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Should We Still Consider Warhammer 40k To Be Science Fiction?

Warhammer 40000, or Warhammer 40K, artwork depicting a massive space battle

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…]

Final Thoughts

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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

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4 Responses

  1. Chris

    Yes this is sci-fi. It is just getting to be softer and softer sci-fi. We can see this through the fact that the plots and storylines can be executed in a fantasy environment as well as a futuristic environment, where technology and mysticism both place a role. There remains elements of technology that the plots can be dependent on, and therefore should be considered sci-fi!

  2. I am old enough to offer some sage advice. First, the technical. The Old Ones of the Warhammer Fantasy Universe are the decrepit ancient lord-sorcerers of the Lizardmen, the Slann. Their powers are much diminished now, but they created the warpgates of the fantasy world, as well as the Elves/Eldar. So if you want to discuss diminished tech, the Slann lead the charts.

    The Slann also had a very brief existence in Warhammer 40K, and I am just a couple short of a complete set of 12 Space Slann. They were also joined by a host of 4 Space Zoats, who were frequently employed as bodyguards by Eldar Pirates of great power. Even the Squigs of the WFB Orcs could be found bouncing around the 40K cosmos – which the WFB world was most definitely a part of. Beastmen could be found in service of the Imperial Army… but there were absolutely no, not none at all, Space Skaven. Unless you converted some, like my Chaos Squat General’s henchman Sgt Squeak “Squeak” Squeak, who has been living with me since 1987.

    You may also notice that there is a similarity to the WFB world and our own world. This is because the GRIMDARK Warhammer universe is OUR UNIVERSE!!! A revelation that totally justifies some allcaps.

    Now while you are pondering whether we are dealing with sci-fi or fantasy, you are neglecting the reality. It’s horror. It’s all horror.

    If you’ve paid attention to popular media, you may recall the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson. He knew that Lord of the Rings was essentially a horror story. If you pay attention to the more critically accepted superhero movies, you’ll notice the increased focus on the damage that is done during super-powered battles or even non-superpowered crime-fighting. That’s because they’re horror stories as well.

    Just like our world. Superheroes and Lords of Rings were born on the battlefields and concentration camps of World War 2. Warhammer 40K is what you get when you smash Tolkien into Judge Dredd in a supercollider that is going to break apart any second due to lack of funding repairs.

    And the universe will not care. That is the horror.

  3. “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.”

    I always saw Warhammer and Warhammer 40K as fantasy. They don’t fit in the science fiction genre, whether due to the lack of “sciency” elements. It’s mostly because of the over the top character designs akin to World of Warcraft skins and the inclusion of magic.

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