Forgotten Texts: Space Marine by Ian Watson

“What shelter could there be from an insanity which existed only a membrane away from the ordinary world?”

Originally published in 1993, before Black Library even existed as a publishing house, Ian Watson’s Space Marine was his second 40k novel and went on to be something of a seminal work, influencing countless stories to follow. These days it’s really not ‘canon’ (more on this later) but there’s no doubt about its story credentials. The tale of three Necromundan youths raised to become Imperial Fists from wildly differing backgrounds, it follows Biff, Lexandro and Yeremi as they progress through the trials required to become a Space Marine, and then various missions as first Scouts and then full battle brothers.

Structured to follow the three characters’ progression through the Chapter, it’s both a detailed look at the recruitment, development and training of Space Marines, and an intimate, personal account of three warriors whose fates are indelibly connected…whether they like it or not. Character-wise Watson paints a vivid picture of what’s going on in the protagonists’ minds, gleefully throwing in detail after psychedelic detail of the still-mutable 40k universe and painting the three of them – and the supporting cast – as way more human than you’d expect of Space Marines today.

Each one has a unique outlook on his life and duties, fundamentally informed by both his upbringing and a chance encounter with the others in the Necromundan underhive. Both the dialogue and the characters’ internal monologues are strangely casual – and often genuinely bizarre – but the way they interact with each other, and gradually realise just how inextricably linked they are, is cleverly done. You wouldn’t see Space Marines talking or acting in this way in a modern 40k story, but then these are Space Marines in their earliest incarnation, with plenty of characteristics familiar to the current setting but also a plethora of fundamental differences.

That’s not to say they’re poorly drawn, but rather that Watson worked with what he had to hand…he created some fascinating characters, but a lot has changed since 1993! The same applies to the worldbuilding, with more than enough elements of 40k already in place for it all to feel very familiar, but plenty more that you just wouldn’t see today. Look carefully and amongst the Squats, Zoats and lasgun-wielding Space Marines, you might spot little things that still hold strong resonances – like the throwaway mention of a previous Imperial Fists Chapter Master named Maximus Thane! Also, those unfamiliar elements often result in some of the most entertaining moments, not least a particular scene with the Scouts piloting an Imperator Titan, of all things, to hilarious effect.

There’s no doubt about it, this is a weird read for fans of modern-day 40k, even those who have been there throughout the setting’s 30-year growth. Put aside all the weird not-quite-40k elements, though, and you’re left with a startlingly original – if very strange – book that’s both an impressive standalone story and something of a time machine allowing us to look back on the early stages of something decades in the making. The best way to read this is to try and forget that it’s even 40k at all, and just enjoy it for the weird characters and bonkers action.

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So. Space Marine. I started the Forgotten Texts series of articles with the aim of looking back at classic short stories from the Inferno! era, but in hindsight this is exactly the sort of story I should be looking at. Along with Watson’s classic Inquisition War trilogy – Inquisitor (since renamed Draco), Harlequin and Chaos Child – this is one of the earliest stories ever set in the 40k universe, and is one of those books that long-term fans of the setting tend to talk about in fond terms. Sadly I no longer have the original copy that I read (probably a library book), but I do have a 2010 reprinting – under the Heretic Tomes mark – and, after re-reading for the umpteenth time…now’s the time to ask the usual question:

How does this compare to modern-day 40k stories?

Well, I’m sure you’ll have spotted from the review that it’s…a little left of centre. In fact, that’s a total understatement. This isn’t just left of centre, it’s almost like reading a book from a totally different series. Almost. It’s actually a pretty strange experience, reading this, and one that I suspect will be different, albeit equally weird, depending on whether you’re a long-time fan of 40k or a newer reader.

If you’ve followed 40k for most or all (most, in my case) of its existence, you’ll probably see an awful lot here that’s familiar, much of it heavy with nostalgia, and be reminded of just how far 40k has come over the years. I mean, Zoats? Squats? That guy missing all his limbs? It’s all cool, but it just doesn’t really fit with 40k these days. As for anyone who’s reading this for the first time, and hasn’t experienced as many of the changes in 40k – you’ll probably just look at the aforementioned weirdness, along with things like roller-skating soldiers and Space Marines reverting to the speech patterns of their old lives, and think “what the…? What is all this?”

What the…?

Like I said in the review, though, I think the best way to read this book is to acknowledge upfront that it’s not really Warhammer 40,000. Or at least, that it’s a sort of proto-40k which contains a large core of what we now consider to be key elements of the setting, but hasn’t yet been refined and had its idiosyncratic edges knocked off to become what we know today. Take, for example, the Imperial Fists’ colour scheme – these days an aspirant would comment with awe and wonder on the burnished gold of a battle-brother’s war plate, right? In Space Marine it’s described as ‘pus-yellow…chevroned in azure.” Wait, pus-yellow with blue stripes? Right…

That applies to the whole thing, though, not just the worldbuilding – the plot, the storytelling, the dialogue, a lot is familiar but just as much is the result of Watson’s stylistic choices. His writing just feels different to the sort of stuff that Black Library releases these days, owing more (understandably) to classic sci-fi with its grand ambitions and fierce nonconformity than the slightly toned down, but still cool, stylings of Black Library – and a lot of other sci-fi – these days.

I’ve mentioned already that there are, of course, an awful lot of elements in Space Marine that will be familiar to 40k fans. What’s interesting about these is how they show just how much of the stuff we take for granted has its roots in 20+ year-old writing. It’s difficult to know how much was a result of Watson’s imagination and how much had already been codified by the guys working on 40k at the time, but if you strip away the weirdness you’re left with a core of easily-identifiable themes and descriptions. Each of the different organs implanted into a Space Marine – present and correct. The creepy gothic stylings. The idea of the Emperor as a god (although how the Fists perceive him is a bit different to today’s approach). The gross bio-organic nature of the tyranids. The list goes on.

In fact, it’s remarkable that a book could feel so different in tone and have so many weird little concepts and moments compared to today’s books, yet at the same time feel incredibly familiar and recognisable. I think that’s the crux of Space Marine, and the reason why Black Library are happy to continue publishing it without making sweeping changes to it. As long as you recognise and acknowledge that it isn’t canon, and that it’s essentially a time machine back to an earlier stage of 40k’s development, it’s no less enjoyable to read than it was when it was first published.

I would say that this is still one of the most entertaining 40k books ever published. For every weird snippet of dialogue or internal monologue, or “wait…what?!” moment, there’s a horrifyingly fascinating scene showing an aspirant’s body rejecting an implant, or a Scout making an obscene gesture with a Titan’s power fist. It might not be canon, but it’s still a damn fine novel.

Happily there’s no need to scour the darkened corners of second hand bookshops or online auction sites to get hold of a copy of Space Marine – you can pick it up in digital form either via Black Library, iBooks or Amazon. Although, if you’re a paper book purist then you will need to do some digging…and it might just set you back a pretty penny.

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I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. I’d love to be able to bring you an interview with Ian Watson to talk about his recollections of writing Space Marine, but as he’s busy writing film scripts in Hollywood I suspect the chances of that are rather slim.

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 soon for the next instalment where I’ll be taking a look at another story from the Black Library archives – and click here to see the full list of reviews and author interviews in this series.

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