Friday, 30 June 2017

F.Y.I. (A rebuttal to GW and the Black Library)

Believe it or not, that's actually a metal reference in the title. I haven't really been keeping tally of how many metal related post titles I've used so far, but if one were to turn it into a drinking game I imagine it'd be a great way to erase any sensitive memories.

Anyway, as the uninitiated may have guessed before reading the above statement, this is going to be another wall of words post. The bad news then is no pretty pictures of models with mediocre paint jobs, but the good news is you get an extra post in addition to the scheduled one concerning the latest kinda-adequately painted models.

See, the other day GW posted up an article on their Warhammer Community blog penned by writer and notorious Enemy of The Empire* Phil Kelly on his newest Tau related novel Farsight: Crisis of Faith. You can find it here if you're interested in reading it. I don't know exactly what about it that it was - maybe it was that some of Phil's thoughts echoed my own, or maybe it just happened to be posted at a time when my enthusiasm for 40k is at an all-time low and my anger towards GW is at an all-time record high - but I nonetheless felt compelled to write a response to it. It did certainly trigger a long bout of introspective soul-searching (by which I of course mean a binge of TVtropes articles to reaffirm my stance and back me up. Except to see TVtropes referred to a lot in this post). So here goes another round of fevered rambling.

The first reaction I had (and I'm going through the Phil Kelly post blow by blow, addressing the points I took from it in chronological order) was that they seem to be trying to turn the story of Farsight (a Tau commander who broke ties with the Tau empire and leads his own renegade splinter faction) into the Horus Heresy with Tau. This... doesn't sit well with me. Like, AT ALL. Even without going into my feelings towards the Horus Heresy itself (which range from apathy to hatred that burns with the fury of a thousand suns, depending on how long ago I looked through Forgeworld's model ranges), the idea of taking an entirely unrelated faction and using it to make a clone of the Horus Heresy feels kind of cheap and un-creative to me. The Horus Heresy has already been done, and while opinions on its execution vary, the general consensus seems to be positive. Why do it again if you got it right the first second-third time?

But more than that, the reason this idea feels so wrong to me is that it's essentially turning the Tau into something that they're not, and I don't think were ever really meant to be. And even worse, that's unnecessary. As many fans of 40k will point out to you, the Warhammer 40,000 setting is big. Really big. Even the writers at GW and BL may not always be quite fully aware of just how enormously, mind-bogglingly big the 41st Millennium can be. I mean you might think that the Inner Sphere in Battletech is a big place with lots of worlds of adventure, but that's all just peanuts compared to 40k's setting (not that I'm dismissing Battletech's setting - it might be a little rigid for my tastes but it is still extremely immersive and 'Game of Thrones in space with giant robots' is a guaranteed recipe for awesome - but in terms of sheer scale it really is much smaller).

A lot of those same 40k fans will quickly point out to you that this gigantic setting is great for huge scale stories. But here's the thing: it also means there's lots of room for different stories. As a setting whose basic premise is essentially 'Sci-fi trope deathmatch' (as one TVtropes page so eloquently puts it), there's a faction or entity for every kind of story you could conceivably want to write. You've got Space Marines for action pulp, the Imperial Guard for gritty war stories, the Inquisition for gritty investigative Noir and cosmic horror, and those are just from the Imperium. Want to write a grand sweeping Space Fantasy? The Eldar are a perfect fit. Feel like making a Black Comedy? Da Orks have got you covered. Want to explore the darkest parts of human nature? Chaos has it on lock.

The thing to take away here is that there is absolutely no reason why you need to recycle stories across factions in the setting. Each one has a unique narrative niche to fill.

And the Tau are no exception.

