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.
Those of you who are new to the Warhammer 40,000 setting and perhaps have only been exposed to it my reviews might be inclined to ask “hey… why is the grim darkness of the far future so grim and dark in the first place?” Well, there’s many reasons. (“This universe has many themes…”) In fact, every single major faction in the galaxy is at once one of the worst things ever to happen to the universe as a whole and, at the same time, utterly and irreversibly fucked over and doomed. (Except the orks, who are perfectly happy with a grim dark future where there is only war because they consider war to be the height of lulz.) But from the point of view of humanity and the Imperium of Mankind in particular… well, there’s the fact that hyperspace is alive and hates us and wants to eat us, of course. There’s also the fact that the Emperor of humanity was basically Conan and Ferric Jaggar mashed together and cranked up to 11. There’s the way that humankind has for over 10,000 years thought to exterminate every single other culture in the galaxy expressly because of the Emperor’s guidance. There’s the fact that the venerated and adored peak of human perfection, the Space Marines, are a race of
atomic supermen genetically engineered monstrosities created by the Emperor to take over the universe. There’s the way that humanity is only able to navigate the stars in the first place thanks to the daily sacrifice of thousands of psychics to the Emperor.
But the thing which really screws the Imperium over – the thing which transforms it from an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to an abhorrent monstrosity inflicting random cruelty on the galaxy to distract itself from the fact that it’s dying of cancer – is the current status of the Emperor. Kept on life support for the past ten thousand years and more or less incapable of interacting with the outside world beyond the occasional miracle (which might just be the result of humanity’s faith in him resonating in the Warp), the Emperor exerts no control over Imperial policy and yet every major policy is developed as a means of perpetuating his agenda, as interpreted by a monstrous theocracy who consider the war crimes of his crusade to conquer the galaxy to be holy writ. And yet, the fate of the Emperor is the fate of the Imperium. As long as he is alive and is manifestly responsible for the continued viability of space travel there is no real prospect of these fucked up distortions of his maniac designs being abandoned. But the steady state currently imposed on the Imperium as a result of his current predicament can’t last forever because sooner or later entropy will do its work and the Golden Throne will break down. (In fact, in current canon it’s specified that at the end of the 41st Millennium the tech-priests maintaining the Throne discover serious problems with it requring urgent repairs… for which they don’t actually have the spare parts.) When he eventually dies, space travel will suddenly become radically more difficult, if not outright impossible. The resultant shock in the Warp as a result of the Astronomican suddenly cutting off will almost certainly have consequences, but Games Workshop have never specified what they are. (Dan once ran a Dark Heresy game which implied that the Emperor would ultimately become the Chaos God spawned by the fall of humanity, like Slaanesh is the Chaos God spawned by the fall of the Eldar; this isn’t canon but it’s sufficiently consistent with the metaphysic that it doesn’t seem at all unlikely.)