By the time I got into 40k proper a lot had changed from its early days. I was aware of it before, even as a child I had a basic idea of it all, but it wasn’t until much later that I really started to properly dig into the world of the 41st Millennium. By that time the Genestealer cults had faded into the background almost to the point of disappearing. Of course, I quickly found I wanted more than the codices alone were offering me and I started to dig deeper, pouring over Codex Imperialis, Slaves to Darkness, Waargh the Orks and other seminal tomes. I still never really spared much thought for the Genestealer cults though. To me the Tyranids were always a ravenous horde pouring in from the galactic fringe, or at least stealthy alpha predators who lurked in crumbling space hulks. I loved the Alien films (the old ones – it all went downhill a little as the franchise progressed) and my vision of the Tyranids was very much in keeping with this. Either they were lone genestealers picking off Space Marines ala Alien or they were hordes of Guants swarming embattled Imperial Guard regiments ala Aliens. At no point did anyone feel the need to travel around in a limo.
Thus if you want to know the story of the rise and fall (and rise!) of the Genestealer cults I’m not the best person to ask. However I highly recommend you head over to Heresy and Heroes for a far more erudite and comprehensive version of the story than I could ever hope to give. Because, after a long, long time in the shadows the Genestealers are back and ready to stir things up all over again.
Suffer Not The Alien To Live
Before we get too overexcited about the Genestealers however its worth giving a quick mention to the other faction represented in the new Deathwatch: Overkill boxset – the Deathwatch themselves. Whilst the Genestealers dwindled into the background of 40k their adversaries the Space Marines have gone from strength to strength. Today the Emperor’s Finest boast a muscular slew of models, an impressive series of codices, star in more books than a sane man could count and generally dominate the grim darkness of the far future in a way no other race can come close to. They even have a whole period of the game’s history (and a very financially successful one for Games Workshop at that) dedicated to them; the Horus Heresy when the Space Marines took a tip from the Orks and got so good at fighting that they had to fight each other.
However, because never a day goes by without Games Workshop dreaming up more ways to sell Space Marines, and because it really wouldn’t be the Genestealer Cults without them, here they are again.
If you collect any of the chapters represented then you’re undoubtedly already thinking about trawling ebay to pick up a stylish new captain (or better yet making use of the rules Games Workshop has provided to allow you to take your new models straight into 40k). Here we have representatives of the nine legions which remained loyal in the Horus Heresy (minus the Alpha Legion of course!) Some of these will be very familiar to everyone (the Wolves and both types of Angel have their own codexs and everyone knows an Ultramarine). The others, however, have been less well represented, especially outside of Forgeworld. Given that these are Games Workshop’s power armoured posterboys – and the First Founding at that – it’s startling to realise how little there’s been lately in terms of models for the White Scars, Iron Hands, Imperial Fists etc.
The presence of a Blood Raven also came as a little bit of a surprise to me, since the Dawn of War days they seem to have slipped into the background somewhat. In fact, had you asked beforehand I would have guessed that the tenth marine would have been a Black Templar.
In spite of the prevalence of the Space Marines though it’s hard to be churlish about them when most off the models look so damn good. Perhaps because of their novelty it’s the less well represented chapters that are the stars here – at least on the Marines side of the box. My particular favourites are the Iron Hand, the Imperial Fist and of course the Salamander (although I still hate sculpted fire!)
The Dark Angel is a mere couple of snips away from becoming a nifty looking plastic Cypher (cut off the sword, find him a suitable gun and hey presto).
However the Space Marines are a sideline here. They are needed – heroic and xenophobic in equal measure – to offset the horror of the enemy, but that is all. The return of the Cults, missing for such a long time, is what matters here.
I Like Big Bugs And I Cannot Lie
As an adversary the Tyranids are in a league of their own. Never mind how they perform on the tabletop (rules change after all and today’s deathstar is tomorrow’s disappointment). It’s their role in the background that concerns me here. In spite of the strength of the Imperium (which remains, let’s remember, an empire of more than a million worlds with the power to scour whole planets of life at the touch of a button) the Tyranids remain a very real threat. Neither the Eldar nor the Tau have the strength to take on the realm of men and make any kind of impression at all. The Orks certainly do but they remain too disorganised to present a credible threat. Even with ideas like the Great Waaargh!! and the rise of Ghazghkull have begun to paint the Orks as – at least potentially – a more single-minded adversary, their tendency towards infighting and the comedic elements remains too much part of their nature to really fear them.
