Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ian Watson, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor (1990)

The Warhammer phenomena (both original flavour and 40,000 flavour) passed me by as a teenager. I certainly knew people who were into it: the gaming, collecting the figurines and painting them by hand, poring over White Dwarf, loitering in Games Workshops shops with other teenage boys. Looking back, I'm not sure why it passed me by; I ought, perhaps, to have been prime Warhammer material. As an undergraduate I shared a flat with three guys, one of whom was a heavy-duty Star Fleet Battles player, and another of whom had a large collection of hand-painted Warhammer miniatures. This latter gentlemen, towards the end of his third year, took his figurines to job interviews. 'You should see their faces,' he told us, delightedly, 'when I whip them out and put them on the table, halfway through the interview!' As I tried to picture their expressions, he went on, in a more solemn voice, that the figures demonstrated such exemplary indices of employability as 'dedication' and 'excellent hand-eye coordination' ('painting the details is quite a challenge,' he pointed out), which I suppose, in a sense, they did. I don't recall him actually getting any jobs, mind you. Although having said that, the individual in question was a medical student, and is now (I believe) a GP, so this strategy must have worked out for him at some point.

Why wasn't I like him? I don't think it was because I wasn't as geeky as he. Indeed, I'd say something the reverse was true: it was that I was too geeky. Whatever else you may say about wargaming, hanging out in Games Workshop shops and the like, it is at least a social activity. If I'm honest I was happier without that awkward 'interacting with other human beings' component to my SF nerdery; more comfortable solus in my bedroom reading a book. But the appeal of miniatures is surely core to the appeal of SF more broadly. There's a rather fine Hilaire Belloc passage at the start 'The Inn of the Margeride' (from The Hills and the Sea, 1906) that gets to the heart of this, I think:
Whatever, keeping its proportion and form, is designed upon a scale much greater or much less than that of our general experience, produces upon the mind an effect of phantasy.

A little perfect model of an engine or a ship does not only amuse or surprise; it rather casts over the imagination something of that veil through which the world is transfigured, and which I have called "the wing of Dalua"; the medium of appreciations beyond experience; the medium of vision, of original passion and of dreams. The principal spell of childhood returns as we bend over the astonishing details. We are giants--or there is no secure standard left in our intelligence.

So it is with the common thing built much larger than the million examples upon which we had based our petty security. It has been always in the nature of worship that heroes, or the gods made manifest, should be men, but larger than men. Not tall men or men grander, but men transcendent: men only in their form; in their dimension so much superior as to be lifted out of our world. An arch as old as Rome but not yet ruined, found on the sands of Africa, arrests the traveller in this fashion. In his modern cities he has seen greater things; but here in Africa, where men build so squat and punily, cowering under the heat upon the parched ground, so noble and so considerable a span, carved as men can carve under sober and temperate skies, catches the mind and clothes it with a sense of the strange. And of these emotions the strongest, perhaps, is that which most of those who travel to-day go seeking; the enchantment of mountains; the air by which we know them for something utterly different from high hills. Accustomed to the contour of downs and tors, or to the valleys and long slopes that introduce a range, we come to some wider horizon and see, far off, a further line of hills. To hills all the mind is attuned: a moderate ecstasy. The clouds are above the hills, lying level in the empty sky; men and their ploughs have visited, it seems, all the land about us; till, suddenly, faint but hard, a cloud less varied, a greyer portion of the infinite sky itself, is seen to be permanent above the world. Then all our grasp of the wide view breaks down. We change. The valleys and the tiny towns, the unseen mites of men, the gleams or thread of roads, are prostrate, covering a little watching space before the shrine of this dominant and towering presence.

It is as though humanity were permitted to break through the vulgar illusion of daily sense, and to learn in a physical experience how unreal are all the absolute standards by which we build. It is as though the vast and the unexpected had a purpose, and that purpose were the showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive.
I quoted this recently in another place, and added: 'I suppose this appeals to me because my own fiction is, or seems to be (since, believe me, I'm as surprised about this as you are), so obsessed with shifts in scale of precisely this sort: from human beings to giants; from giant to microbe-sized beings; models, Big Dumb Objects, detailed sketches and plans of other SF fiction, and the like.' But it might be more apropos to relate the passage to the passion some SFF fans feel for miniatures. Perhaps the ground of this love is, precisely, a Bellocish sense of breaking through the vulgar illusion of daily sense (the combination, which wargaming figurines enable, of simultaneous minute attention to details and large scale imaginative transcendence -- 'showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive'. Or perhaps that's merely pseudish.

