations a few years ago (before the Heresy series started) I was always left with the distinct impression that the Legions each had many tens of thousands of Space Marines. A more accurate number may have been discussed in the meetings between Alan Merrett and the authors when the novels were being planned, but I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure.

      One argument I’ve read that 100k+ Legion size is too big is that the rough number of Chapters founded when the Legions were split would show around 95% casualties in the Legions during the Heresy and the Scouring. It’s precisely because of these horrendous levels of casualties that I think the power of the Space Marines was wholly shattered by the civil war. Not only does the larger size of the Legions make more sense of their accomplishments during the Great Crusade, it also has more narrative poignancy to think that such huge armies were laid low, and the Space Marines fell from the highest pinnacle not only of spirit but also physical power.

      Like many things concerning the Heresy, others may have a different view.

      The lasting impression I always have of the Heresy is from a picture in the original Space Marine rulebook, showing thousands of Astartes disembarking from huge Capitol Imperialis super-heavy transports with immense dropships plunging down form orbit. In the world of 40K (or 30k) big is beautiful!


      • I like this, and find myself being slowly converted (I personally count myself as being on the 10-15,000 bandwagon, but maybe not for long…)

        big is, as you say, beautiful!! not only that, but your reasoning also shows a lot of logic, with regards to the casualties and so on. and especially the “fall from the pinnacle”, I like that a lot.

        thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!


  5. By the way, your book is sold out in india.

    Man the western world is REALLY lagging behind.


    • Would be nice to think so. The release date under the title sorta gives the game away… Still cool to see it on a webstore already


  6. I was being facetious. 🙂


    • That’s a relief.


  7. Hi Gav – You know me as Engel from Warseer and I can say this is possibly one of the most interesting things I’ve read via the tubes.

    You approach on canon is especially awesome – too many arguments are had between people who care too much about their position (I used to be one of those people, I type in vain to argue moderation and malleability in the changing face of the worlds our imaginations play in!)and I’m sorely tempted to post it on Warseer. 😉

    Well done, and thanks!


  8. I like the Warhammer settings as open cavas’ but you yourself point out Gav that they still follow rules.

    The arguments come down to what falls within a setting rule and what does not. Then the argument proceeds to ‘WHY is this a setting rule and this is not?’ For example, the blood angels have red armour is a setting rule. But there are people out there who will argue they don’t have to be, which I think is entirely because of the perceieved ‘anything goes’ attitude of 40k.

    This is I think the biggest point of contention about the concept of canon especially in regards to the Warhammer settings. They are supposed to be open slather AND governed by rules at the same time which can lead to contradictory stances. There are no reasons given for why ‘Blood Angels are red’ is an inviable rule but other things are not.

    Which is why you get the impression that the two are not reconcilable; either there are rules or there aren’t. If there ARE rules then there needs to be a reason or rationale for them so that we can see why other things do not count as a rule (they do not fit the parameters given).



    • Hi there,

      I just spent fifteen minutes writing a reply to this and then lost my connection before it posted. Argh! Anyway, you raise a good point, one that I will write about in some more detail in a future entry…


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