The excellent moderator who signs himself Squiggle carried out this interview with me towards the end of 2017 for use on his impressive site Bolthole (posted on December 8, 2017). (Explosive bolts are what Space Marines fire from their bolt guns, or bolters.) He graciously titled what follows as “an Interview with a Legend“. (A legend because with all due modesty maybe I might justly describe myself as being the gene-seed and progenoid gland of Warhammer 40K fiction.) Now a year later I release the interview upon a startled galaxy, along with a couple of pictures of me signing at a Games Workshop Games Day in the gigantic Birmingham National Indoor Arena in the early 2000s.
Announced as signing with me that day was my chum Brian Stableford (alias Brian Craig for Warhammer purposes) but alas Brian fell victim to bad travel information, thus he walked a very long way from the rail station only to arrive desolate and deranged after his scheduled session had ended—so deranged indeed that he refused to go to a pub but instead set off immediately back to the rail station.
Back in those days I used a disposable camera, causing my hair to look like shredded black plastic. To my mind the big light overhead is a vast disc of radiance in the roof, but Cristina says it’s probably the thumb of whoever I asked to take the photo.
It’s Friday, and today the Bolthole is bringing you something rather special – an exclusive interview with legendary British science fiction author, Ian Watson. As you should know, Ian Watson was involved at the very inception of Games Workshop deciding that their worlds were so epic that they deserved their own novels. Ian’s novels such as Space Marine, Draco, Harlequin and Chaos Child are both excellent stories in their own right, and were successful enough to encourage the start of what we all benefit from today, with the Black Library producing such an excellent range of tie-in fiction to our beloved worlds.
What follows are a couple of reviews of Space Marine, a novel widely regarded as a classic, followed by that exclusive interview with the man himself. So without further ado, and with less of my waffle, I hand over to fellow Bolthole member, Chun, for his take.
The plot isn’t anything extraordinary: three young boys from very different class-strata of a Necromundan hive are drafted into the Imperial Fists, and we follow them as they undergo training and their first missions as Adeptus Astartes. But, oh, the execution…!
Gloriously, breathlessly, bonkers. I’m pretty sure that Watson was taking the piss with this, but he did it gleefully and in a never less than an entertaining manner. He delighted in dirty schoolboy humour, bordered on the homoerotic, pushed boundaries of horror (one Tzeentch possession scene is particularly vivid) – especially where the fourteen year old target audience is concerned.
Yet, thinking about it, perhaps Watson’s approach is really the only honest way to depict the grimdark of the 40th millennium: how could anybody maintain their sanity in such a universe? Even the super-human Astartes must succumb in one way or another – there are only degrees of insanity.
Not canon any more (squats abound!), but this still should be read by any 40k fan willing to look toward the true dark side of this most stygian of settings – which, even in the book’s inherent silliness, is here revealed in full. And it should be read because nobody else wrote about Space Marines like Watson did… I wonder if they would even dare these days.
Thanks to Chun for that review. Inspired by this, I recently re-read Space Marine. Conveniently it is now available from the Black Library as an ebook. It is an enjoyable read that harks back to the Rogue Trader era of Warhammer 40k. Modern readers will no doubt find some of the lore conflicted, but its worth remembering that at the time of writing the universe was so much less defined than it is now, and the novel now stands as a convenient time portal back to that era. Of particular note is the sequence during which the lead characters hack their way in to a tyranid bio-vessel – and how the 1993 version of tyranids is so different to what we have now.
Now on with the interview!!
Hi Ian, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. Firstly, Space Marine, and the Inquisition trilogy which started with Draco, were the first “proper” novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe. I know it was a little while ago, but was there much input from Games Workshop at the time, or were you left to your own devices in terms of how you chose to interpret the setting?
Go back quarter of a century and Mr Big was Bryan Ansell, Managing Director of GW who wanted to read “real” novels by “real” novelists set in his beloved Warhammer domains. As intermediary Bryan hired David Pringle, editor of Britain’s leading SF magazine Interzone, operating from Brighton as GW books. David had already recruited half a dozen authors who regularly contributed stories to Interzone, but no one would touch Warhammer 40K with a bargepole. So it fell to me to read Rogue Trader and many other encyclopedic publications which Nottingham HQ proceeded to send me, including printouts of nonfiction work-in-progress such as the manual of Necromunda, and much else. Bryan Ansell did send me quite a long letter lovingly detailing the sounds which 40K weaponry should make, so that I should be geared up sensually to describe combat. As far as I’m aware (though beware of false memory!) I was given no instructions at all regarding plot or characters and I simply made up the story, within the constraints of what I knew about the 40K universe. I toured the 40K universe, and after a few years the GW games designers decided that they disapproved of a broad approach, compared with single-action novels set on single worlds. (Those are more compatible with games, of course.)
