Fists of Beauty

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Unlike the Warhammer Fantasy world, the universe of Warhammer 40,000 has changed radically since its first inception, to the point where entire major intelligent species have been tossed into the memory hole because they no longer fit the atmosphere. There have been many casualties of this slow progression of the mileau from an anything-goes universe where anything that might happen in the pages of 2000 AD might be encountered to a more focused variety of grim far future darkness, and amongst these casaulties is Space Marine, Ian Watson’s 1993 novel. Whereas most of the early Warhammer Fantasy tie-in novels remain in print – even dreck like the Konrad SagaSpace Marine has been allowed to vanish, the stated reason being that it happens to deal with large amounts of material which has been removed from the Warhammer 40,000 canon.

Except, I begin to wonder whether there isn’t more to it than that. You see, it isn’t just that Space Marine takes place in a universe which no longer quite resembles the official Warhammer 40,000 setting. Space Marine is also more than a little gay.

[…] the boy’s green eyes gleamed with evident intelligence… and with fierce emnity… and with a kind of fascination, as he weighed the mask in his hand and stared at its former wearer, now revealed.

For Lexandro sported no scars whatever on his comely, olive-complexioned face – only a ruby ring through his slim right nostril. […]

The scum kid seemed about to fit the mask to his own face so as to hide his savage features… or to become, for a few moments, the reflexion of Lexandro who lived such an unimaginable, foreign life.

The action of Space Marine begins on Necromunda, the population of which lives in enormous hive-cities. The aforementioned Lexandro is a teenage member of a gang of bored aristocratic youths who raid the lower reaches of the hive in order to screw around with the lower classes; we first meet them as they, at the behest of the gang leader, capture a member of a middle-class gang of engineer’s kids and a member of a “scum” gang from the downtrodden masses of the underhive, and kill them in a particularly nasty way. During the fighting, Lexandro has the above confrontation with Biff, a member of the scum gang, and also encounters Yeremi, a member of the tech gang. Their meeting is also a mixture of mutual hatred and fascination.

[…] Lexandro pivoted – to spy a tech boy as tall as himself, blond, lightly scarred with some pious runes nicking one cheek. The tech’s azure gaze raked Lexandro contemptuously, yet also somewhat longingly.

“We labour for you. We’re your bulwark against the underscum. Yet you treat us all as playthings.” The boy was putting on a high-hab accent that a rich brat could understand.

“Join us, then,” invited Lexandro loftily. “Claw your way upward. Serve the lordly ones. Partake of pleasures. But meanwhile…”

By the end of the first chapter, some time has passed, and all three boys have chosen (for their own reasons) to volunteer to join a Planetary Defence Force raid against a rebel hive-city. And all three of them are plucked from the recruitment pool for a higher purpose – to join the Imperial Fist chapter of the Space Marines. They are tested by being stripped naked, given medical tests, and then – still naked – must answer the questions of the Space Marine recruiter to his satisfaction. Throughout this process Lexandro, for one, finds the Marine’s “extraordinary physique” incredibly distracting.

How could any man be so huge and powerful in the flesh? How could he radiate such ruthless adamantine presence?

[…]

He had never stuttered before, neither during his humiliating initiation into the Lordly Phantasms, nor or on any subsequent hazardous escapade with them. […] However, this was different. Goose bumps pocked his bare flesh. He felt genuine awe at this superhuman man, at once so puissant, so self-possessed, so monomaniac in his demeanour.

So, having been plucked from their sleepy planet-bound lives they are spirited away to the Imperial Fist headquarters, which is part monastery, part boot camp, and part Sadean torture palace. They are warned that if they commit serious misdeeds, or don’t pass muster, then their brains will be wiped and they will be used as slave labour or in horrifying medical experiments. Minor infractions of military discipline are punished by the pain glove, normally before the infractor’s assembled peers; the first major incident of the Necromundan trio’s training is when Lexandro is subjected to precisely this punishment. He is stripped naked and placed in a skin-tight body glove that is bound to a surface so that he can’t move around in it. The glove is designed to overload every single one of his nerves with pain; during his two minutes of punishment, Lexandro believes that Rogal Dorn, the founder of the Chapter, is speaking to him. Biff and Yeremi lift Lexandro out of the glove, and he prostrates himself before the statue of Dorn in the chapel. The instructor states that Lexandro’s stoic endurance of this public scourging suggests that he has already been touched by Dorn, even before he (or any of the other cadets) have received the injections of Dorn’s genetic material and the surgically-implanted organs that will transform them from raw recruits into superhuman Space Marines. It is later stated explicitly that one of the consequences of receiving Dorn’s genetic material is a masochistic fascination with pain – it’s specificially described as a “kink” – and sure enough Lexandro soon finds himself looking forward to punishment in the pain glove before his assembled Brothers.

Watson explains to us that another manner in which the Fists exercise their fascination with pain is in inflicting pain on each other; Lexandro witnesses two Brothers of the Chapter arranging a duel to first blood and then strolling hand-in-hand together to the meditation room to prepare themselves, and the second major incident of the training program involves the older cadets hazing the younger boys by waking them up in the middle of the night and making them run naked through a tunnel full of neuron-affecting fields designed to inflict pain. Lexandro, Yerami, and Biff are the only ones who make it through to the end, but crucially Biff and Yerami only make it because Lexandro helps them – not because he likes them necessarily, but because he knows it would make him look good to do so, and he wants their help in kicking the asses of the older recruits he expects to encounter at the end of the tunnel, who have promised to brand the buttocks of anyone who makes it through. In fact, it turns out that the pain-tunnel hazing was semi-officially sanctioned, so when the trio find a Space Marine officer waiting for them they eagerly submit to his attentions.