I'd invite you to travel back in time to the early 2000s with me, but if you're familiar at all with this blog then you'll already know that I have unleashed all manner of dark and unspeakable forbidden powers to shatter the fabric of Space-Time so that it is perpetually in early 2000s stasis on here and the year never moves past 2008 unless I will it (though I also make an exception for Delain's post-We Are The Others albums. The Human Contradiction and Moonbathers are both kickass). So instead I will direct your attention to the period of 1999 - 2002ish. As a child, I never really grew up with Anime or Manga, unlike what seems to be just about every other Tau enthusiast in existence. Most of it was always just out of reach for me, so it remained one of those periphery things that I caught bits and bobs about here and there, but never really had any full exposure to (Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon were two notable exceptions, but I feel like their long-term influence on me has been negligible).

Instead, I grew up on a steady diet of classic 20th century Space Opera. While I did start powering through Dune books from age 11 onwards, for most of my childhood the actual content of most 20th century space operas was beyond the comprehension of my primitive kid brain (and certainly well outside its limited attention span), so I was mostly left looking at the phenomenal artwork that accompanied those stories, fantastical paintings of all kinds of spaceships and robots and laser cannons and time machines and other science fiction goodness. And oh boy was that a lasting influence. I can see with hindsight that my love of classic 20th century Space Opera was and remains a big factor in my fondness for the Tau, but with the advantage of age and accumulated wisdom I'm also able to put two and two together. The Tau, in their original 3rd edition depiction at least**, are effectively a love-letter to that 20th century Space Opera. And that is the kind of stories they're there for - those bright shining tales of adventure in the cosmos, solving mysteries and puzzles with science and technology, and embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment movement (and this is coming from someone who's a die-hard Romantic) to lead the universe into a better tomorrow. Y'know, after a whole bunch of conflict. Gotta have meaningful conflict for drama.

Thus, injecting this whole "Epic tale" that "Splits the T'au (sic)*** Empire down the middle" just feels to me like forcing a square peg into a round hole. If you want to write epic tales of betrayal and brother against brother (and who hasn't) then why not write about the actual Horus Heresy? Or another Imperial tale of betrayal?

Before I go on, I feel like I should clarify exactly what I'm talking about here. I don't mean to say that you can't make the Tau epic. Hell, plenty of those 20th Century Space Operas were epic as Epica. but I posit that there's epic and there's epic. What I mean when I say "making an 'Epic Tale' about the Tau is the wrong way to go" is using the same flavour of epic that's used in the Horus Heresy books, or late 8th edition and ET background, or the thrice-damned AOS. The kind of thing where big heroic heroes sweep in and win the day after impossible odds that would have felled ye mortal regulars many times over, but not our heroic heroes, who face off in a clash of blades and then pose proudly on the cover splash. That's certainly a gross oversimplification, one might almost call it a Strawman, but it's the recurring pattern I keep seeing over and over and over in what I've started to dub 'NuGW' and the stories it produces.

What I'm trying to say, I think, is that these statements have me concerned that they're trying to give the Tau a Horus Heresy, and I just don't see the point in that and indeed it sort of misses the point in where the Tau's real strength lies from a storytelling perspective.

Now, at the same time this touches on another issue. I've had some discussions on Advanced Tau Tactica before about bringing the Tau into the wider 40k setting. The debate here is between keeping the Tau confined to a small corner of the 41st Millennium and never really impacting on the wider setting, and bringing them into the wider setting and having them interact more with the status quo. Personally, I'm inclined towards the latter, but with specific conditions. At any rate, the crux of the matter in how it relates to Phil's article is thus; it's all well and good to try and get the Tau to play a bigger part in the grand scheme of things, but NOT at the cost of their identity. They still have to stay fundamentally as who they are. Sure, you have a bit of wiggle room for change in the face of new circumstances, but if you get to the point where you're compromising what makes them unique, what makes them the way they are, and getting in the way of where they come from, then something has gone wrong and you should probably ask yourself why the story needs to be about them in the first place.

And it's no co-incidence that I stopped making any references to Tau specifically in the last part of that paragraph, because it applies equally to all 40k factions and groups.