Anyhow, I came to this novel because I've been following up on my 'reading Ian Watson' plan, not because I'd developed any sudden middle-aged interest in Warhammer 40,000. But I must say: I was very pleasantly surprised. The story concerns the titular Inquisitor, one Jac Draco, a sort of futuristic Witchfinder General in a human-lead Galactic Empire, and his search to seek out and destroy 'heretics, mutants, aliens and demons'. These latter are manifestations of the forces of Chaos. They live in the 'warp dimension' through which spacecraft must travel, but are constantly breaking out into normal space to monstrous and destructive effect. The Galactic God-Emperor, in a centuries long coma and only kept alive by machine, in fact uses his prodigious willpower to sort-of-magically hold these forces at bay; but 'he is failing -- just as the Imperium is failing, slowly and haphazardly but failing nonetheless.' The novel starts with an assault on a pernicious mutant presence infecting the weapon-factory world of 'Stalinvast.' We then follow Jac and his three companions (the beautiful female assassin Meh'Lindi, the warp navigator and pilot Vitali Googol, and the Gimli-esque sidekick dwarf Grimm) as they scoot around the cosmos trying to get to the bottom of a conspiracy within a conspiracy, fighting all sorts of nasties, and generally having a great deal of monstrous fun. It's tosh, of course; but tosh of a exceptionally high calibre, and Watson gets the tone exactly right. In its own way, melodrama is very hard to write well, and the slightly fruity ponderousness of Watson's prose here (liberally sprinkled with exorcist's Latin) is just right.
Jac arose at last, staggering slightly. Crossing to her, he extended a palm against her brow. She flinched momentarily. Extending his psychic sense, he spoke words of power in the hieratic ritual language. In nomine imperatoris hominorum magistris ego te purgo et exorcizo. Apage, Chaos, apage! [93-4]
Hmm; I wonder if the vocative of 'Chaos' is 'Chaos'? Shouldn't that be Apage, Chao, apage? No matter.
The warlock was a bloated, horned hermaphrodite draped in bilious green skin. Oozing sexual orifices puckered his/her sleeping belly. His/her long muscular tongue lashed and probed the air like a sense organ ... Acrid musk saturated the air. Jewel tipped stalactites hung from the cavern roof, aglow like many little lamps. [125]
So, yes, Watson takes his job here seriously; and the result is wholehearted and often genuinely effective intergalactic Gothic. The grand guignol is evocatively written, the story is engaging, the moral dilemma of the central character -- a man who does terrible things, including ordering the destruction of an entire planet, genuinely in the service of what he believes to be the greater good -- effective, if one-note. Not least, Watson grapples heroically with the task of suggesting the improbable scales of his preset cosmos within the confines of an 80,000-word tie-in novel. Especially early on, the prose is full of rather artful Battleship Potemkin-y touches that sketch-in the populousness and enormousness of everything. As space marines battle through the vast hive-like cities of Stalinvast millions are killed, and millions more flee, 'a river of humanity':
Below, the surge was growing ever denser as if that river had met a dam ahead. Moving walkways must have failed under the weight they bore. Bodies were conglomerating together, asphyxiating. Corpses were carried along, standing upright. The nimblest escapees hopped across the heads of the living and the dead, till a twisted ankle or a grasping angry hand brought them down ... the very walls of the avenue seemed likely to burst. Upthrusts of men and women forced cones of tangled crushed bodies higher than the rest of the mass. The flood of tormented flesh appeared to be one single myriad-headed entity, which was now compressing itself insanely til eyes started, skin split, til blood vessels sprayed. [35]
There's an E-E-Doc-Smithworthy profusion of modifiers such as 'vast', 'colossal', 'enormous'. Characters bicker over whose provenance is the largest ('"You're the hereditary lord of a whole world," Jaq found himself saying presently; "whereas I'm the emissary from the lord of the entire galaxy!"). In all this the aesthetic is that of the model miniature: things which are notionally huge described from the point of view of something even huger, such that the detail acquires the feel of intricate, miniature detail:
The Governor's sanctum was a leviathan suffused with the same dreary red light. Censers burned, further hazing the air. Goggled officials hunched over consoles around tiers of cantilevered wrought-iron galleries. Caged mutants with abnormally large eyes played complicated games on three dimensional boards.
Of course they did.
At the heart of the enormous room an ornate marble building shaped like a pineapple squatted on a disc of steel. That disc must be a lifting platform which could raise and lower the Governor's sanctum sanctorum.
This sort of stuff replicates precisely the gamer's buzz; the Bellocish sense of occupying the minute and the gigantic simultaneously.

