“Our fear of monsters in the night probably has its origins far back in the evolution of our primate ancestors, whose tribes were pruned by horrors whose shadows continue to elicit our monkey screams in dark theatres” – David Quammen, Monster of God
Hot on the heels of the alien hunting Deathwatch the genestealer cults have arrived in force. Having lurked in the shadows for decades, they emerge to usher in the Four-Armed Emperor’s carnivorous reign! Loyal citizens of the Imperium – now is a good time to panic!
I know I’ve wittered on about the genestealer cults before, back when Deathwatch: Overkill was released, but I’ve grown to find them one of 40k’s most engaging factions, particularly since the tall bald man with the stylish robes moved in next door, so I won’t miss the opportunity to discuss them again. Overkill brought us the core of the army but the ranks are now expanded with new boxsets for acolyte and neophyte hybrids, an upgrade sprue for corrupting Imperial Guard regiments and the excellent goliath truck. The engines of Imperial labour have been upgraded with unsanctioned weapons, their work-crews with unsanctioned genetics. The taint has spread from sump-slum to spiretop, the day of ascension is upon us and the impure are soon to be consumed. It’s easy to fear our new alien overlords but allow me to clamber onto my soapbox and try to convince you to love them instead.
Sympathy For The Alien
“Oh, now we have it. Now the truth dawns. He felt the hairs on his skin rise. I’m not afraid of Horus. I’m afraid of finding out why he has turned against us. I cannot conceive of any justification for this schism, but Horus must have his reasons. I am afraid that when I know them, when they we explained to my baffled mind, I might… agree.”
– The Primarch Rogal Dorn; from The Lightning Tower by Dan Abnett
Terrifying though they are there’s something comfortable about killing Tyranids. They are, after all, ravenous monsters hellbent on the consumption of all life. Like zombies they make for a relatively safe mass-killing experience, with no-one in any doubt that the person doing the industrial scale murdering is still a good person. It’s often suggested that this is one of the key reasons why zombie horror films are so enduringly popular. Even the most terrible and barbarous terrorist or fascist dictator contains human traits, common points through which we can relate and upon which potential rests. Are they utterly irredeemable? Could they, given the right circumstances, give up their destructive ways? Could we, subjected to the right pressures, behave as they do? It’s a thought that sparks a flickering of guilt in all but the most psychopathic – a guilt which, I would argue, is necessary to avoid becoming monstrous ourselves in our search for justice. Like all guilt however it is uncomfortable, and like all uncomfortable sensations we are glad to be rid of it when we’re able. A zombie, or a termagaunt, cannot be redeemed, and all the potential violence that lurks within us and with which we are uncomfortable becomes justified. Mow down a crowd in your local high street and you’re a monster, do the same to a mob of flesh-eating zombies and you’re a hero and no-one will ever say ‘did you go too far, could they not have been convinced to change their brain-eating ways?’
At least zombies have the courtesy to shamble around in the street looking suitably dishevelled, blood-spattered and undead. Genestealer cultists, by the third and forth generations, blend in with wider society. Whilst you guiltily read this blog at work can you be sure that your balding colleague is not watching you with fathomless, alien hunger? Who can you truly trust to be without taint; your boss, your best friend, your wife?Yet the genestealer cultists share only a superficial similarity to the faceless Tyranid hordes. Whilst some, like the patriarch and purestrains are suitably weird and alien the rank and file are just like us. The relatable human character is a rare figure in the 40k universe, even in the Imperium. Unless one is a power-armoured superhuman or a religious fanatic oneself there’s a divide between ourselves and the space marines or the sororitas that’s harder to cross. The mechanicum are even more alien than some of the aliens, and although we might aspire to be as respected and authoritative as an inquisitor most of us are humble guardsmen. They alone offered us away of putting ourselves, unchanged, into the setting. No-one aspires to be a chaos cultist who will never rise high enough to be more than spawn food and whose best hope for personal development is to choke the guns of his master’s enemies.
With the arrival of the genestealer cultists we find a new faction in which we can see ourselves. Like zombies the cultists are distinctly working class but this is no mindless mass but a collaboration of individual acts of cunning. In a video released to promote the new codex the developers note that the cultists may lack much of the clout of their rivals but they’ve been making up for it by patiently stacking the deck in their favour for centuries. The conspiracy theories are all true. The aliens have infiltrated the government.
As usual Black Library have released some tie-in fiction to coincide with the new miniatures; the unimaginatively titled Genestealer Cults (which I haven’t read) and it’s much shorter and far better named prequel Cast A Hungry Shadow (which I have read), both by Peter Fehervari. I can’t comment on the full length novel but the e-short is definitely worth picking up, especially for chaos fans who’ll be hard pressed not to find a new hero in Gharth, leader of the Reedemed, a chaos worshipping, fire-breathing biker gang. The central protagonists of the story however are the Spiral Dawn, a peaceful sect of the Imperial Cult who tend to the spiritual needs of the local mine-workers, and treat those who’ve fallen ill with the black breath. Of course it soon becomes apparent that the Spiral Dawn’s worship of pantheistic star gods is not the same Imperial Cult we’re familiar with and many of their holiest members are far from wholly human.
