Classic Characters: Space Marines (the value of big heroes in grim universes)

“Listen closely Brothers, for my life’s breath is all but spent. There shall come a time far from now when our chapter itself is dying, even as I am now dying. Then my children, I shall list’n for your call from whatever realms of death hold me, and come I shall no-matter what laws of life and death forbid. At the end I will be there. For the final battle. For the Wolftime.”
Leman Russ before his final departure into the Eye of Terror (GW Space Wolves)

All the talk about Grimdark got me thinking about Space Marines. The Space Marine is an interesting character archetype with a surprisingly long history, dating back to the early days of popular science fiction. Space Marines are more or less elite soldiers who operate from space, taking the fight to enemy planets or boarding ships. They tend to be incredibly skilled and powerful, the pinnacle of machismo

My first exposure to the character type is from Robert Heinlein’s Starship Trooper, a book I picked up on my first trans-Atlantic flight. Heinlein posits that democracy could fall apart without the concept of service in citizenship and creates a pseudo-fascist military meritocracy to explore this idea. This is interesting but it really pales in comparison to the power-armoured mobile infantry locked in combat with hideous arachnid “Bugs” who seek to end humanity. The Bugs are portrayed as an implacable foe of mankind, although the book carries the jingoistic terms that you see in any war narrative.

Heinlein’s Mobile infantry were tough, smart, and self-reliant. They were equipped with cool weapons and followed a truly professional, responsible command structure that would be the envy of every soldier I have ever chatted with. The fact that they were often allowed to make their own decisions in the field and did not get blamed is very much at odds with some modern wars. They were effective, even super-heroic, in the execution of their duties. In many ways they are akin to Knights (Mobile infantry) fighting Orcs (Arachnids) in a pastoral fantasy novel.

The Most Iconic form of Space Marine thus far is brought to us by Games Workshop. Warhammer 40k is a beloved franchise that evolved from a popular miniatures game and has spawned some notable books and computer games. In the fluff (the fiction that supports a miniatures game) the Space Marines are Heinlein’s Mobile infantary taken to extremes. They are recruited from savage planets and military cultures which revere macho qualities. They are selected by warrior-priests after a gruelling and often lethal series of initiation procedures and implanted with a gene-seed (yes, this is all said/read with a straight face) that gifts them with superhuman strength, endurance, long life, acute senses, and many other powers. Each space marine becomes a hero of legendary power and is then gifted with increasingly crazy weapons and power armour that again are extrapolated from Heinlein, but way more badass. It doesn’t hurt that GW threw realism out by the window and that 40k is more space fantasy than science fiction.

Space Marine promo art from one of the relic games. Space Marine, I think. Games Workshop/Relic stuff. Used without permission.

The leadership of the Space Marines is more overtly fascist than Heinlein. The Imperium of man hates aliens, mutants, and seeks to control everything. They come off as the “good guys” because everything else in the universe is monstrous and crazily hostile. Tyranids consume planets, stripping whole swathes of the galaxy of life to satiate their mad hunger. Dark Eldar kidnap and enslave everyone they encounter, torturing and murdering for kicks. Daemons prey on the psychically active, instigating rebellions and insurrections that can lead entire planets to become living nightmares. And those are just the regular badguys 😛

Naturally to fight against this relentless tide of evil, you need a group of crazily over-the-top manly men (there are no mixed gender space marine units, amusingly enough) who are insanely devoted to their duty and their brothers in arms. In the fiction at least, the Space Marines deliver in spades cutting a gory path through all enemies and performing the acts of heroism and barbarism that keep the universe from ending. The tone reminds me a fair bit of the Iliad, a constant flow of mad heroism with the insane machinations of incomprehensible forces in the background. Space Marines usually die heroicly, the corpses of their enemies piled around them, the name of the Emperor of Mankind escaping from their lips. The fact that they live in such an awful, ugly, brutal Grimdark setting and yet stand up against overwhelmingly deadly and innumerable enemies is what makes them cool. They also come in several varieties, each with its own traditions and variations on the warrior cult. Here are a few of my favourites.

Ultramarines: I like to think that the colour Ultramarine is named after these guys and not the other way around. The Ultramarines are the most exemplary and dutiful of all the Space Marines chapters. They are “by the book” on everything, which makes sense since their founder wrote it, and are inspired by ancient warriors cults like the Spartans with a healthy dose or Rome tossed into the mix.

Space Wolves: Space Wolves are the rebellious chapter, a legion of headstrong space-vikings who recount their endless deeds over mead and go into battle accompanied by storms and cybernetically enhanced wolves. Space wolves are my favourite chapter, far more individualistic that most other space marines with a sense of brotherhood that can only be shared among crazy nordic space heroes. The only thing that could make this chapter any cooler would be some women thrown into the mix. Space Valkyries, yessir!

