Is Warhammer 40K Fantasy, or Sci-Fi?
The Warhammer 40k franchise is a long-running and well-loved collection of games, books, miniatures, and other paraphernalia. But how much can we really consider it to be science fiction rather than fantasy? While the difference between the two genres can be blurry at times, there is a frequently vocal contingent of sci-fi fans who quibble that the likes of Star Wars is more at home within the fantasy genre because of its reliance on the “magical” Force and a complete lack of even remotely plausible science through and through. So, if Star Wars can be considered fantasy, why not Warhammer 40k? After all, Warhammer 40k itself was once a franchise built in a fantasy backdrop, known at the time as simply Warhammer.
Warhammer and Warhammer 40k are actually very similar…
Perhaps some readers may think that the comparison between Warhammer 40k and its ancestor, Warhammer is unfair. They’re two completely different, non-contiguous universes, after all. Despite that, they’re extremely similar, perhaps maddeningly so. Both feature tons of races, Chaos daemons, and gothic style. Games Workshop calls the setting “grimdark”, capturing the totality of blackness that is characteristic of both franchises.
In the original Warhammer, spacefaring races are invisible participants, having shaped the world before the series’ present. These ancient aliens used warp gates to maneuver throughout the cosmos, before their mysterious disappearance. Sounds suspiciously similar to the Eldar of 40k, who are known to be one of the oldest spacefaring races. This isn’t canon, as far as I know. But nonetheless, as in Warhammer, the lore of 40k makes no attempt to explain or reduce disbelief.
The similarities don’t end there. The Elves of Warhammer are, much like the Eldar within 40k, split into several subspecies, with the largest subspecies being the Dark elves–demanding a comparison with the Dark Eldar. But what about the other races? Orks, Chaos Daemons, and the undead all have direct correlates within the 40k universe, often with very little modification. Among the other Warhammer races, ogres, ratmen, dwarves, and lizardmen all make appearances within 40k, typically under the general purview of “mankind”. It’s not that these races can’t exist in a setting that is more “science fiction” than “fantasy”, but rather that their carryover from a fantasy universe comes without explanation or veneer of realism.
There’s basically a bunch of different kinds of “magic” in the 40k Universe
Okay, so Warhammer 40k is very similar to Warhammer. But what makes it fantastical? Well, it turns out that magic is actually a major part of 40k. The God-Emperor of Mankind is canonically a psychic who has guided mankind from the dawn of time, and, at the time of 40k’s setting, is reduced to communicating dreams psychically to trained augurs in order to dictate his will.
While it isn’t always called magic, it’s hard to think of the multitude of weird rituals as anything else. Typically, when magic coexists with technology, the work as a whole ends up being “fantasy”–magic is, by default, left to be unexplained and incomprehensible.
Once the door to magic is thrown open, it tends to be run through again and again. 40k is no exception and makes heavy use of fantastical technologies and magics to flaunt the rules of reality which we are accustomed to with little explanation. Whereas a science fiction franchise would sparingly disrupt fundamental assumptions about the way reality works, fantasy tends to have no problem doing so–think of the Force, or, in 40k’s case, the Warp.
New forces of nature are invented, sequestered to use within certain circumstances, and freely re-define the logic of their own use as convenient. There’s little attempt to remain consistent, because “magic” is a get-out-of logic free card. Thus, even the previously established information within the series can be reconfigured as needed for the sake of storytelling. It’s a compelling gamble, and Games Workshop understands exactly what they’re doing.
Fantasy Writing Tricks
The tradeoff is between storytelling freedom and consumer disbelief. In the case of the 40k universe, Games Workshop has decided to usher their most profitable franchise forward in a unique way which also lends itself to my idea that the series is more fantasy than science fiction. Science fiction often operates by offering novel examples of possible realities to the reader, then explaining the trend behind the example, using technical details to make the novel reality more grounded. The reader is then left to extrapolate from the trend, and future exposition is consistent with the reader’s new knowledge.
Fantasy can use this pattern if needed, but instead relies on a different angle altogether: provide enough examples of novel realities such that they do not require grounding in our reality to be accepted. Simply put, fantasy relies on exposition to distance the reader from reality even more, until eventually, they stop reaching back for it. 40k demonstrates this technique countless times.
The Deus Ex video game series details mankind’s technological ambition to surpass biology. Well known for its immersive exposition, emphasis on technology and conspiracy-theory centric plotline, Deus Ex (DX) is the definition of cyberpunk. With the recent release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as a follow-up to the series’ revitalization in Deus Ex: Human Revolution: an analysis of the series’ timeline and understanding of history is in order. The games in the Deus Ex series span from the year 2025 up through the early 2070s. [Click here to read more…]
It’d be silly to read a history of the Warhammer 40k universe and criticize the Imperium for using outdated 21st-century technology like slug-based guns instead of sophisticated laser weapons. Given that we’re nearly capable of laser-based weapons now, it’d be easy to criticize the franchise for a lack of technological imagination. But it’s not even about that.
Things are the way they are in the year 40,000 because the history of the Warhammer 40k universe is drastically different from the reality we’re used to. There’s no point in trying to bring it back to earth; every shred of flavor text, every novel, every piece of background information serves to send it farther and farther away from anything that could be intelligently compared to what we know as normal.
Featured Image: Games Workshop