Yet still, there was to be a branding upon the leather-tough buttocks: an imprint of a clenched fist, no larger than a fingernail. Only, this was indeed to be an honour – for the Sergeant himself personally wielded the electro-iron when Lexandro, Yeremi, and Biff bent over to flex the great gluteal muscles of their rumps.

But enough quotes. I think I’ve made my point: the first third of the book reads partially like Ender’s Game fan fiction, partially like gay S&M porn, and partially like 13-year-old boys sniggering about buttsex. I don’t object to the idea of introducing a gay subtext to a story about big burly men blowing up aliens in outer space; given that there are no female characters in the book at all it’s the only way to have any sort of romantic subplot whatsoever, and it adds an interesting extra dimension to Lexandro, Yerami and Biff’s mutual love-hate relationship. What irks me is the fact that Watson clearly hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle it; whenever a homosexual subtext arises, it seems that Watson is either trying to write wank material or is being totally juvenile about the issue, chortling to himself all the way. This is especially jarring since Watson appears to be trying to take the Warhammer 40,000 universe semi-seriously, or at least write military-themed space adventure stories which don’t descend into self-parody.

The real shame about the whole thing is that it tends to overshadow the really interesting aspects of the first third of the book, which is the love-hate triangle between Lexandro, Yerami, and Biff which starts developing here, and ends up becoming the major theme of the novel. Plucked out of their homes on Necromunda, the boys still bring their class prejudices with them. Lexandro is, for most of the book, a truly horrible piece of work, convinced to the core that he was born to be on top, and treating everyone he meets who doesn’t actually outrank him with contempt as a result. His religious visions of Rogal Dorn in the pain glove and the torture tunnel and elsewhere convince him that he has a special destiny: to master pain and death and become a high officer in the Imperial Fists. To this end, he adopts a death-or-glory attitude, looking to take outrageous risks in battle in order to either martyr himself (thus proving himself a better Fist than Yerami or Biff) or win the honour and recognition he believes is his birthright.

Yerami, meanwhile, is filled with a desire for social justice, having received just enough education to feel discontent with his old station in life. He becomes a strange sort of materialistic idealist, not really believing that the Emperor of Mankind is really a god and therefore not quite able to accept that the Emperor’s justice is absolute justice. He despises Lexandro for his high-handed attitude, and yet interestingly does not seem to spare a thought for Biff at all, as if he subconsciously dismisses the underclass Biff comes from even as he condemns Lexandro for his own classist attitudes. Realising Lexandro has a martyr-complex, he decides to do his best to ensure that Lexandro survives, surmising that if he protects Lexandro then Lexandro can’t take all the glory, and can be cheated out of martyring himself.

Last but not least, Biff struggles between his atavistic background in the underhive and the new world of learning and knowledge and understanding that has opened to him as a result of his induction into the Space Marines. His main struggle is getting the others to accept that he is an intelligent, thinking man just like they are, and convincing them not to dismiss his opinions out of hand. He comes to realise that he must protect Yerami just as Yerami protects Lexandro, for somewhat more convoluted and nebulous reasons.

Thus, while each of the three (aside from Lexandro) wishes to buck the limitations placed on them by their class origins, they end up in an unwilling mutual protection relationship whereby Yerami shields Lexandro and Biff shields Yerami, reflecting their original pecking order in society. And yet despite the fact that they resent one another, they also come to feel a certain comradeship and intimacy (Watson’s word, not mine) through their experiences in battle. The sniggering “Space Marines are gay!” jokes work their way into Watson’s depiction of this relationship in the later stages of the book too – there’s one memorable bit where they’ve been chained naked to a sacrificial altar by the villain, who is also for some bizarre reason nude bar for a loincloth, and Yerami manages to work himself partially free and lies on top of Lexandro to protect him, and there’s a bit where their boarding pod manages to slip into one of the Tyranids’ organic spaceships by slipping into its anus – but in the second two thirds of the book they are less obtrusive, Watson spending more time writing about fighting and less time writing about punishment and cattiness and secret initiation rituals involving the comingling of unspecified bodily fluids.

And yet, whilst the latter part of Space Marine offers fun interstellar adventure, and an interesting early depiction of the Tyranids (who had only recently been added to the Warhammer 40,000 setting), it is marred somewhat by all of the badly-handled gay space bondage. Like I said before, I don’t think the idea of adding a homosexual subtext to a story about Space Marines is completely stupid, but writing it as if you’re a troll posting “LOL SPACE MARIENS R ALL FAGG0RTZ” messages on Warhammer 40,000 message boards is. I can understand why Games Workshop chose not to reprint it; whilst I’d be the first to condemn them if they discontinued a book because it contained a gay relationship, I can see why they might object to Watson implying that an entire chapter of Space Marines are butt-branding sadomasochists.

Oh, yes, and there’s a sequence where the Space Marines eat some people’s brains to get their knowledge. I don’t think they can do that any more in canon.

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