Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to get into...

(Or, How Mark failed to curb his enthusiasm)

One of the great aspects of being involved in a blog like MFB is the outlet for sharing the things that make you go ‘wow’. One such thing, for me, is the spin off fiction from the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K; I think it’s a crying shame that their market seems limited to gamers - there’s so much good stuff out there, and in the pipeline, and I think a lot of people would have their socks blown off if they gave it a go.

The more I thought about it, the more it puzzled me. Now, I know that ‘different strokes for different folks” applies to almost everything, including reading preferences, and it’s easy to be annoying when you’re trying to make somebody like / try something they don’t want to, but what I can’t swallow is people shortchanging themselves because of a literary gag reflex whose roots lie in an insidious, outdated and misplaced idea that science fiction & fantasy are the fiction equivalent of junk food.

Even assuming that someone is already partial to fantasy and/or science fiction, there generally seem to a couple of recurring misconceptions holding them back from picking up a Black Library novel- 1) “it’s a tie-in novel or the novelisation of game I’ve never played” and 2) “there’s so much in print already, I know nothing about it and will never catch up”.

I chewed all this over for a few days, trying to figure out how to get around these preconceptions, and trying to put a finger on why I’m such an ardent fan of heroic fiction, particularly the brand of military sci-fi that the 40K universe offers in the first place. But that leads to trying to understand the nature of fandom, and that’s a dissertation rather than a blog post (and a flame war waiting to happen). Judging from the jam packed halls at Games Day, the umpteen million sales of the books, and the thriving online community, I’m certainly not alone.

The first thing I’d say is that yes, these are undeniably tied in to the games, but it’s important to realise that it makes absolutely no difference if you’ve never played a game- they exist side by side but entirely independent of each other: you could quite happily read the entire back catalogue without ever picking up a dice or tape measure.

And yes, the back catalogues (I prefer to think of it as a treasure trove) for both Warhammer and 40K are extensive, and it’s easy to see how it can come across as intimidating to someone who’s unfamiliar with the respective universes, prompting questions like where do you start? Will it make sense if you don’t start at the beginning?

Think of any other book you’ve ever picked up- whoever the characters are, they exist within a world and universe with its own accepted canon and history, and probably involves an element of world building. You’re not expected to be familiar with all of it, and it’s the same here. The authors and their editors have done the hard work; it’s their responsibility to deliver a story that’s both as exciting as the setting demands and compatible with the existing canon - your only job is to be entertained.

As you read more stories set within the same world/ universe, you’ll pick up on more and more references, building up a clearer image of the world that’s opening up to you and how it all fits together. The enjoyment you get from visiting it increases proportionately; it’s addictive in the best possible way.

Something else which bears remembering is that the novels are aimed at the wider market, not just existing gamers.

It’s fair to say that the publishers didn’t do themselves any favours with the more garish covers of years past, which reinforced the notion that they were solely aimed at the stereotypical gamer. You can understand why booksellers consigned them in a corner next to the comics or children’s’ books while promoting inferior stock which fitted the image they had in mind – another reason why the trend for more demure covers (as sported by the Horus Heresy and Time of Legends series) is definitely A Good Thing, something which Bloomsbury cottoned onto early when they re-jacketed Harry Potter to make it more appealing to adult readers.

As I thought about it, I began wondering how those who both feed and encourage my addiction started off, and how they felt about the sheer volume of stuff that’s already out there.

I approached Graham McNeill, CL Werner and Nathan Long, all veterans of the Black Library, who were generous enough to give me some of their time despite their hectic schedules.

MFB: What was your first exposure to Warhammer/ 40K, and how did they move from there to writing for The Black Library? :

GM: I first got involved with the game when 3rd Ed Warhammer came out and 40K first hit the shelves. I’d been playing them religiously for years, writing my own campaigns and army storylines before deciding to link them together in a novel-like fashion. All this was strictly for my gaming group, but then an opportunity came up to work for the Studio as a Staff Writer, and I was lucky enough to get the job. Over time working there, I gradually gravitated to games development, and pitched a number of short stories to Christian Dunn at Black Library. These seemed to go down well, and it wasn’t long before I was asked to write an Ultramarines novel. After that, it went from strength to strength, and now I’m on novel eighteen.

CLW: - For me it dates way way back to high school. I read an ad for a new British fantasy role-playing game in Dragon Magazine. The ad was quite unique in its presentation - a four page fiction piece about a witch hunter who has been arrested by the authorities and his musings on the corrupt state of the world. The tone that piece presented was so dark and grim, absolutely at odds with the way other games at the time presented their settings, that I was immediately interested. I was also intrigued by the horrific ratmen who put in a brief appearance at the end of the story. It was sometime later that my friend Matt introduced me to the tabletop wargame and later had me arming Space Orks for 40k campaigns.

