Canon issues

There’s been some interesting discussion on the forums recently about fidelity to the canon in BL books. I’ve been following pretty closely, since it’s a bit of a minefield for an author and it’s always useful to get a sense about what people are saying. Essentially, a lot of posters have a pretty high bar for what counts as canonical accuracy – if there’s a contradiction or an apparent mistake, then they get pretty angry. And that’s fair enough – as I’ve said many times before here, one of the great things about writing for Warhammer IP is that the fans care about the setting.

What confuses the issue, I think, is some vagueness about what constitutes a canon conflict. It seems to me that there are actually a few things that fall into that category, and they’re all a little different. A quick (and incomplete) list might be:

  • Technical mistakes. Things like giving a Space Marine the wrong weapon (as defined in the Game Rules). People get very cross about this, infamously so in some cases. I guess the important thing is for the author to demonstrate that he or she knows that (say) a Chaplain carries a Crozius Arcanum by default, and if he ends up using a lasgun instead then there’d better be a damn good reason. The line can be a hard one to draw, though: it would be a mistake, in my view, for every fictional character to behave exactly as the game counterparts do. Codex rules exist to create an enjoyable game, not (always) to foster rewarding stories.
  • History errors. This is a little more clear-cut. If you say that Magnus the Pious relieved Praag in the year 2305, that’s just wrong (as any fule kno, it was 2302). The only problem here is that plenty of events have ambiguous or impossible dates (the Sable Swords chapter, for example, is variously listed as being created in M41 and doing stuff in M32). In those cases, an author has to make a judgement about which account fits best with the mainstream of WHFB/40K history. That’s a subjective call, which not everyone will agree with.
  • Retcons. This happens from time to time at the highest level. Good examples are the explanation for the Sack of Prospero, and the treatment of some characters like Eltharion the Blind Ninja Elf. To do this requires a having an overview of the whole background edifice, and it’s not something any individual author is going to do intentionally (unless given Inquisitorial Sanction by High Lord Merrett). The Squats, infamously enough, are the biggest casualties of this. Retcons are like Exterminatus – authorised only by the Big Guns, and used only when you absolutely, positively have to kill every reference in the room.
  • Implausible behaviour. This is the vaguest, and most common, kind of canon issue. There are times when individuals do something that’s technically correct (e.g., they’ve got all the right weapons, etc.) but strangely out of character. A lot of people don’t like the idea of Blood Angels and Necrons having an alliance to get rid of Tyranids (say) not because it’s physically impossible, but just because it strikes them as implausible. But that’s a tough call – more than anything else, that’s a subjective decision based on how each individual thinks the IP universe should work, and there’ll never not be disagreements about that kind of thing.

So it’s pretty complicated. There are other things I haven’t mentioned, like unit balance (at times Eldar Avatars seem oddly capable of being rolled over by just about anything) and scale (what, a void whale’s 12,000 miles long?). Without wishing to sound like I’m making excuses, that’s why canon conflict happens: it’s just a very hard job keeping on top of everything. You’ve got 25+ years of gaming material, ranging from codexes, rule books, role-play supplements and novels to White Dwarf fiction, Forge World publications, online campaign background and long out-of-print Index Astartes. Some readers have eidetic recall of such stuff, or have very strong preference for one possible reading of a certain event. The fact that authors sometimes make contrary decisions doesn’t always mean they’ve been lazy or deficient.

As someone who both reads and writes BL fiction, though, I reckon the situation is (mostly) pretty good. I can certainly attest that the editorial process takes background accuracy very seriously (there’s a discrete stage in the proofing where this is checked). There’ll never be perfect accuracy, for the simple reason that there’ll never be 100% agreement on what the canon actually is, but everyone involved in the production of BL stories cares deeply about fidelity to the spirit of the setting. If you look at some other highly-developed franchises, I just don’t think we don’t do too badly in terms of face-palm moments (midi-chlorians, anyone?).

But that’s just my view. It may, or may not, be entirely canonical.

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  1. 4 August, 2010 at 14:23

    I totally agree. You use the basic rules and units created by Games Workshop and meld them into your own image. Canonical debate is sometimes taken to a level that cannot be justified as normal and to be honest, breaking canon rarely annoys me. As long as nothing major and serious is changed its not an issue. Peoples memories slip or make mistakes and its understandable. Like you have mentioned 25 years of background, source books and gaming experience (don’t forget WD!), there is no way every writer has each and every letter on file next to him/her.

    Maybe people should just understand that the wargame aspect is one side of the Warhammer 40k universe and black library the other. Hats off to all the writers, you do a cracking job and I often (2-3 times a week) have conversations about BL books and authors. Keep up the awesome work and ignore the canon debaters/haters!

    • chriswraight
      4 August, 2010 at 20:41

      Thanks for the comment, Len. I think canon debate is fine, and, like I say, it’s something to take seriously. You’re right, though – there’s a level after which it gets a bit silly. What I wanted to do with the post was to highlight some of the complexities in balancing good storytelling with keeping fidelity to the setting – something that’s fascinating to attempt, and very easy to get wrong…

  2. 4 August, 2010 at 18:10

    The 40k Universe lies at the core of everything black Library and Games Workshop have achieved thus far.
    It cannot be denied.

    Ignoring it means ignoring the same principles that make the whole thing work.
    Ignoring the canon therefore kills the Documentary -esque feel of 40k.
    That’s what attracted me to it in the first place.

    • chriswraight
      4 August, 2010 at 20:54

      I’d agree that the rich 40K and Fantasy backgrounds are the key to what makes GW/BL products interesting, and I don’t think anything I wrote above implies ignoring the canon. On the contrary, it’s a huge part of the challenge of writing for BL – to try to get the setting right, as far as possible, in all its different aspects. All the authors I know take it very seriously, though it’s important to remember that the background is a living, evolving thing – just think of the ideas coming out of the Horus Heresy series, and how that’s informing the way we think about the 40K setting.

  3. 4 August, 2010 at 20:37

    It can’t be denied largely because Space Marines outsell all the other model ranges put together. It makes sense to concentrate the books into that market.

    I am glad to see the recent resurgence of Warhammer Fantasy fiction – largely a niche market of a niche market. I will admit to struggling somewhat with theming stories in the Warhammer World. The richness of the background, and the evocative stories of the fall of Horus, have certainly given rise to many wonderful tales that continue to spawn much fan – and author – fiction.

    I would agree that the game and fiction should tie in together – but I don’t think that it should be to such an extent where every character in a book perfectly adheres to a Codex entry.

    Case in point – one of the stories in Heroes of the Space Marines (Darren Cox’s ‘And They Shall Know No Fear’) mentioned High Marshal Helbrecht as a Scout. Sometimes players can forget that these characters had an origin, training, battles, honours, and a life prior to their inception in a Codex.

    In short, players sometimes are very protective and very keen eyed. But that’s nothing compared to the vitriol spewed on a director of Comic Fantasy films for making a poor film (I’m looking at you Gavin Hood for Wolverine; AND YOU Sam Raimi for Spider-Man 3) or not sticking to the canon.

    You can’t win. So why bother?

    • chriswraight
      4 August, 2010 at 21:26

      Speaking personally, I’d be very pleased if the Fantasy setting started getting some more love. It’s been great to read the responses to Sword of Justice so far, and I hope that the launch of the Warhammer Heroes series does more to generate interest in the setting.

      As a writer, you’ll know all about the pitfalls of storytelling in an established setting. And you’re right – you can’t win all the time. But don’t give up on it – the benefits outweigh the vitriol. 🙂

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