Dark Angels: The Dark Angels have a dread secret that they have been keeping for ten millenia. They almost sorta kinda betrayed the Emperor! Naturally this drives them to overcompensate for their dark past by being extra heroic and also waging a secret war tp kill anyone who knows about that thing they once did.

Blood Angels: Vampiric Space Marines. Nuff said.

Chaos Marines: Chaos Marines are the Marines who rebelled against the Emperor and took up with Daemons rather than follow his commands anymore. They are equally the over-the-top nemesis of the Space Marines, complete with their own crazy chapters and insane demonic equipment and weapons. About as evil as you can get, even in a Grimdark universe.

Aliens has a very different take on the Space Marines, called the Colonial Marines. Instead of being well supported the Colonial Marines seem to be a little weary and underfunded, often forced to make sub-optimal decisions because they are the enforcement arm of a weak government that exists only to serve its corporate masters. The marines are just as tough, and include tough (even Macho) women, but the bad decisions of others lead them into an untenable situation. The idea of doing job replaces that of duty. Their experience has led them to cynicism, and the reality of their command structure is a resounding rejection of the theorycrafted military awesomeness that any of the other Space Marines enjoy. It is an interesting deconstruction of Heinlein now that I think of it.

Regardless of the flavour the Space Marines face foes and odds that would make any rational being balk, or maybe hide in a corner. They spit in the face of death, even in some of the grimmest universed that ever held up under fan scrutiny, and go down fighting. They tickle the modern idea of gear fetishization with their cool weapons and armour (something I delve into with the Gladiators in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s tale.) They have a clear sense of duty, something precarious in the complexities of our modern age. They fight for survival, for honour, for glory, and while the universe might be constantly dumping mad soul-destroying monstrosities that make Cthulu look soft on them, they fear nothing and trust in their brothers (and sisters in the better incarnations).

Heroes of that type often seemed fun, but a little immature in an over-the-top way, to me until I read a post about pro-wrestling in my internet travels. Pro-wrestling is notoriously macho with the same sense of mad heroism pitted against often overwhelming odds (cheating, fighting outnumbered, and so on) In good pro-wrestling story-lines the good-guys will always persevere against insane odds or go down fighting after treachery. One of the comments I read was from a dude whose brother was facing a terrible wasting disease. The young man was an avid a certain pro wrestler, and would often quote the wrestler’s tagline when facing yet another operation or a day full of the pain and struggle he required just to stay alive. The thought was that he admired an over-the-top hero, like the pro-wrestler, because that person embodied the same never-say-die attitude that he required just to function. It was a touching thought, and one that I have carried with me for a while, mulling it over. Perhaps we sometimes need something pure like the Space Marines or Hulk Hogan/Jon Cena to drag us out of our own Grimdark…

… But I also wonder if perhaps these heroes are our own way of paying tribute to the unbelievable courage of people who live and struggle in untenable situations, of mythologizing and internalizing the admirable qualities of those who suffer and endure, those who face long odds in the name of duty, ad those who just never give up. And maybe, just maybe that’s why those stories are so important…


3 comments on “Classic Characters: Space Marines (the value of big heroes in grim universes)

  1. […] In a follow-up post, C.P.D. Harris also points out that grimdark settings make genuine heroes shine …. Now I agree with the theory that a generall dark setting can make the few genuinely heroic characters shine even brighter (though grimdark fantasy usually distinguishes itself by the fact that there are no genuinely heroic characters in grimdark fiction). However, as someone who was brought up to be highly skeptical of the military, the space marine archetype has never worked for me. All too often, (American) writers expect me to automatically accept that a given character is worthy, just because he or she is a marine, space or earthbound, or a Navy SEAL or a member of some other elite military unit. However, if you’ve grown up viewing the military as a source of problems and violence rather than heroism, then the mere fact that a character is a marine or Navy SEAL or other elite soldier works against rather than in favour of this character. Don’t just tell me that this guy (or gal) is a marine and expect me to classify him (or her) as a hero. Show me why he or she is heroic. Now some writers manage to pull this off and overcome my natural skepticism of the military and convince me that their characters are worthy and heroic. I’ve never had a second of doubt about the A-Team (the characters who showed me that soldiers can be good guys), Leroy Jethro Gibbs or Suzanne Brockmann’s heroic Navy SEALs. But those examples are exceptions rather than the rule. And while I love space opera, I’m not a fan of the space marine archetype. Indeed, finding space operas to enjoy is very difficult for me, because so many publishers and critics treat “space opera” and “military SF” as interchangable (even though they are not), so avoiding the “rah-rah” space marines is increasingly problematic. […]

  2. Reading this post, I was reminded of the book Elite Squad: (Tropa de Elite) about the BOPE in Brazil. Much like the Space Marines, they’re a chosen select few. They’re very human though. The different types of space marines made think of the different factions in Brazil–the civilian police, the military police. It’s a grim read, but good.

  3. grimkrieg says:

    That would be an interesting read. Policing a huge city like Sao Paolo must be crazy…

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