Welcome, 40K fans, to the first in a series of articles I will be writing about some of the deeper aspects of Warhammer 40,000. These articles are a thought exercise, and by writing them I hope to improve my thinking about 40K and its fiction (and maybe about much more). Topics in this series will be wide-ranging and will not shy away from moral or philosophical issues that some may consider sensitive or even controversial. I would rather risk the conversation, so while you or I may not agree, I look forward to hearing why. Consider yourself warned for lore spoilers as well. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles on gaming in 40K!
Why Think About 40K?
It is easy to get lost in what Warhammer 40,000 (40K) is on the surface. Eternal warfare, personal misery, tyranny, and a scale that at times defies suspension of disbelief are all hallmarks of this universe that carved its very own dark niche into the science fiction genre. While it is a fun playground (as evidenced by all the toys), the 40K universe wouldn’t be as interesting as it is if it didn’t speak to something much deeper. The fact that it does speak to something deeper is evidenced by the hundreds of novels across multiple genres that simply wouldn’t exist if enough people were not interested enough to justify the cost and effort to produce. So, what is it that 40K offers to make us think and demand so much from it? That is what I hope to explore.
What it Means to Be Transhuman
Transhuman is a term often used in published 40K fiction to describe the ascended physical state achieved after regular humans survive the transformation into Adeptus Astartes. Posthuman is another term often applied to the genetically-engineered super soldiers created by the Emperor of Mankind for his crusade across the galaxy. Both terms come with their own modern-day baggage and definitions. According to my perfunctory search, Transhuman is considered the middle stage between who we are now and whatever the posthuman stage of our evolution will be. As a brief summary, posthuman as a concept encapsulates not only the physical changes that humanity as a species would undergo-such as transference to a digital consciousness or the next stage of biological or artificial evolution-but also the moral and philosophical barrier we would need to cross to recognize and implement a higher way of being that manifests in both thought and behavior.
Starting With the Transhuman
I found the conceptualization of transhuman by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his book, The Future of Mankind (written shortly after the end of the Second World War) to be interesting. This is also the first known usage of the term “transhuman” that I could track down:
“Liberty: that is to say, the chance offered to every man (by removing obstacles and placing the appropriate means at his disposal) of ‘trans-humanizing’ himself by developing his potentialities to the fullest extent.”
To paraphrase, this basically means that to ascend to a higher state of being you must develop yourself by making the most of your inherent physical and psychological potential. When it comes to removing obstacles, I understand this to say it is more a case for providing people with a means to overcome the obstacle than a simple removal of struggle is the path to more advanced being. Mental strength training, much like physical, is successful when appropriately incremental increases of strain are put on the muscles involved, not by removing weight and challenge. In that same vein, you want to remove obstacles that are insurmountable or arbitrary much in the same way you would not start a weightlifter at the maximum weight and expect them to progress. Liberty and choice provide the greatest opportunities for individual growth when properly nurtured. It is then of particular note how the failure of the Emperor to provide liberty could be argued to result in the stunted potential of those who serve him.
The idea that de Chardin put forward here was later expanded into more of an ideological movement called Transhumanism by thinkers who came about afterward, but that philosophy won’t factor too much into my discussion in these essays except perhaps to illustrate how far the depiction of our future in 40K tells us that we will fall short of even the most optimistic ideals of an etho-rational standard. The evolution of this idea also signifies an interesting shift from transhumanism as humanity’s purely biological advancement to a combination of higher biological and moral states of being.
How Does This Apply to 40K?
So, what does it mean to be transhuman in 40K? Is it just the physical reforging of flesh? Does the ascendance to Astartes replace the attributes of regular humans? I don’t see much evidence for that.
I say the transformation magnifies human attributes, and doesn’t replace them. The scale of the problems they have to face is bigger, but they are the same problems that we as people have to deal with, like anger, depression, sacrifice, betrayal, and greed. I also think that the Black Library authors know better than to waste the opportunity presented by the idea of transhuman super soldiers on a purely physical or literal representation. The act of becoming transhuman physically in 40K does not come automatically with the wholeness of fully developed being-as-such. The psycho-conditioning and indoctrination (particularly pre-heresy) is obviously not a substitute for true mental development. From kindness to cruelty and from discipline to depravity, the idea of being beyond human is the great irony of the Space Marine experiment in both the mundane and figurative senses. What being transhuman in 40K means is that becoming a Space Marine just ends up making a person more human (not above human), or perhaps more fully concentrated or saturated with quintessential humanity.
As a result, the elevation to transhuman means having more potential than a regular human while being shackled to all the same vices. The consequences of having an extra-concentrated or “bigger” human experience while only being armed with a conditioned proto-psyche on the back of a teenager’s mental development are frightening to consider. This is evidenced by the multitude of flaws in character evinced by the Astartes. It is little wonder, then, that Chaos was so easily able to find a foothold in the minds of the Astartes.
The propensity for zealotry among character archetypes such as the Word Bearers or the nihilistic streak of Conrad Kurze are good examples of the biological advancement of humanity not making Astartes immune to “normal” human failings. The examples don’t end there, either. Dorn’s inability to disobey (passed along to his sons) cost them a victory over the Iron Warriors at Phall. The Blood Angels naive and unquestioned belief in the established order sent them into the literal and figurative clutches of hell. Even pure logic is not enough (and is especially not enough) to cope with the horror of the failure of transhuman potential to live up to its dream. The list goes on, and each legion deserves one or several essays expounding on how being more than human physically was not enough.
Indeed, if the inherent biological gifts of advanced thinking capacity from becoming transhuman inevitably led to the same moral conclusions then there would have been no Horus Heresy or even variation between the legions, because despite the small biological predilections designed into the different chapters, they were all ruled by the same human logical ethos – The Imperial Truth. The failure of this ethos shows that these characters are not born or created without the same need for proper psychological development and individuation, making them ripe for corruption by the Chaos ideology. It is the subsequent failure to properly individuate by the Astartes (and their even more exaggerated Primarch parents) that ultimately unravels the Emperor’s dreams of a united and ordered galaxy, and thus it creates the great grimdark tragedy that captivates our imaginations.
The Myth That Astartes Are Not Human
So, what is transhumanity? Transhumanity is how Astartes represent not a posthuman state of ascension, but a magnified exaggeration of humanity’s physical and psychological extremes of potential. This potential is big enough to create a galaxy full of horrors when not developed properly, despite being made to kill a galaxy full of horrors. This is also immediately identifiable and applicable to each of us as readers and consumers of this fiction.
Perhaps one of the greatest lies that humans in 40K believe is that Astartes are no longer human. That sentiment is simply the unwillingness of humans to confront the extreme potentials of their own consciousnesses. This is true of us as readers as it is of humans in 40K. It is the naive manifestation of that all-too-common lie that we tell ourselves when we say “I would never ‘x.’” Astartes are actually more human than the ‘mortals’ they are stewards of, and if you know anything about humanity, then that idea is terrifying indeed.
So, that makes discussing what these stories could represent a useful exercise, because we are ultimately talking about human problems. The Grimdark then becomes the space in which we conduct our “what if” simulations about being, but more about that next week.
An Ongoing Conversation
If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. This is the space where I test these ideas in their first drafts, and also talk about all the other parts of the hobby that I enjoy from painting, community, gaming, and all the rest. It’s also the best place to converse with me about this and many other topics in 40K. Likes and shares are appreciated. I hope you enjoyed this week’s read, and I’ll see you again next time!
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