The Warhammer 40,000 universe has fascinated me ever since I discovered it on the Internet some years ago. I don’t play the tabletop wargame and don’t intend to, due to the money and time investment required. The setting and background have a lot of potential due to the blend of fantasy and sci-fi elements, but at the same time, there are tons of plot holes.
Of course, a lot of the plot holes are due to the setting existing simply to give flavour to a tabletop game. Basically, it’s completely optional and is just there to give a theme to an army of tiny plastic soldiers. Many things in the background were never intended to be part of a coherent narrative, so you have things like:
- Great Crusade: “1,000,000/200 = 5000 worlds conquered per year”
- Primarchs: “They’re fairly flat characters, but they come from a time when their only purpose in the game setting was to be ancient heroes and villains from the long-long ago.”
- Names: “Ferrus Manus (Iron Hands in Latin) of the Iron Hands Legion”
- (above quotes from THE BRIEF AND HUMOROUS HISTORY OF THE HORUS HERESY)
To the above-noted issues, I would like to add my own speculations / fanwank:
Sketchy math of the Great Crusade
Regarding the implausibility of “5000 worlds conquered per year” (noted above), there are a number of possible interpretations.
1,000,000 worlds of the Imperium is a wildly inflated number that includes all planets in a system, and systems with no permanent human habitation but only satellites, sensors or other such human “flagpoles” to stake their claim. So the actual number of human-inhabited worlds is around 100,000 only.
(This reduced number also helps to resolve the common complaint of “only 1000 Astartes Chapters to defend 1,000,000 worlds”.)
This would still leave us with around 500 systems conquered per year across 20 Legions. 25 a year is way too high. Even peaceful negotiations would take more than 2 weeks, considering language and cultural barriers. What about travel time? Even with faster-than-light travel, interstellar trips are implied to take days to weeks, not hours.
Thus we can conclude that the majority of conquests, by force or negotiation, are accomplished by branch fleets not personally directed by a Primarch. The military importance of a Primarch is often exaggerated. Many Legions were doing fine before they found their Primarch, operating on their own for years, if not decades. In fact, a few Legions degenerated after finding their Primarch, the World Eaters especially.
Out of 18 Legion names, there are 2 “Angels”, 2 “Wolves” and 2 “Iron”. Apparently, in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, Christianity has erased all other belief systems, most animals are extinct even in legends, and there is no steel.
We can expect that future humans will still retain some elements of their ancestors’ cultures, such as languages, names, festivals and religions. However it is extremely implausible for there to be a wholesale ‘revival’ of long-dead cultures such as Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt or Medieval Norse. During the Renaissance, only the arts and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome were revived, not their religion or lifestyle (e.g. acceptance of homosexuality). Did the settlers collectively suffer amnesia and then build their civilisation based on historical records?
UNEXPLORED PLOT POINT: Regarding the cultural narrowness of 40K, there seem to be none or very few characters or planets of Chinese and Indian descent. These are the 2 countries with the largest populations now, and also large and widespread diaspora populations. If they are rare in the Far Future, this implies a major disaster at some point of the timeline prior to colonisation of space. Perhaps a nuclear war?
Primarchs and Astartes (Space Marines)
UNEXPLORED PLOT POINT: Some of the Astartes implants are named after people. Who are Larraman, Lyman and Betcher? If they were the inventors of the implants, this implies that some members of the Emperor’s research team are publicly known. Or did he base the implants off independently published inventions?
The creation of the Primarchs definitely included a supernatural, non-repeatable component. Otherwise, if the first batch was lost, why not create a second batch? Why the need to use obviously flawed specimens like VIII-Curze? (Note: This is more or less confirmed / canon. The specifics of the supernatural component are still not confirmed.)
UNEXPLORED PLOT POINT: The mental engineering of Astartes and their Primarchs is not well-defined even though it is directly linked to the cause of the Horus Heresy. There’s definitely some form of mental conditioning / brainwashing during the Astartes training process. Shouldn’t there be some of that in the Primarchs as well?
- Instinctive recognition and loyalty to their ‘father’: The clearest sign of built-in programming is their connection to their ‘father’ upon first contact. Almost all of them including the traitors crave his attention and affection, at least initially. The few who consistently hate / distrust him are known to be brain-damaged (XII-Angron) or mentally ill (VIII-Curze), which means their mental ‘programming’ is malfunctioning.
- Obedience to orders, leading to out-of-character behaviour: Burning the homes of innocent civilians to punish the Word Bearers? Isn’t XIII-Guilliman against collateral damage and concerned about civilian welfare? Also consider XIX-Corax the freedom fighter, now beating unwilling worlds into compliance. Are they simply hypocrites, or is there something more insidious that is affecting their behaviour and judgement?
- Is the Emperor really so confident in his absolute control of 20/21 self-aware, autonomous superweapons, that he did not include any fail-safe or self-destruct features, like a secret trigger to shut down or wipe their minds? Maybe he did, but the Chaos Gods altered or disabled the fail-safes when the Primarchs went through the Warp.
FANFICTION PLOT BUNNY: Did II and XI disappear because they discovered the extent of their mental programming and tried to free themselves from it? Perhaps they fled but were hunted down, or committed suicide. Perhaps one died from an attempted brain operation and the other was executed for murder. Any of these situations would be sufficient reason to hush up the scandal.
FANFICTION PLOT BUNNY: Lorgar and Horus didn’t betray the Emperor because they were convinced by some impossible-to-prove visions from a daemon and a disguised infiltrator. They discovered the truth of their mental programming, and embraced Chaos in the hope of obtaining free will.
FANFICTION PLOT BUNNY ALREADY ADOPTED BY BLACK LIBRARY: The Primarchs’ mother, officially named Erda. I had a similar idea, because it’s way too coincidental for the Primarchs to all land on human-inhabited planets instead of the more common airless rocks and gas giants. So I was thinking someone sent them out, perhaps because she loved them and wanted to free them from their father’s control. Although my idea was about a normal human scientist, and she was killed in the end. See, this is what happens when you procrastinate on writing fanfics. Someone else with the same idea will publish first.