You’ve commented to me that the books went through a period of not being supported by Games Workshop or Black Library. Are you glad that they are again available to purchase through the Black Library, given that to many they were the first taste of Warhammer fiction they got.
I may be the only case of a proven good-seller (modesty forbids “best-seller”) being sabotaged by his own publisher. (In fact I’m probably not the only!) Example: (and I pour another glass of red wine to loosen my tongue)… GW’s chosen publisher Boxtree bravely decided to launch my Harlequin (= Draco # 2) as the first ever handsome somewhat expensive large hardback ‘Collectors Edition’ and sent a couple of hundred copies to a Games Day at Birmingham, where I would be present to sign. When I arrived in Birmingham, Mr X of GW appeared surprised at this hardback initiative.
Despite the price—of 15.99 Pounds in 1994—sales were brisk. Two hours later, Mr X came by my signing place and I happily reported, “All gone!” Now I thought that Mr X would be happy, but all he said was “Oh really?” and hurried away. Next day, GW banned Harlequin from all Games Workshop Shops throughout the UK with the excuse that the book was too big for their shelves. I soon realised that the book was perceived as competing with cardboard boxes containing some bits of plastic (i.e. the games), costing about 30 quid, for which there was a much higher profit margin.
A few days later, W.H. Smith banned GW books from their shelves in any towns where there was already a Games Workshop Shop. Now my books were doubly banned—from shops where they were already banned for a different reason!
Okay, the Black Library did try to be supportive despite the dislike by the games designers for my books on the grounds of the books being too comprehensive and also, as the years passed by, no longer representing accurately the 40K world which the designers were busy altering. Thus the Inquisition War trilogy did come into existence, and Space Marine was finally permitted back into existence as a high-priced print-on-demand item, never to be sold in shops but only through GW’s website. By the time that this happened, tattered copies of the original paperback Space Marine were selling on eBay sometimes for as high as a hundred Pounds. This may be flattering for the author but is also distinctly frustrating financially. Better a 7.5% royalty on 5 Pounds than zero royalty on 100 Pounds…
Parts of the books, Space Marine in particular, seem to have been written deliberately tongue in cheek – was that intentional on your part, or just how it turned out?
Tongue in cheek? Superstrength lingual organ in between gluteus maximus buttocks? Are you trying to be provocative, Sir?
Okay, a bit of a subtext developed of its own imaginative accord (honest injun!) while I was writing Space Marine. Novels need characters endowed with some personality. How to imbue a Citadel Miniature, identical to a hundred others, with personality? Difficult! Probably Space Marines are ‘in reality’ biologically neuter. I can’t actually remember, and I’ve no idea if this topic has been explored elsewhere and elsewhen. But give me a monastery and I can’t fail to imagine certain urges arising, even if libido must be cathected elsewhere, as Freud might say. Supposing that Marines continue to possess any libido after their arduous physical transformation into superhumans.
GW HQ in Nottingham did tell me that I would need to rewrite ‘naughty’ parts of Space Marine, but at very that moment GW Books in Brighton ceased, and it was 9 months until GW HQ hooked up with media packager Boxtree based in London as the new producer of Black Library fiction. In the meantime Nottingham forgot about me needing to rewrite bits of Space Marine, and I saw no reason to remind anybody, since those were bits that I particularly liked. Consequently Boxtree published Space Marine exactly as they had received it from Nottingham, unaltered. Consequently the book sold out but then spent a decade in the wilderness instead of being reprinted. By virtue of periodical humourous hints from me, the Black Library finally produced a print-on-demand edition, priced high, and not for sale in any GW shops where it might corrupt the young (and where the shelves might be the wrong size).
Would you have any interest in writing for Black Library or Games Workshop again, or has that ship sailed?
It’s a long time since I was in the demented mindset that conceived my four 40K novels, but also back then I pretty much had free rein, and I strongly doubt that this would apply today.
