Op-Ed: What is Love?

Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.

Hey everyone, Danny from TFG Radio here, and today, I am going to talk about something definitely off-brand, and I blame the fearless Reecius for suggesting such, but we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life, and what is life without love?  Yes, if Black Library can start to focus on other genres like Horror and Crime, can Romance work the same within the Grimdark? Let’s see.

The picture that started this all

What kind of Romance?

Love as a word in English is woefully vague. We love our parents; we love our partners; we love our hobby; we love our children, and we use the same word for each when they are categorically different kinds of love.  So who is to say that you cannot bring Romance into 40K by looking at the different kinds of love there might be, and since 40K is so very much inspired by Greek and Roman history and mythology, let’s look at the Greek words for love.

Eros – This is often seen as physical love, sexual love, a love of the heart and the body.  This is what we typically think of as the realm of the Romance novel.  We can generally assume in the 40K universe, sentient creatures of all varieties are capable of feeling this, and while most philosophers would separate base animal need to procreate and Eros, we know from the lore that the Aeldari feel Eros quite keenly, and this is part of what made Slaanesh possible. Really, you could write stories centered around Eros (and god knows the internet loves to, but we won’t be going there) with a good deal of possibilities, namely humans, Aeldari, and T’au. 

Phileo – This is often interpreted as a love of the mind or the soul, (Philosophy means to love wisdom), and it is a love that is in some ways parental and some ways complementary in nature.  We often love our hobby in a Phileo way as we may love our teammates.  It engages us in both the mind and even the soul (that special happy feeling being at a GT and surrounded by the hobby).  What would Romance look like if we focused on that kind of love?  It would be stories centered around craft and ideas.  In an interesting twist, this would be the easiest to write in 40K in terms of being able to draw upon multiple factions and perspectives, but it would be the hardest to write in an engaging way because it would sound more like Philosophy than an actual narrative story.  Having an Earth Caste T’au waxing poetic about how beautiful it is to craft something could be engaging for some, but probably not for most.

Agape – This is generally in most philosophy the parental form of love, a love built upon sacrifice for others.   You love someone or something because you want to protect it, nurture it, and lead it forward.  You take on an ownership of it in a real sense. This is something I think you already see in some Games Workshop fiction, especially around the Emperor and the Salamanders.  They both have a great deal of Agape towards others, The Emperor trying to lead and nurture humanity as a whole while the Salamanders are quite protective of others, particularly the innocent.  I am sure there are several books in the many 40K books that you could somewhat argue are Agape based Romance novels as they center on individuals who sacrifice for others, who take on the burdens for others, and who love others, just not in the way that we usually use love.  I think this is very much something that has been done already and can be done again, so it is a Romance novel in the Classical sense? No, but it is engaging ideas of love? Absolutely.

Storge – The love of community and tribe.  This again is the love that we feel for others around us because they are like us, because they are part of ourselves in real, meaningful ways, not just intellectually or emotional ways.   This again is something that you see very clearly in certain factions like Space Wolves or Salamanders.  The Craftworld Aeldari are very much a good place for this as they are about protecting their dying communities at all costs.  Having characters that are defined by Storge, perhaps even held down by it, that is again great material to work with in terms of creating meaningful, engaging characters and narratives.  Is this Romance? Not in the way we think, but perhaps in a way that should be included more.

Of course, these are ideas playing with the concept of Romance, but can an actual, dyed in the wool Romance novel exist and exist harmoniously in the 40K universe?

From Eagle Ordinary, a 40K web comic

Classical Romance

If we look at the standard genre definition of Romance, then we get this from the Romance Writer’s of  America:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

With this in mind, the most fertile ground for such in 40K would be focusing on the Astra Militarum.  With the Grimdark of 40k, most of these units never rotate home or even survive to do such.  That means you have billions of soldiers living, fighting, and dying together, far from home with no real hope of returning.  Knowing this, most soldiers would take what they could get, forming relationships with those around them. You only need to look at the history of Romance in the military to see that this is generally accurate.

From a narrative standpoint, it is easy then to add high emotional stakes and conflicts to the relationship, namely trying to survive, but also ensure the survival of a cherished one. Think about how standard this is in Horror writing: Parent trying to protect Child/Children from monsters.  This would be the real spice to the story, and you could still have the standard action emphasis of a 40K novel, but then perhaps then the action itself would take on deeper meaning as it is not just a power-armored badass filling pages with bolter-porn, but rather scenes of deep tension where the two lovers are not just struggling to blast xenos but keep each other alive during such. 

