In the Shadow of Tolkein: 40k and Collaborative Fiction
Far removed from fan fiction with its lack of canonization and tendency towards eroticism, (see Kirk and Spock FF) the 40k Universe represent a new prototype of literature, in that the authors of the lore have adopted an unprecedented collaborative, incorporative, and inclusive method of writing. This manner of story-telling is distinct from all other forms of composition theory, in that it does not propose an agenda, it is unrecognized by academia, and it was spontaneously created as a reflection of the next generation reader’s heightened awareness of the fledgling tradition of science fiction and fantasy.
There are themes in 40k that, upon first encounter may seem like the author giving honor to, or perhaps even plagiarizing from, a classic work without giving due credit. For example, we see clear incorporation of classic authors in Inquisitor Czevak’s statement from the fourth edition Eldar Codex where he says “[a]sk not the Eldar a question for they will give you three answers, all of which are true and terrifying to know.” This quote is a pairing of the best of Arthur C. Clark and Tolkien, who lends the Imperium of man its profound sense of tragedy. Clark’s reimagined line is borrowed from Visions 1999, preceding the Codex by seven years, which states that “[t]wo possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”, and in LOTR, from Fellowship when Frodo says of Gildor, “Go not to the Elves for council for they will answer both no and yes.” Then there is the constant allusions to Blake’s heretical poetry in the first three HH books, and Chris Roberson’s reference to Musashi’s Book of Five Rings with his Book of Five Spheres in Sons of Dorn. This may seem like unconscious referencing or even plagiarism, until we acknowledge what has happened in the mind of the science fiction writer and the reader:
These writers have become part of the communal consciousness of the subculture of which we are part. Just as certain authors and tropes have become part of the national consciousness of England, such as Shakespeare and Thomas Malory, a reference to them or their work is commonplace, for their work is so entrenched in the culture that even the uneducated may reference them unknowingly (i.e. “pomp and circumstance” and “What the dickens?”). And, as I’ve mentioned before, the Brits cannot seem to leave the Arthurian legend alone when constructing any fantasy or science fiction world; so it is with Clark, Tolkien, H.G. Wells, and others in the scifi/fantasy community. But who is to decide when and how these writers should have their work opened for public use when it has already become a cultural touchstone?
40k and other works have incorporated useful science fiction devices to enable traditional story-telling, for example faster-than-light-travel, in Star-Trek’s Warp Drive, Star War’s Hyper Space, or Douglas’s Infinite Improbability Drive, but more on that later… Besides the obvious use of elves (Eldar), dwarves (squats), and orcs (orks), one has to look harder for other characters in other works. For example Dune makes use of a Navigator gene like in 40k. There are many many others, but the point is that this is an indicator of just how big 40k has become. It is incorporating the best of science fiction and fantasy into a master story. It is implicitly acknowledging that the fans have evolved to a higher state where their touchstones are people who are still alive! The tropes are being born right before us and becoming part of the universe.
The rate for assimilation into the tradition of scifi has increased, and these authors’ works have become subject to the fan’s own idea of common law concerning copyright. If it’s good enough, or original enough, it will become a theme of 40k and part of a grand collaborative tradition. These authors are making fantastic use of the best that science fiction and fantasy has to offer at an accelerated rate. Other genres have to wait, oftentimes centuries before touchstones become apparent, but whether out of a lack of scholarly tradition or sheer enthusiasm, I like to think enthusiasm, we are seeing a grand tradition of collaborative literature unfolding in the past 50 years, relatively young for a genre.