That leaves three factions with the muscle to take down the Imperium; Chaos, the Necrons and the Tyranids. Chaos wears a human face. It’s what makes it so frightening and compelling, the way good men who attempt to stand against the fascism and cruelty of the Imperium are lured, almost inevitably, into the clutches of Daemons. Even the Daemons themselves, which should be the most alien creatures of all, are all too human. Dark reflections of our souls, our baser natures given form, they are built from the good intentions which pave the road to hell and this is what makes the faction so compelling. You can accept the cold brutality of the Emperor’s regime or you can struggle against it, but in seeking an element of personal freedom you all too often set yourself on a path which ends with you raving on some mutant hell-world whilst a tentacle grows out of your ear. All of which feeds back on itself with wonderfully bleak irony – because against such an enemy what choice does the Inquisition have but to become crueller, more distrustful, more oppressive?
The Necrons used to be more of a faceless, shadowy force but that’s changed now. Regardless of whether you love or loath the Newcrons they are no longer mindless robots but creatures with characters and personalities that are easy to understand and relate to.
The Tyranids however remain truly alien. They have no interest in empire building, in carving out territories or trading for goods. They do not do the will of the gods. They have no concept of honour or destiny. They are purely an animalistic, elemental force, as impossible to reason with or battle against as a storm or a volcano.
Individual acts of heroism count for nothing here. No amount of firepower is sufficient to stem their limitless numbers. No trickery can turn aside the tide. There is nowhere to run to.
Perhaps the Necrons will rise and unite against the Tyranids as has been suggested, and mankind will cower, the hubris of humanity laid bare as we cringe on bastion worlds whilst mightier forces do battle for the galaxy. Beyond that there is no hope. The best humanity can wish for is to live like rodents beneath the feet of our new robotic overlords. I for one welcome them.
The Cult Is Alive
When reading the background of 40k the Tyranids are the only faction to truly frighten me. Yet in spite of this I’ve never felt much compulsion to collect the models or paint an army. There’s no hook there to draw me in, no human – or humanesque – face to relate to. I enjoy stories, and for me to really get engaged those stories need compelling characters. The Tyranids are the antithesis of this. They have no generals or heroes, just the gestalt consciousness of the Hive Mind driving them on. The whole idea is that they are without number, that for every one that is killed there are a billion more pouring in from the darkness of intergalactic space. In fact I actually really dislike the attempts that have been made to introduce characters to the Tyranids – Old One Eye, the Doom of Malan’tai and so on. They seemed insignificant in comparison to the greater horde – and by drawing attention to them they reduced the impact of the horde over all.
So where does this leave me? I want characters to become invested in the Tyranids as anything more than an adversary – yet I dislike the idea of the bugs themselves as characters. The answer is the genestealer cults themselves.
The Tyranids are a limitless, animal swarm – like violent, predatory locusts their only instinct is to feed until the entire galaxy is stripped bare. So vast and overwhelming is the threat that one can quite imagine how small and insignificant a human would feel when faced with such a threat. Rendered so utterly irrelevant by the scale of the approaching menace one can quite understand a planetary governor or Imperial Guard officer turning to worship, deifying the monsters descending upon him and throwing himself upon the mercy of a Genestealer Patriarch and his hybrid brood in the hope that his end will be mercifully quick. In this way the Tyranids move away from being the Alien and become more like H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods – terrifyingly other, monumentally powerful, utterly insane by human standards, yet rendered less hyperbolic through the lens of their cultists. Those humans which catch a glimpse of the horrors and are driven insane by them provide the window through which the monster can be seen without ever being fully revealed. It remains a shadow, lurking just off stage, its arrival always pending, the doom it brings always inevitable.
Like the Wulfen before them the return of the Genestealer cults has made 40k a richer place (and unlike the Wulfen the models are magnificent straight out of the box). They also serve to make it darker, making the Tyranids more nuanced – and simultaneously more terrifying – in much the same way as the followers of Chaos define the innumerable choirs of daemons. In the end then, the fate of humanity is determined not by Admirals of the Imperial Navy, not by the High Lords of Terra or the Emperor’s Holy Inquisition, and most certainly not by Space Marines. It will be determined by thousands of tiny actions, by Chaos cultists battling against Genestealer cultists in the shadows of crumbling hives, to determine whether the light of Terra will be snuffed out by thirsting gods or the fangs of a billion, billion hungry mouths.
All images copyright Games Workshop and used without permission.