From Goonhammer

There are also other stories that can be told as in older fluff, White Scars and Salamanders were heavily involved with their local population, so could love actually bloom between a superhuman and not a superhuman? How would love evolve between two near-immortals but who are built only for War?  You have the Aeldari and T’au of course.  Clearly, most species in the setting reproduce somehow, so Romance and sexuality certainly exists in the fluff, and again, we have Slaanesh, so it’s not like the ideas aren’t there already.

Since this is 40K overall, you can play with the Romance genre and do the standard “illicit affair” narrative of say a Battle Sister and a Guardsmen, but then have that lead to their fall to Chaos.  Chaos followers are pretty strange, but the best writing in Black Library fiction has always been centered around flawed characters and often how their flaws bring them down, so again, there are avenues to explore here that would be really exciting to read.

Sure, some factions don’t work since Orks are fungus, Tyranids create themselves out of biomatter, Necrons are metal that have mostly put those thoughts aside, but hey, that leaves a lot actually. 

The one part where this can struggle is of course the Optimistic Ending portion.  40K is Grimdark, baby, and well, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Perhaps leaning into Shakespearean tragedy and showing how precarious and precious relationships are in the face of such overwhelming destruction and inhumanity would ring true for a lot of readers.  After all, the most recognizable Romance stories are tragedies.  It would certainly be emotionally satisfying but not necessarily optimistic.

At the end, you absolutely could build a Romance novel inside the 40K universe and have it be both emotionally engaging and viscerally exciting.

Who would read it?

Probably not what most would assume is the standard Romance reader

There is very much the idea that Romance novels are for only for women, and yes, data shows that they make up the majority of consistent readers.  The average romance reader is between 30 and 54 (sounds like 40K), college educated and middle class (again, some parallels here to 40K), and Romance makes up about 1.1 billion dollars a year.  Romance readers also read a ton, so clearly, it is working for a lot of folk.

If you have ever browsed the Romance section of a bookshop, trust me, the setting of 40K isn’t all that out there compared to the some of the settings of others.  Particularly amongst Indie and Self-Published Romance, which is the largest share of eBook sales for Romance by far, you get some pretty crazy settings, so honestly, 40K would be tame.  Just google ‘Science Fiction Romance Books’ and see what you get. Try it.

This is absolutely one of the tamer ones, too…

This means that there is a host of readers who would actually be interested in Romance novels in 40K, assuming they were done well.  Trust me, it wouldn’t be that much of a deviation for some readers.   Not to mention, if you are normally not a Romance reader but a 40K reader, Romance novels don’t have to be only love scenes and courtship. There is certainly the stereotype about them, but that doesn’t make them true.

Again, going back to the idea of the Imperial Guard, what if your meet-cute is hiding from a rampaging Carnifex? Romance can absolutely add a wonderful level of depth to a work if done well, and hell, if not done well, it can sometimes still be tantalizing enough to enjoy.  I mean, there are certainly some Black Library books that are just pow-pow-pew-pew, but they can still be a good time to read.

With all that in mind, really, I don’t think Romance and 40K are mutually exclusive here, but as with most things, execution is what would determine if a Romantic 40K book was successful or not.  The human story is often elevated by Romance as love is a universal topic, a universal desire, and a universal need, so eschewing it really only cuts off interesting and engaging paths within a story. 

Thanks for reading as always, and if you like writing, TFG Radio will be doing our usual haiku contest, so check us out.  Stay safe out there and get some games in.

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About Danny Ruiz

Long-long time 40K player, one of the original triumvirate of head 40K judges at LVO, writer, educator, tyranid-enthusiast, disciple of Angron, man about town, afflicted with faction ADD.

4 Responses to “Op-Ed: What is Love?”

  1. No October 25, 2020 8:36 am #

    Urgh, no. It would be too horrifically cheesy and no.

    And IG is not the best for it. Rogue Traders, Nobility and such are far more suited for romance.

    Actually there is romance stuff going on in Eldar Path books, but it is tragic.

    • Caribbean Custodes October 25, 2020 8:55 am #

      Urgh, yes. Love me some romance, all varieties, give it to me now.

  2. Dakkath October 25, 2020 4:37 pm #

    I do in fact think Love Can Bloom On The Battlefield.

  3. Michael Corr October 27, 2020 6:26 am #

    The Gaunt’s Ghosts series actually explores some aspects of love and relationships between two of the main characters. It’s handed pretty well, but never really takes the focus of the story.

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