My ignorance of the larger Warhammer 40,000 universe means that I can't be sure which of the many very cool details here are Watson's inventions and which are common currency. But, as befits a novel spun-off from a product as much about intricate detail as cool design, this novel is both full of wonderful details, and also a very efficient, well-designed piece of narrative space-hokey.
Veils of sickly pigment draped the void in all directions, lurid, gangrenous, and mesmerizing, as if an insane artist had been set loose to paint, on a canvas, the kaleidoscope of his mad, shapeless nightmare. [165]
This supplants my previous front-runner (the Lawrentian 'Suave Loins of Darkness') as 'Phrase I'd Most Like To Use As A Band-Name Should I Ever Get Round To Forming A Band': Veils of Sickly Pigment goes straight to the top of that list.
Lightning forked across a jaundiced sky as if discharging the tensions between reality and irreality. Some clouds suppurated, dripping sticky ichor rather than rain. [171]
It has been a disappointing summer so far, hasn't it.
Other great buildings were giant mutated solo genitalia. Horned phallic towers arose, wrinkled ribbed, blistered with window pustules. Cancerous breast domes swelled, fondled by scaly finger-buttresses. Tongue bridges linked these buildings. Scrotum pods swayed. [183]
We recently moved house, and estate agents showed us several Scrotum Pod properties. Prince Charles has spoken out against them, I know, but I personally found them compact and affordable. Then there's the clothes! Splendid clothes!
Weapons and other devices hung within Obsipal's blood-red high-collared cloak; and his belted black robe was appliquéd with glaring white death's heads. [19]
I honestly can't think of another Space Opera in which the main villain wears appliqué. Or later on:
"Wise Adeptus," interrupted a beige-clad novice. [226]
This isn't just beige, of course. It's ironic beige. Rarely has a novel been as luridly coloured as this one. Decadent excess oozes from every sentence. Our heroes fight bird-footed women: 'her body, clad in a chain-mail leotard trimmed with rosettes and puffs of gauze, was blanched and petite; hair hair blonde and bounteous. Yet her feet were ostrich-claws, ornamented with topaz rings, her hands were chitinous, painted pincers' -- and Watson knows perfectly well that the most startling thing about her is the chain-mail leotard. Evil takes the shape of a vast tentacular hyrda composed partly of material ooze and partly of spirit energy from the warp (in a moment of icky quasi-hentai nastiness, Meh-Lindi is mind-raped by one of these tentacles). Beige? Hardly.

At any rate, I rattled through this and thoroughly enjoyed it. By the time Jaq Draco confronts the God Emperor, in a vast cavern hollowed out beneath the Himalayas, I was practically cheering. The Emperor speaks IN LONG STRETCHES OF BLOCK CAPITALS, and we're none the wiser. ('HEAR THIS DRACO! ONLY TINY PORTIONS OF US CAN HEED YOU, OTHERWISE WE NEGLECT OUR IMPERIUM, OF WHICH OUR SCRUTINY MUST NOT FALTER FOR AN INSTANT. FOR TIME DOES NOT HALT EVERYWHERE WITHIN THE REALM OF MAN. INDEED TIME ONLY HALTS FOR YOU. WE ARE AGONIZINGLY ALONE!') "How can a minnow understand a whale?" Jaq cried.' Wise words.


PeteY said...

Thanks for the Watson reviews Adam. You've got me rereading him as much as I can. Unfortunately I, too, have recently moved house, to Italy, and half of my books are still in the safe keeping of a friend in London. It's pretty frustrating.

If you want a fine piece of hokum, though, I can recommend Watson's The Flies of Memory. At least, I can recommend the first two thirds of it.

BTW I recently read your New Model Army and was blown away by it. Wonderful!

Al R said...

I read this as part of a general Watson binge at the time it was published (like you, with no other interest in or knowledge of the Warhammer universe) but enjoyed it tremendously. Your review is spot on.

I'll also second PeteY's endorsement of The Flies of Memory, which I must have read around the same time.

Dave Cesarano said...

This is the sort of review I aspire to write. Damn. I should give this book a read when I get the chance.

Lucas said...

Nice review. Reading that book as a child - feverishly trying to understand a word of it, a heady experience - I admit I still have a fanboy-reverence for it depite all the preposterousness.
I like Ian Watsons' work immensely, but some of it is hard to come by, being out of print, he's an underrated writer.
Inquisitor had two inferior sequels, still of interesting detail. And also, he wrote another novel for Games Workshop named Space Marine... 3 dots because if you can find it, as I really recommend, you'll see why it wasn't reprinted for more than a decade. If you thought scrotum-pod buildings were bad, you've seen nothing.

nick said...

"a human-lead Galactic Empire"

Well, it could hardly be otherwise, with all those figurines running around on the tabletop...

I'll get my coat.

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks Dave!

Pete, Al; I'll try and get hold of a copy of Flies.

Flowdeeps said...

If you liked this but have no real interest in Games Workshop's 40k universe you should try an read the Horus Heresy in its entirety. Undertaken by several writers at once it attempts to put the tale of the corruption of mankind and the rise of the Emperor of Mankind to paper.
I already know your 'love' of the sprawling space opera from reading your WoT reviews (I don't envy you one bit) so I think perhaps you might get some sense of perverse pleasure from the undertaking.
Bear in mind that the average 14 year old Warhammer player knows all of the details of this story by heart already despite it being small snippets of faux historical information culled from the myriad rulebooks and magazines that have been published over the years.
There was also a huge retcon of the forces of Chaos a few years ago which had to be taken into account as well.
It's been a good few years since I even thought of Warhammer and can't help but feel that there's a great deal of my mind's storage capacity devoted to this chaff that could probably be put to better use.

You can get an idea of the scale of the undertaking here:

Currently they're at book 16 of 19. I know, right?

I got to book 6 before I realised that there were other endeavours more deserving of my attention, like rereading Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series.

Flowdeeps said...

I would also like to point out that the Horus Heresy books I did read were some of the most homoerotically charged books I have ever read.