One of the things I’ve been wanting to do ever since the Vector website went up is to start reprinting content from the 45+ years of back issues. In fact, I had my eye on one essay in particular, from Vector 229, which is now online:
Freedom in an Owned World: Warhammer fiction and the Interzone Generation
By Stephen Baxter
‘”Curse all manling coach drivers and all manling women,” muttered Gotrek Gurnisson, adding a curse in Dwarvish …’
That’s the first line of ‘Geheimnisnacht’ by William King, the first story in the first book of Warhammer fiction, the anthology Ignorant Armies, published in 1989. Since that beginning there has been published a whole string of books, magazines and comics, set in the universes of the highly successful war games and role-playing games marketed by Games Workshop (GW).
Partly because of the involvement of Interzone editor David Pringle, who was editor of the GW line from 1988 to 1991, over the years several prominent British writers of sf and fantasy have contributed to the various series, many from what used to be known as the ‘Interzone generation’. My own involvement was modest, two short stories published in 1989 and 1990; there have been much more significant contributions from David Garnett, Kim Newman, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson and others. Today GW publishes new and reprinted fiction — great mountains of it, in fact — under its ‘Black Library’ imprint. But over the years GW fiction itself has been the subject of a saga of gamers and business suits, of orthodoxies and heresies, of Stakhanovites and rebels, of collapses and recoveries, of intriguing lost possibilities, and of struggles for literary freedom in an ‘owned universe’.
Go read it. It’s very long — over 10,000 words — but it is, I think, my favourite of the articles that have been published in Vector in the time I’ve been reading it. Oddly enough, what prompted me to get around to putting it online was Abigail’s excellent post on Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, in which she quite rightly talks about how central the depiction of fannish behaviour is to understanding the story:
… there’s nothing that’s not familiar about the all-consuming devotion with which Jeremy and his friends incorporate The Library into their everyday lives. They watch — and re-watch — the episodes together, as a communal experience, discuss and analyze the events of each episode, and dress up as their favorite characters. I don’t imagine there are many people reading this post who can’t sympathize, or offer an example of similar behavior. For me, it was The X-Files, but I imagine there are people my age who might offer up Babylon 5 as their first fannish love, and folks a bit older who first geeked out over Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whatever television show it was that once captured your heart to the extent that it became part of your life, “Magic for Beginners” will read, in some ways, like excerpts from your own adolescence.
I have previously said that Angel fandom, and specifically the corner of it found in uk.media.tv.angel, was my first fandom. That’s not quite accurate; what it was, was my first fandom that endured, the first fandom in which I formed friendships that are still going strong. That didn’t happen for me with The X-Files, or Babylon 5, or any other earlier TV show — it’s hard to be genuinely fannish about something when you don’t have the internet, and don’t know anyone else who watches it in the way you do. But before all of them, my first actual fandom was Games Workshop and their tabletop fantasy wargames.
So for me, reading Baxter’s essay is not-unlike a trip down memory lane. Except it’s a slightly odd trip, because my involvement with GW coincides quite neatly with the period in which they weren’t putting out fiction. I got into the hobby — or, if you prefer, the cult — sometime in 1993, and got out of it, finally, in 1999. Baxter’s essay spends most time on the period between 1987, when GW fiction was started, and 1995, when Ian Watson’s Chaos Child was the last GW title to be published. By that time I was deep into the hobby, and I remember that, and it was an event, Speaking of the later reissuing of his books, Watson says they added “fictional prefaces denouncing the books, my suggestion, as tissues of heresy and lies, the ideal solution …” but I remember Chaos Child being presented as heretical even at the time of publication. GW stores didn’t stock it; the staff (GW stores having a deliberate “hobby” ethos, the staff and regular customers often got to know each other quite well) would tell teasing tales of how brilliant the first two volumes in the trilogy, now unavailable, were; there were excited rumours that a copy had been sighted in the WH Smith’s round the corner; and so on. I did eventually get my hands on copies of all three of Watson’s books — I think I still have them — and I remember them as being exactly the sort of dark and twisted thing I wanted from 40K fiction.
And then, a couple of years later, I was there for the launch of the short fiction magazine Inferno!, and the subsequent launch of the full Black Library imprint. By that point, or about that time, I was actually working for the Evil Empire myself. I was incredibly picky about getting a part-time job as a teenager — having set my heart on working for GW, nothing else would do — and for some reason my parents let me get away with it. To be fair, it may have been pragmatism on their part, since if I hadn’t been working there and enjoying the staff discount (miniatures at lead weight!) I suspect they’d have gone bankrupt trying to feed my habit. But I got the job, and it was quite an experience — on the one hand, a lot of fun, on the other, a steep learning curve about exactly how corporate GW really was, and how much the hobbyism was a veneer.
Of course, it was still incredibly addictive. I had armies, plural, for all the major games (If you’re wondering, Wood Elves, Chaos Dwarves and Dwarves — now all overpowered runic weapons to the end! — in Warhammer, and Dark Angels, Tyranids and Eldar — now all ludicrously powerful everything to the end! — in 40K; I’m not going to list everything, at least not unless prompted in the comments); was there every games night, Thursdays ’till 8, even when I wasn’t working; spent god knows how many hours painting the miniatures; and went to the exercise in controlled mass hysteria that was Games Day every autumn. Did I care that the universes in which the games were set were thinly-disguised ripoffs of, well, everything else? No, not a bit — although in my defence, I was never as far gone as this guy. Games Workshop is even responsible for my first and only foray into fanfic — if memory serves, I wrote about a young girl from a farm planet who stowed away on a ship to Earth but got captured by an Arbitrator.
What got me out of it, in the end, was going to university. I tried to carry on the job part-time, but quickly realised that wasn’t going to work; I went along to the local gaming club for a while, but never really got to know the people there as well as I’d known the regulars at my home store, not least because I had so much less time to devote to the hobby. I think there was probably a short period during which my GW addiction was tailing off, and my Angel fandom was just starting up, but I don’t think I could say for sure. And while it is my Angel fandom experiences that resonate most strongly when I read “Magic for Beginners”, there are certainly elements of the story — the camaraderie, the anticipation of new releases — that carry back into GW fandom as well.
As for Baxter’s essay, well, having now got into general sf fandom in the way that I have, reading an essay that explains that some of the prehistory of my first fandom is intertwined with what I think of as the modern start of my current fandom (British Boom and all that; I suspect I found Baxter’s Raft at around the same time that I was reading Ian Watson’s Inquisitor novels) inevitably also has enormous resonance. But I think the essay is well worth reading even if you don’t have my personal experience. The list of recognisable names who wrote for GW can be quite startling if you’re not expecting it — Charles Stross, Kim Newman, Nicola Griffith, and Brian Stableford, for starters, with David Pringle editing the initial list — and Baxter does an excellent and entertaining job of filling in the context, as well as investigating the conflicting issues that surround writing franchise fiction. Which, let’s face it, haven’t gone away.
Another thing that hasn’t quite gone away is my desire to play the games. Like a junkie jonesing for a hit, I still sometimes get the urge to break out my armies from their foam-packed stasis and head down to the local store, though I suspect the rules have changed (yet again) since my day, and really (much like World of Warcraft) I know that if I let it gain a foothold, it would swallow my life whole. And then, in the back of my mind, as a compromise measure, I get this crazy notion of contacting the Black Library to ask for some review copies …