Let's move on shall we? Phil then goes on to make some remarks about the appeal to him in writing about the Tau. On some points, I can actually agree - the contrast between the bright and idealistic Tau and the, well, grim darkness of the rest of 40k is fascinating and fertile ground for creative stories. Some parts seem a little stupid (Space Marines aren't just "a brutal wall of muscle and ceramite" and 'monsters in power armour' to Tau, they're brutal walls of muscle and ceramite and monsters in power armour to everyone. Being a brutal wall of muscle and ceramite and a monster in power armour is literally the entire point of a Space Marine). One point in particular angried up my blood no end, but I'll save that for later. As Spider Jerusalem said to an irritating toll booth operator, "I'll be back for you".

It is this point here, however where we get to the real meat of my thoughts about all this. To quote directly from the article:

"How the T’au’s firepower and newly minted confidence fares against the ancient, the malevolent and the supernatural is a real draw for me. There’s a great contrast between elegant tech and gribbly horror, and the fact that in the darkness of that gothic universe, logic and science can be a limitation, or worse, a liability. 

You know the awful truth, of course. Hopefully you will be thinking ‘run, you fools!’ whenever the T’au, wide-eyed, walk straight into the lair of a menace they know nothing about – or bite off more than they can chew, and have to fight their way back out. The real threat to T’au society, however, is the truths they uncover as they do so."
This part here I found particularly intriguing, because I've actually been thinking much the same thing recently. There is a lot of potential in the interactions the Tau have with some of the more, as Phil puts it, "Gribbly horror" of the 40k setting. However, the really interesting part is that the conclusion I've come to could not be further from his. My own take is essentially the total opposite - that a bit of science and reason and a whole lot of high-tech firepower is just the thing that's needed for the darkness of that gothic universe, and that logic and science can be a strength, or better, the answer. 

In other words, while they're busy trying to write Supernatural, I'm busy writing Ghostbusters****. 

Upon reflection I suspect a large part of this drive comes from my time playing Diablo III, which introduced me to the simple animalistic joys of shooting demons in the face with crossbows. However, it also introduced me to the radical subversive idea of shooting immortal hell-gods in the face with crossbows. And it taught me that nothing, NOTHING is truly unstoppable. ANYTHING, whether its a giant monster or an immortal eldritch super-organism from the dawn of time, WILL go down if you hit it enough times. 

No exceptions. 


Now, that's not to say it should be easy to bring down immortal god-like entities, or that it should happen all the time. That way lies madness and Eldar Avatars in the 5th edition background. Likewise, if a random extra does it, it's going to be rather anti-climatic. But when it's done by well-written character that you care about, and done in a clever way that requires all of said character's skill and cunning, then you can get some phenomenally badass moments. One of the many, many, many moments in Buffy The Vampire Slayer that I really love comes in Season 2, after the villains have succeeded in unleashing a supposedly nigh-unstoppable monster upon the world. Said monster begins to rampage unchecked through a shopping mall, utterly confident in its indestructibility, until it turns around... 

... to face Sarah Michelle Gellar with a rocket launcher. 

What follows is about what you'd expect, and it's brilliant for subverting the standard conventions of those kinds of things being immune to humans. It's for similar reasons that I've always liked that moment in Return of The King then the Witch King confidently states that no man can kill it, only for Eowyn to throw off her helmet, point out that she isn't a man, and then stab said Nazghul in the face with a sword. My point is that while it's very fun to write grim nihilistic Cosmic Horror stories where the eldritch abominations can't be stopped and we're all just helpless playthings, it can also be just as fun when it turns out that the helpless mortals turn out to be not so helpless after all and bring the monster down in the end. Either approach can get tiring if it's overdone, and ideally you want a good balance of both. Sometimes Cuthulu just regenerates after having a boat driven through its head, and there's nothing anyone can really do about it, but sometimes shooting the immortal star god in the face with a railgun actually works. It's variety that's the key. 

That's why when I get writing some more feature length Tau stories, ideally you'll be thinking "Badass!" when they finally manage to bring down the rampaging horror. Sometimes at least. 

