Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Graham McNeil - The Ultramarines Omnibus
Most of the Warhammer 40,000 books I've reviewed so far have taken place in the setting's underexplored corners or have followed its underdogs, which is to say puny humans, no matter how heroic. Not The Ultramarines Omnibus. Oh no. Here, we jump into the setting's very heart. It's time, ladies and gentlemen, for the eight foot super soldiers.
There are, of course, problems with protagonists so inhumanly overpowered, and McNeil knows them well. In his introduction, he writes: It's been said that you can't write for Space Marines, because they're not human and are faceless warrior automatons, but that's not true (p. 9). Alas, every one of the collection's seven hundred and sixty-five pages prove that last bit wrong.
Still, despite their difficulties, Space Marines are rather awesome. McNeil is aware of that too. To quote again from the intro: Space Marines… is there anything cooler in the Warhammer 40,000 universe? (p. 8) Alas, their very coolness is where the first problems set in. McNeil's characters are not so much human beings as they are walking avatars of badassery and military virtue. When reading, one gets the feeling that McNeil is not so much writing a story as he is hero worshipping every Adeptus Astartes he names. Constant speeches about honor, courage, and FUCK YEAH SPACE MARINES make the novels here sometimes read like propaganda for a regime that doesn't exist. One particularly horrific bit tells us that the main character, dear Uriel Ventris, dropped to one knee, overwhelmed by the honor his very existence brought him (p. 49).
In terms of theme, McNeil mostly concern himself with either truisms or issues that could not possibly matter to anyone who is not clad in blue power armor – or, at times, both. The worst of these is brought out in the short story that kicks off the volume, "Chains of Command." There, Uriel struggles with the idea of deviating even slightly from the Codex Astartes, the documented warrior code that the Ultramarines follow. In case you think this might have some universal significance, I should point out that Uriel is not talking about the moral rules of war. The Codex Astartes has nothing at all to do with how one should conduct oneself or the justifications for violence; instead, it deals with vital life questions like the proper way one should assail a gun nest.
Besides that fascinating debate, McNeil presents us with two contentions that form the basis for the Ultramarines warrior spirit. The first is the realization that the people of the Imperium are, well, people and should not be killed. As this is something all of us who are not genetically engineered for martial perfection have picked up some time ago, we'll move on quickly to what is likely the novels' heart. In a rousing speech to his supermen, Uriel says: "Never forget that every man is important; every man can make a difference." (p. 255) It's not a bad sentiment, though it might be a bit easier to follow, especially in this universe, if you happen to be so fearsome as to be colloquially known as the Angels of Death. In fact, despite a few polite nods to the toothless plebs along the way, Uriel just about confirms the credo's exclusivity in the next book: In giving up the chance for a normal life [and becoming a Space Marine], he had gained something far greater. The chance to make a difference (p. 519).
Admittedly, thematic complexity is not the reason why one reads a Warhammer 40,000 novel, but, by showing how vapid its themes are, I hope to get across how shallow the entire book and everyone in it is. The above are not solely questions for McNeil and the reader to debate. They are the questions that Uriel and his fellow marines ponder; they are the only questions that they ponder. Not a Marine in here has a thought besides war. The Ultramarines have less depth than a heavy bolter has subtlety. After following Uriel Ventris around for three novels and a short story, I can say that he has about as much characterization as a secondary or maybe even tertiary character in your average novel.
The civilian characters that abound in Nightbringer and Warriors of Ultramar are not an improvement. Each of those novels has, in addition to its alien foes, a human menace, a traitor. These are of the cackling variety. They are fools so bent on cowardice and wanton slaughter that their higher functions seem to have entirely shut down in their quest to injure everyone around them. When the dastard behind Nightbringer's evil is confronted by a peer, he responds thusly:
"You're just too stupid to understand. […] Events are moving in a manner decided by me. Me! I have invested too much, lost too much, to have things messed up by a globulous waste of space like you, Taryn. […] No, Taryn, we are not friends. You are just a pathetic piece of filth I stepped on on my route too immortality. And now it's time I discarded you." (p. 172)
Later, we get another glimpse of that bastard's malice: Blood, death, suffering, mutilation and torment unknown for millions of years filled his skull; it felt so good (p. 256). Right then. You enjoy that suffering. Lest you think the problem is limited to that one fellow, or even to properly human foes, the Chaos Space Marine antagonist of Dead Sky, Black Sun does not speak but rather sneer[s] (p. 574) and has this gem: There was nothing left but vengeance for hate's sake and malice for the sake of spite (p. 739).
After all that, McNeil's novels are still not without worth. It all goes back to how he begins his intro: Space Marines… is there anything cooler in the Warhammer 40,000 universe? (p. 8) For all the myriad problems that there excessive coolness causes, Space Marines are still cool, and watching them slaughter their way through Dark Eldar starships, Tyrannid hordes, and the Eye of Terror is still pretty awesome to watch.
It's that awesomeness that gives a potential reason to trudge through the first two books' weaker aspects. Though the politicking that makes up much of its first two acts is mediocre at best, Nightbringer still is the best paced of the novels here. For a time, the Ultramarines are battling the very very very sadistic Dark Eldar, but the novel not only broadens out but also explodes (in a good way, like a bolter round) at its end, pitting Uriel against rebels and then a waking Necron menace. The last of those is a suitably rendered menace of Lovecraftian scale. Warriors of Ultramar is a far more linear read, in which Uriel and assorted friends must defend a planet from the invasion of innumerable Tyrannids. It's a perpetual, last stand-style grind that grows rather monotonous but still does have its share of simply cool feats.
It's Dead Sky, Black Sun, however, that is by far the collection's most memorable read – though that is not necessarily to say its most pleasant. In it, Uriel and his loyal sergeant are forced to make their way across a demonic world deep in the Eye of Terror. Here, McNeil uses the settings' over the top nature to bring forth a whole host of inventive, vivid, and absolutely sickening sights. Like everything in these novels, he describes it with not only the single perfect word but several dozen moderately acceptable substitutes, but the overwhelming details work when every facet of the view is a twisted embodiment of Chaos. To give just one example:
A huge grilled platform filled the centre of the depression. Agglomerated layers of dust coated its every surface and its perforated floor dripped and clogged with jelly-like runnels of fat and viscera. Tall poles jutted from the platform, held in place by quivering steel guys that sand as the unnatural wind whistled through them. Hooked between the poles were billowing sails of flesh stretched across timber frames that the scouring, wind-borne particles might strip them of the leavings of their former owners.
Uriel turned in a circle, seeing row upon row of faces in the skins circling the platform – dead, slack features of men and women staring down at him as though he were the subject in an anatomist's theatre.
"Burn it," he said. "Burn it all." (pp. 579-80)
In terms of plot, Dead Sky, Black Sun is a rather simple affair that consists of wandering through hell and fighting constantly. As one or Uriel's companions sums it up, they go from one death sentence to another (p. 686), and the novel never lets you breathe. Still, the Eye of Terror flees McNeil from even the lightest bounds of common sense, allowing him to twist the plot in ways that are totally absurd and yet all the better for it. Simply put, the sheer, relentless, and imaginative gruesomeness of its every detail and development make this one a hard hitting read, even if much of its power comes from excess and extremity.
Graham McNeil is not a particularly good writer. Alas, he writes about cool things. There are far, far better books out there, but these do have the simple fun of genetically engineered super soldiers beating demons to death.