However, EXCLUSIVE TO THE BOLTHOLE!!, I have just looked inside my 2009 copy of The Inquisition War trilogy and I found a piece of paper handwritten by me titled “INQ 4” which must be notes for a possible sequel to Chaos Child. “M’L pregnant”, says the paper first of all. That’s Meh’Lindi, my Assassin heroine. Was I affected by Ripley of Alien? No, no, now I remember! Meh-Lindi would be pregnant by Inquisitor Jaq, from the time when they copulated devoutly on board Tormentum Malorum. Next, Yes! “Jaq’s baby kidnapped by Tyranids; Jaq contacts the Hive-Mind.”And next: “Grimm rescues” and “Lex and Imperial Fists again.” Oh I see the way this is going. And finally: “Genost = Gnostic + Genes” (what does this imply?).
Omigosh, a complete story-line! Including a heroic rescue by Grimm the Squat—whom editorial idiot vandals turned into banal ‘Grill the Tech Priest’ for a reprint of my 40K short story “Warped Stars”, just because Tyranids ate all of the Squats subsequent to my novels.
No, no, I must not even think about writing this sequel. The games designer tech priests would ruin everything.
Our forum membership is made up of many amateur authors – have you any advice for those starting out?
Read a lot! Not just the area of fiction that you’re aiming your talents at but non-fiction stuff too. Astronomy, biology, history, botany. Don’t imitate published authors whom you admire; try to branch out, be original, aim for your own unique narrative voice. Don’t get upset by rejections; carry on. If accepted, don’t rest on laurels; it might be two years till an accepted story is published, whether on paper or electronically—so get on writing.
After you write something which you reckon is good, wait a week or two then read it again before you show it to anybody else. And never send something unread by yourself to another human.
Oh, and don’t have hissy fits. This is counter-productive.
I know your writing career since writing Space Marine has been pretty diverse, with everything from script writing to erotica on your resume. What are you currently working on?
Along with a collaborator friend of mine, Andy West, I’m revising our “Plague Novel”, The Waters of Destiny, which originally appeared a few years ago as three ebooks published by Palabaristas SL, the epublisher set up by my wife, Cristina Macía, translator of Game of Thrones, author of cookbooks, mother of dragons. We have withdrawn the ebooks because of the revised hardbacks and paperbacks coming next year (2018) from NewCon Press in the UK, though the book’s website is still at http://www.watersofdestiny.com/ The Waters of Destiny (approximately 200,000 words) is about how a fanatical Arab doctor of genius could, in the 12th Century, funded by the Assassins of Alamut, and within the mindset and medical technology of the time, have worked out the source of the big killer Black Death, and could have stored what he isolated, with terrible consequences for our present day. The big killer disease, which ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages, was a viral haemorrhagic fever (like Ebola) with a very high kill rate which spread from human to human, and was not Bubonic Plague which is spread by rat fleas. The history is confused because you could have outbreaks of Haemorrhagic Plague and Bubonic Plague at the same time. The Middle Ages were nasty that way, sort of like Necromunda. In fact before I began to write Inquisitor (= Draco) Bryan Ansell told me to read A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by historian Barbara Tuchman. If you run out of Black Library fiction to read, A Distant Mirror is a good substitute. Anyway, the big killer Black Death has gone into hiding, back to its reservoir (in southern Ethiopia, perhaps). If this true Black Death—with its long infection period—re-emerges in our modern world instantly superconnected by air travel, there’ll be a ghastly global pandemic. The Waters of Destiny is about this, and also about religious fanaticism, both Islamic and Christian.
I worked with a collaborator because neither of us could have coped on our own. The amount of material to find out about just expanded and expanded.
Aside from this, I’m getting on with a sequel to my “spacetime opera”, The Brain From Beyond, published by PS Publishing in 2016. I ought to be much further ahead with this, but Cristina and I co-organised the Barcelona Eurocon (November 2016) which was a mountain of work—unpaid, just in case anyone thinks we profited except from the satisfaction of making hundreds of people happy. And then this thing happened and that thing happened: an event in Barcelona about Climate Change Fiction, an event about Frankenstein at El Escorial just outside Madrid, things which take time to prepare for. Besides, I have notes for half a dozen short stories which I’m hungry to get to. I don’t actually write very fast, and I rewrite a lot. I don’t even read very fast—so who am I advising other people to read a lot!
PS: The Waters of Destiny is now published as 2 volumes in hardback; see PLAGUE IN CHESTER on this very site.