Now if you're a follower of the 1D4chan crowd or it's ilk (and if any of them are actually reading this, I will be a mixture of surprised, honoured and disturbed), you'll probably be in a state of shock if you've managed to get this far. After all, Tau of all things being what finally brings down the big bads of 40k must be fairly close to the ultimate heresy. That just wouldn't do at all for something that's supposed to be the epitome of grimdark. Which brings me nicely to the other big thing that's been eating me. You remember that point I mentioned above that had me seething with barely-contained RAGE that I said we'd get back to? It's time to address it. 

It's the continuing trend of trying to artificially darken the Tau. I cannot stress how much I HATE that idea. Because it totally defeats the point of the Tau. And don't tell me that that's a subjective stance, I have official word to back me up on that. In the original Designer's Notes on the Tau, published in White Dwarf #262 (US), Andy Chambers himself wrote as much: 

"In contrast to other races, we wanted the Tau to be altruistic and idealistic, believing heartily in unification as the way forward." 

That line was ripped straight from the text. That is how the Tau should be, and to take that away is sort of missing the point of them. If you want grim darkness, then there are seven other factions you can get it in (more if you count sub-groups), you really don't need another. And here's the other thing. I'm going to let you in on a little secret, known to only a few. Here it is. 

You can have groups that aren't dark in a dark setting WITHOUT taking away its darkness. 

It's true, believe me. It is possible to have it both ways. You can have your genuinely bright altruistic good guy Tau, and if they're the only group like that in the setting, then it will still be grim and dark. In fact, when you think about it, the idea of the Tau being just as dark as everyone else really is actually pretty boring. If you take away that shiny altruism, then what's left that really makes the Tau unique? Battlesuits? Yawn. 

At that point they really just become a palette-swapped Imperium. And if you get to that point then why not just write about the Imperium? 

There's a quote on the TVtropes page for the Marvel comic book character Squirrel Girl. It's uncredited, but here is how it goes: 

"Maybe it's just me, but I'm not crazy about super hero stories where everything's all dark and moody. Personally, I like the ones where good guys fight giant apes on the moon and stuff. Remember those? I do. That was back when comic book worlds were places you wanted to escape to... not from." 

This basically sums up my stance towards 40k. Maybe it's just me, but when I'm confronted with a 40k that's grim and cynical and utterly dark without any redeeming groups whatsoever (and the Ultramarines don't count), I immediately get Darkness Induced Audience Apathy and can only ask "Why do I care about any of this?" And the answer is, inevitably, "I don't care about any of this" which is never the reaction you want to get from a story. 

And I get it. I totally understand the appeal of a grim dark setting. Truth be told I'm actually pretty grimdark myself. And I definitely don't want to see 40k get too light and have too many good guys either - that's one of my biggest criticisms about NuGW background lore after, well, it's existence. But I posit to you that it is possible to have a happy medium between the two extremes. 

So it's totally OK to have grim dark stories in a grim dark 40k setting, but please leave the blue-blooded 20th Century Space Opera homage that is the Tau out of it. Leave them for us folk who want to write about the good guys and get a warm fuzzy feeling whenever they win games. 

And if you're concerned about how non-red blood looks in artwork, then go back to black and white monochrome artwork. It looks much better anyway. 

*That's a little Advanced Tau Tactica humour in case you didn't know.
**Still the only one that matters - with one or two exceptions any background about them written since then is Fake News(TM) and should be dismissed as the heresy it is. 
***Though I feel like I'm the only person in the universe who does, I still maintain that the injection of an apostrophe into the name 'Tau' is stupid. I know T'au is the Tau homeworld, but that's like calling all Russians Muscovites. There's more to Russia than just Moscow and there's more Septs in the Tau Empire than T'au. 
****The first one, just before anyone starts jumping to conclusions. While I personally didn't find the reboot that bad, I understand it's very much cinematic Marmite. 

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