Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dan Abnett - The Founding

"Men of Tanith! Do you want to live forever?" (p. 33)

In the war ravaged 41st millennium, the Imperial Guard hold the line against the fearsome Xenos and Heretics in their endless billions. The Sabbat Worlds, infested by Chaos, are the target of a great Imperial crusade. One of the many regiments of Guardsmen involved is the Tanith 1st, the Tanith First and Only, the Ghosts. The Gaunt's Ghosts series is where Dan Abnett first came into the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and it is still his most famous work. This omnibus, The Founding, collects the first three novels of the series: First and Only, Ghostmaker, and Necropolis.

Unlike Abnett's later Ravenor trilogy, Gaunt's Ghosts is purebred Military Science Fiction. The Ghosts, of course, are not any old regiment. They hail from a destroyed world, for Chaos fell upon their home even as they were brought aboard their troopships. It was Colonel-Commissar Gaunt who saved the troops who had already boarded, taking them away from their homeworld before they could die failing to defend it. For that, his men hate him. For his brilliance, and for the way that he knows and cares for each of them, they love him.

First and Only faces the burden of introducing the horde of Ghosts, but it doesn't let itself get bogged down in that task. After opening with a well executed battle, the storyline broadens to include intrigue and treachery from the Imperium's high command. The novel's middle sections, in which the character's gradually learn more about the plots afoot serves to deepen the action, and, when we return to war with the book's climax, Abnett is able to manage both the intrigue and the battle without sacrificing either, even if he does indulge (throughout the volume) in the occasional unnecessary, unfounded, and silly plot twist, like the revelation that a villain who already had perfectly good motivations is really just angry because Gaunt killed his father. Groan. Still, these failed plotting flourishes are saved by their very superfluousness, and their clunking does nothing to hamper the main storyline's successful execution.

But while the intrigue is initially successful, it doesn't always work as well. We are told early on that: The command echelon generally believed in the theory of attrition when it came to the Imperial Guard. Any foe could be ground into pulp if you threw enough at them, and the Guard was, to them, a limitless supply of cannon fodder for just such a purpose. (p. 22) Okay, fair enough, and we do see that attitude, along with Gaunt's desire to get his men through nonetheless.

And yet the command echelon's failings go beyond a cavalier dismissal of the cost. No, just about every commander in the Guard soon turns out to be evil on the level of moustache twirlers. As I said, it works in First and Only. One power hungry traitor is more than believable. But the trope comes up again and again in each of the omnibus' three books, and it wears thinner with each. By the third or fourth time we hear theoretically sane commanders speak of ridding him [the high commander] of Gaunt and his damn Ghosts, (p. 269) one has to start wondering how an army that does nothing but snipe at its own elite has managed to not implode in an hour, let alone managed to wage a successful crusade.

Nonetheless, Abnett is an excellent battle writer, able to, through the deft shifting of perspectives and viewpoints, give us both the jagged edge of the frontlines and the grander picture. The Ghosts are just one unit among many. Their surviving and falling is vital to them, and the reader feels the adrenaline besides them. But while they might even be the decisive unit, they are just one part of a larger whole, and Abnett is adept at showing his powerful heroes subservient to and occasionally thrown aside by events beyond their control.

In the Chaos-tinged setting of Warhammer 40,000, this means that he can indulge in some inventive and striking tricks and traps, generating a lasgun-armed equivalent of Lovecraft's fear of the unknown. One advancing soldier, cut off from anyone besides the men immediately around him, is just aware of the inexplicable syncopated and irregular thudding of the drum machines that that Shriven had left here. There was no pattern to their beat. Worse still, Corbec was more afraid there was a pattern, and he was too sane to understand it. (p. 52)

In addition to the battles and intrigues shown, First and Only focuses on establishing the character of Gaunt and his heroism, which it does through showing him in battle, through showing us our first glimpses of how his troops view him, and through flash backs at the end of each chapter. These flashbacks are a surprisingly successful tactic. Their very regularity prevents them from becoming a simple distraction to the action; the reader comes to anticipate them, and they become as much a part of the story as Gaunt's present whereabouts. More importantly, Abnett makes each flashback into a miniature story of its own, filling them with drama rather than leaving them as narrative-shaped infodumps.