Beyond the engaging cast and gripping plot which recommends the book by itself, this is also a chance to see things from the genestealer cults’ point of view. Caught between the monstrous Chaos murder-cults roaming the wastelands and the crushing, if currently distant, boot of Imperial authority they need to make use of their combination of cunning and single-minded devotion to survive. They’re a long way from the moment the gods rain down from the sky to gobble-up faithful and heathen alike. In fact they’re not even at the point of being able to ride openly down the street in goliath trucks or limos. The main characters retain much of their humanity and are pulled between the ghostly voice of their unseen prophet, the untainted masses around them and the murderous temptations of Chaos. As heroes they’re wonderfully sympathetic. This is the Imperium’s man on the street and it turns out he’s an alien.
It’s also wonderful to see 40k away from the familiar elements, away from the grandiose world of duelling Titans, ten-thousand year old traitors, sector-wide conflicts and continent sized shrines. Space Marine players, this is what your tactical squad died to defend – some mine workers with lung-rot and a xenos-serving militia. Makes you proud doesn’t it!
When people talk about the genestealer cults a name that often comes up is that of H.P. Lovecraft. Now good old HP, when he’s not being subjected to cultish adoration himself, get’s a fair bit of flack nowadays for being a terrible racist and an equally terrible writer. His enduring popularity among horror fans however comes from his mastery of one key fact; that compared to the universe humanity is very, very small indeed. On modern day Earth we boast that we are the dominant species and the background of 40k bloats that to extremes. The Imperium of Man is about humankind stamping its authority upon the stars, the eagle standard flying upon a million worlds, a gargantuan bureaucracy that has stood for ten millennia. The genestealer cults recognise that we are small. Against the vastness of space and time we are a mere blip and entropy will make our greatest achievements dust. Though they do not know it they too are but a chapter in our history, evolutionary successors whose plotting will usher in an apocalypse that will devour them in their turn. It’s all rather bleak isn’t it? Not to worry, you can always distract yourself by buying some plastic genestealer cultists. The old cliché has it that, in the grim darkness of the far future, every man is but a spark against the darkness. In truth however those of us familiar with the setting know that even this is an exaggeration. Even hives that team in their billions are but embers of a fire that burned out ten millennia ago. The forces of destruction ranged against us are so vast that who could blame a man for casting himself in worship before those terrible powers in exchange for a last lungful of influence before he drowns?
You Are What You Eat
One thing we humans hate more than anything else is being eaten. In evolutionary terms an understanding of death is a relatively modern phenomenon and the thought of ourselves lying cold and inanimate on a mortuary slab remains abstract and distant. Not so the thought of being consumed, something that’s been with us since the first microbe realised that the fastest route to free energy was enveloping its neighbour. The thought of being prey horrifies us and where civilisation has swept aside the lions and crocodiles that used to gobble us up a host of authors and film-makers have discovered there’s a living to be made inventing new ones. All human cultures have their own practices by which they decorously dispose of their dead, the key feature uniting them being that its bad form to leave them outside to be feasted on. Even when the bodies are eaten (for example in those cultures which practice air-burials in which bodies are laid out on platforms for birds to pick clean) it’s always by something that wouldn’t normally eat them up in day to day life. Birds and maggots (politely out of sight of course) are fine but chucking granny in with some crocodiles and letting them have at it is generally considered to be bad form.
In this way the tyranids represent a definite horror. They’re not invading the galaxy so they can enslave us or force us to accept a new religion or political system. They’re coming to eat us up and in such a vast and apocalyptic fashion that there’s really not a lot we can do about it. From Gilgamesh and Beowulf to Ripley from the Alien films, if a hero wants to stamp mankind’s authority on the uncivilised wastes they have to do it by killing the local monster. Except in 40k the monster is too vast for lone heroics, the Hive Mind’s locust swarm grapples with the Imperium itself and will almost inevitably pull it apart. Even heroes get old and die but the thought of all life consumed, of the monster’s ultimate victory, is particularly alien to our enlightened sensibilities. Predators are always held to be the most terrifying, and the most holy, in human culture.
However there are worse things than being eaten. White Dwarf describes how the hypnotically entranced victims of a genestealer patriarch allow themselves to receive the ‘genestealer’s kiss’ – an ovipositor in the tongue injecting the alien DNA directly into the bloodstream (admit it – you were wondering how it was done). Thus contaminated you become the alien, or more specifically, the parent of the alien.