NL: My friend Dave Schow was approached by Black Flame (which was once a division of Black Library) to write a novelization of a movie he had written called Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. He turned down the job, but suggested Black Flame talk to me about doing that and other novelizations. I did some pitches for them, none of which panned out, but when I found out that BF was attached to BL, and that BL was Warhammer, I begged my BF editor to introduce me to the BL folks. I would have been moderately happy writing a novelization or two, but writing for Warhammer? Are you kidding? A fantasy author couldn’t ask for a better job! It was a perfect fit.

MFB: When you approached your first novel for the Black Library, did you find the sheer volume of 'what has gone before' intimidating or inspiring..?

GM: When I wrote my first novel back in 2002, there wasn’t that many novels out there, at least not in an overwhelming way. I was inspired to write to ‘rectify’ the things I thought other authors had gotten wrong or – more accurately – didn’t fit my perception of how the Warhammer and 40K universes should be. In other words, I wrote what I thought the worlds should be like and put my stamp on them. Intimidated? Not really, except by the sheer volume of words I’d need to write, as it was more than I’d ever put on paper before.

CLW: Oh, I think the best answer to that one is a little of both. The immense scope of background material to the worlds of Warhammer is fascinating. There is always some bit of half-forgotten lore waiting to be found. In many ways the background is so extensive that older pieces do become endowed with a sense of being dark eldritch secrets in their own right. At the same time, it can become an enormous task to get your research right. I'm still indebted to my friend Alfred for catching one background error that would have set one of my novels at odds with nothing less than the classic 'Enemy Within' Warhammer Fantasy campaign.

NL: A little bit of both, really. When they sent me all the background material, and it started to pile up on the table, I thought, “I’m going to have to read all that?” But at the same time, the fact that the world was so well thought out, and so deeply realized was very reassuring. It meant that I had to do little world-building, and could concentrate on plot and character. The best thing was that, if I had a question, about almost anything, there was an answer. It might take some digging, or calling over to the design studio, or finding one of the older novels, but there was an answer to almost any silly question I could think of to ask. It’s great writing in so concrete a world.

MFB: What would you recommend as an introductory read to someone looking to take the plunge and pick up a Black Library book for the first time?

GM: Though it feels crass to suggest a book of my own, a newcomer to 40K could do worse than to read the Ultramarines Omnibus, as it delves straight into the core imagery of 40K, with heretics/aliens/Chaos over the course of the three books. Leaving that aside, the Gaunt’s Ghosts books are great, hardcore war stories, with lots to recommend them. They deal with humans, allowing the reader and easy ‘in’ to the universe, which is always essential for hooking readers in. As to Fantasy, I’d say the Slayer books are great places to start (and continue) as Gotrek and Felix travel the length and breadth of the Old World (and kill most of the things they meet), giving a rich flavour of the dark humour of the Warhammer World.

CLW: I always suggest taking a look at the anthologies, particularly the two mega-anthologies: 'Tales of the Old World' and 'Let the Galaxy Burn'. The anthologies give a reader a better chance to get a feel for the settings than any of the novels can. Because there are a variety of short stories, each with their own theme and voice, a reader can get a better cross-section of what is going on in the respective settings. Plus it gives him a chance to sample an array of authors and see whose style he enjoys.

NL: Why, my books of course - the Blackhearts Omnibus and the Gotrek and Felix series. And, if you can wait until June, I have a Warhammer book called Bloodborn coming out, which is about a kick-ass vampire woman named Ulrika Magdova. I’m really excited about this one. I had a great time writing it.

MFB: Thanks guys!

You can’t really get better recommendations than those- personally, I agree with Graham’s suggestion of the Ultramarines Omnibus as an introduction to the Space Marines, without whom 40K just wouldn’t be 40K. The atmosphere and imagery of the 40K setting is unrivalled, and with a movie and a new game in the offing it’s the place to be.

I’m hard pressed to choose which book I’d recommend on the fantasy side of things, which is an indication of the calibre of what’s on offer- but you can’t go wrong with the Gotrek & Felix series.

That’s one of the things that really comes through whenever you talk to any of the guys at BL- their sheer, infectious enthusiasm for what they do. It’s readily apparent at events like Games Day and in the obvious passion that goes into their work; it’s the spark that brings their worlds to life and makes reading them such a pleasure.

Try it. Join us. You won’t be sorry.


Phillip said...

I've been going on about this for a while. I've long felt that the Warhammer/40K universes present a fantastically rich place in which to write and that the standard of writing in these novels is remarkably high. The whole tie-in fiction thing is something that Dan Abnett and others have debated and discussed at length and I've made my own feeling clear on my blog where I reviewed Aaron Dembski Bowden's book cadian Blood and pointed out that it was fantastic read and an excellent intro to the 40K universe to those who have yet to be brought into the light.

Thanks for getting the message out.

DCEDucky said...

I may not be your traditional Black Library reader, but I was introduced to the Warhammer world through the Blood Bowl Books. Sure the book may not hold steadfast to the cannon, as many of the Epic Stories do, but the crossover between sports (one of my passions) and the dark yet humorous way of the old world was appealing. The series introduced me to the many races of the world and left me desiring to look into the backstories of each race.