With Ghostmaker, Abnett widens the focus from just Gaunt to the entirety of the regiment. Both of the first two novels were woven together from short stories originally published in Inferno! (as can be seen here). But while First and Only told a complete story despite its slightly episodic nature, Ghostmaker is more of a mosaic novel. As a major engagement on the planet Monthax nears, Gaunt walks through his lines and, as he encounters his men, we hear stories of their past.

The stories are excellent. In just a few pages, Abnett manages to establish setting and conflict (each takes place in a different battle) and then to delve deep into the focal character while still bringing the tale to a satisfyingly martial close. The greatest are those that take characters on the Ghost's periphery, those that hold specialized jobs, and immerse the reader in their minds and in their brutal work. In "The Angel of Bucephalon," the regiment's best sniper debates his hallucinations as he waits for the kill shot. "Sound and Fury" pits the scout Mkoll against a monolithic dreadnought that will slaughter him if it can find him in the forest; it is so successful at drawing the reader into the terrified need for absolute silence that, while reading, I found myself afraid to breathe too loudly. By the end of all these stories, I felt like I'd known the key Ghosts for years. Each of them was fleshed out, and knowing the men in the ranks gives the reader a stake in every gunfight to come.

The problem with Ghostmaker's structure comes at the end. Throughout, the frame story was nothing more than a prompt for reminisces. In the climax, the battle on Monthax fails to take on much more significance than any of the random flashback conflicts did. This isn't a crippling blow, and there are still interesting sequences. However, at the end, when Gaunt allies his forces with the Eldar against the crushing might of Chaos, it's hard to feel the necessity for such a potentially heretical act when this near ultimate Chaos threat has only come into being a few dozen pages before.

The final novel of this first Gaunt's Ghosts trilogy, Necropolis, has by far the strongest individual story. It is a brutal Science Fiction siege that resembles Stalingrad more than a little, albeit with the technology and the scale blown to delicious excess. The Ghosts don't enter for the first section of the novel, allowing us to get to known the people of Vervunhive as the attack nears and begins, devastating much of the city's defenses. As the Ghosts and other Guardsmen arrive, and as the war begins in earnest, we continue to follow those initial characters, who not only play into the overall military narrative but who also give us an understanding of the destruction's implications. Along the way, it should be noticed, Abnett delves into the well of untrustworthy leadership again and, this time, nails it, creating in Commissar Kowle a leader crippled by his personal ambition but still fervently loyal to his cause.

Though it is certainly a very fun story, Necropolis often borrows the tone of a history, constructing key events from a multiplicity of viewpoints and meticulously marking the siege's progress by counting the days. By its end, Abnett acknowledges this, saying that the future rivalry of two local characters is "not pertinent to this history" (p. 737). The themes of history don't stop there. Embroiled in a conflict almost certain to end in death, the Ghosts are each aware of remembrance. The true loss that occurs when the las-bolt hits home is not simple death but rather erasure, the way that a soldier's name, and bearing and manner and being, was utterly extinguished from the Imperial Record (p. 210). The First and Only, more than any other regiment, are aware of the significance of this. They are, after all, ghosts already. When asked where their home is, they do not say that it is a place that is now destroyed. No, Tanith has been erased […] from the galactic records (p. 67). The ghosts are from "nowhere" (p. 539).

The Founding ends with a short story, "In Remembrance," a look back on the carnage of Necropolis and war. Bitter, one of the Ghosts says: Behold and marvel, this is what winning looks like (p. 751). It's a bleak phrase and a brief picture, and "In Remembrance" embraces it. The story's central character, an artist, is tasked with remembering and immortalizing the battle for Vervunhive. To learn its heart, he follows the Ghosts through the city's ruined and abandoned streets and sees the dead and the wounded. One of the people that the artist speaks to says I just don't think there's very much nobility to be found in this misery. What little there is belongs to the Tanith Ghosts, and I doubt very much you could capture that (p. 753). But Abnett does capture the Ghosts' nobility. This volume is filled with bloodshed and horror, but it also has humanity at its heart, and Abnett is equally adept at showing the men and the guns. Despite its occasional lapses in plotting or structure, The Founding is a very successful example of Military Science Fiction at its best.

1 comment:

  1. In isolation I really like how Abnett writes. He has a deft turn of phrase. But I am still struggling through the second book of the Eisenhorn trilogy and I just don't understand why I'm having such a hard time with it. I usually read 3-4 books at a time but given the choice it's the last one I'll turn to. And if I'm reading it in bed it's guaranteed to knock me out in about a page and a half - and these are not boring books.