“One of the enduring images of these genestealer cultists…was the idea that the loving parents looked down at what they think is a lovely baby boy or girl but is actually a hissing monstrosity”
– Phil Kelly, GW developer.
Thus the grim darkness of the far future is made considerably grimmer and darker by the presence of a lictor lurking somewhere in the pipes and ducting but it’s also made wilder and more free. To the hive worker who bludgeons it to death with a shovel goes the glory of real heroism and the gleam of hope as a man rises triumphant from an unequal struggle. Without it the best he might ever hope for is to be employee of the month at the manufactorum, to have a little space to lie down and sleep, a little food and water, and the hope that – all being well – his descendants might achieve the same for generations to come.
What’s more our humble hive worker with the shovel doesn’t have to go it alone. The Men in Black are here!
The Thin Black Line
To me the race which makes the Deathwatch feel most vital is the Tyranids. Orcs are too funny, Eldar too cultured and Tau too damn nice to be a threat in the same way. The Necrons have the potential to join in as a galaxy ending threat but they’re place in the background has changed from faceless robot baddies to complex cultured alien pharaohs and they’re yet to re-establish the aura of vast threat that they could potentially present. The Hive Fleets however are too vast, too single-minded, too unstoppable in their determination of feast upon us all, to be considered without giving in to nihilism. They need heroes to battle them, no matter how long the odds, to keep us interested. Once the fight becomes one sided we loose interest. The Tyranid threat reminds us of our limitations and encourages our struggle to surpass them.
It’s become something of a cliché to slag off Matt Ward but it’s hard to follow this line of thinking in regard to the Deathwatch without comparing them to their peers, the Grey Knights. Yet whilst the Knights of Titan are preposterously superhuman, and tackle foes so equally overwrought as to seem simplistic, the Deathwatch are a band of brothers, powerful only by their shared skills. They may be gene-wrought supermen but the scale of the threat that opposes them is so great that even they are dwarfed, humble and heroic at the same time. Their foes however remain creatures of flesh and blood, banished by the sword not occult witchery. The message the two factions send is markedly different; you have to be special to kill a daemon but you and I could deal with that genestealer if we work together and put our minds to it.
In more ways than one the genestealer cults are at the opposite end of the spectrum to their Deathwatch adversaries. As the Emperor’s finest the space marines have enjoyed the benefits of the finest genetic science available, carefully crafted into something more than human. Square-jawed and clean limbed they’re aspirational figures ready to sell male grooming products and gym membership to the masses. The genestealer cultists meanwhile are considerably less hale and hearty with their subtly misshapen profiles and the not-quite-human appearance even of the fourth generation hybrids. The tyranids may be undisputed masters of genetic engineering but they still haven’t found a cure for male pattern baldness. Whilst the Deathwatch have access to the best gear the Imperium can provide (Mk. VIII power armour, the stealthy Corvus Blackstar, Custodes guardian spears, even a consecrated Necron blade) the genestealer cultists have to make do with whatever the steal or scavenge (great news for chaos fans – at last we have easy access to lots of autoguns for traitor guard conversions).
Oddly the genestealer cults are also at the far end of the spectrum to the Tyranids themselves. The great devourer has sailed the intergalactic void, the cults remain trapped on a single world until they’re able to sneak aboard someone else’s space ship. The hive fleets storm a planet from the skies, the cults rise from the guts on the hives. The Tyranids rely on overwhelming numbers and powerful monsters to tear enemy armies apart in a storm which sweeps all but the most entrenched of defenders away in a matter of days, the cults must move slowly and with cunning, their schemes playing out over generations until the time is right. When the Tyranids need a new weapon they grow a whole new creature to carry it, endlessly inventing and re-inventing their alien DNA, whilst the cults must rely on rockdrills and waste incinerators.
They come across as plucky underdogs which is not something we see elsewhere among 40k’s cast of heavyweights. A battle won or lost by the genestealer cults feels like it means something. You could be saving a whole planet from falling into their clutches, or throwing off the Imperial yolk at last. Win a battle against the Tyranids and countless billions of hormaguants will swarm onwards towards Holy Terra anyway. Far from the ravenous hosts of the hive fleets the cults are confined to individual worlds and, fearsome though they might be to a squad of guardmen – or even a lone space marine – they pose a threat to the Imperium only through the combined weight of millions of tiny actions. They might overrun a world or two now and then but the Imperium suffers worse blows when one of the High Lords of Terra has a bad lunch. The epic is all very well but without the small scale, the personal, the day-to-day struggles of the common man, it becomes one dimensional and stale. We’ve seen the view from the spire-tops, from starship bridges and the cockpits of titans but the holy shadows make it come alive like never before.
All images copyright Games Workshop and deviously liberated without sanction.