“But remember lads, there ain’t no words for every void-born thing.”
Set largely in the bowels of an Imperial Navy battleship, Andy Chambers’ Ancient History follows ex-smuggler Nathan as he’s press-ganged into brutal service in a gunnery deck work gang. As he adjusts to life as a slave to the Navy, he starts to learn more about the galaxy he lives in, and the oddities of the men he works alongside. It soon becomes clear that life is infinitely more dangerous than Nathan ever knew, although the enigmatic old hand Kron may hold clues to how he can survive the perils, and mysteries, of life in the deep void.
Equal parts action and mystery, this draws heavily on the tradition of bleak and creepy sea stories, transposed to the far future but still effective. The tropes are all there, but adapted for 40k: Nathan embarks upon a voyage, albeit to the stars and
not foreign shores, and is tested by circumstance and other characters along the way to being made stronger. It’s an effective choice, and an interesting one as the focus of 40k Navy stories are usually the officers, not the faceless slaves toiling at the guns. It’s quite long, but well paced and constructed, with an enjoyable sense of mystery throughout.
This is one of those memorable 40k stories that really stays with you long after you’ve read it. There’s a brilliant juxtaposition between the sense of insignificance for these men toiling away in vast spaces that are merely one of countless others within the colossal ship, and the very personal scope of the story. Nathan may only be one man among thousands, but this is his story – his past, present and future. There’s masses to enjoy here – well drawn characters, vivid descriptions of the bizarre spaces deep in the bowels of the ship, and a creepy sense of darkness running through it all. It’s exactly the sort of story I was thinking of when I started the Forgotten Texts series.
Despite being focused on entirely non-military characters, this still feels entirely appropriate for a 40k story. It’s a good reminder that stories can contain danger, action, intrigue, and all the elements that we love in 40k stories…without needing to be focused on soldiers, or even ‘warriors’ of any sort. Nathan is a smuggler – essentially an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary set of circumstances – but his lack of fighting ability doesn’t prevent him from being an engaging protagonist. Arguably it works in his favour, as so much of what he experiences is new and powerful in its ability to inspire awe, fear or interest.
Tonally it’s also spot on; it’s suitably grim and dark, in terms of both the plot and the setting, in a way that’s familiar as a 40k story to anyone who knows the background. It might not be often that we see these parts of a ship, but Chambers builds up a vivid picture that feels totally in keeping with what we expect nowadays, and is perhaps one of the sources for what we now take for granted. This is complemented by a lingering sense of the mysterious, from the fate of Nathan’s fellows to exactly who – or what – old Kron really is. Nathan’s ignorance of the realities of the world in which he lives is a powerful representation of the Imperium as a whole – as readers we’re so much more aware of the big picture than almost any of the characters who inhabit the Imperium!
I’ve talked before about how we don’t see many modern Black Library stories from the perspective of non-military characters, and while it would be great to get more like this it seems slightly unlikely. That notwithstanding this is the sort of story that would feel entirely at home in an anthology of 40k fiction. In fact, it might even feel at home alongside Horus Heresy stories, with it’s almost mythical feel and the sense of naivety that Nathan has – much like how Heresy-era characters are unaware of many of the galaxy’s true dangers. Either way, it’s a story that deserves to be recognised as a bona fide classic.
Like many of the stories I’ve covered in Forgotten Texts this was first published in Inferno! magazine, although a much later issue than most so far – issue nineteen, published in 2000. If you don’t want to have to trawl eBay for old copies of Inferno! then your best bet is to look for this in an anthology – you could try either 2001’s Dark Imperium or the massive Let the Galaxy Burn from 2006, which in case you hadn’t worked out by now features SO MANY great short stories. Sadly neither of those anthologies are in print any more, but Amazon Marketplace should be your friend. As ever, if you’d prefer to find it in ebook then I’d suggest dropping Black Library an email to ask for it – if enough people ask for these classic stories, they might just oblige.
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Check back next week for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives.