So in the novel Uprising, we’re told that the Complex at Akwesasne is so secure, that people working in one part are not allowed to wander into other parts lest they see something they shouldn’t. To make sure they don’t wander, guards posted everywhere.
The guards can apparently be trusted to see everything.
More recently, we were told that ‘need to know’ is such a watchword that even trusted members are regularly followed. And just to be on the safe side those followers are themselves followed, and all must periodically submit to security interviews to confirm their loyalty.
There is apparently no concern about the interviewers’ loyalty.
I’ve already covered just how improbable this kind of arrangement would be in a real life situation. You basically need to be a national government to have these sorts of resources. But part of my goal with this blog is to try and present positive things (or at least something educational) to offset the negativity. Bland’s secret band of rag-tag native rebels is somehow flush with disciplined loyalists, each not only a paragon of secrecy but also perfectly content to be employed guarding a hallway. This got me thinking about some of my favourite works of deliberately over the top literature, both classic and recent.
And so our supplemental reading today is a two for one deal: The classic novel by G.K. Chesterton ‘The Man Who Was Thursday – A Nightmare’ and a definitely-not-classic but still awesome Warhammer 40,000 novel ‘Praetorian of Dorn’ by John French.
So back at the turn of the last century, while mankind was evolving its way to finding a balance between capitalism and communism, the anarchists were the popular bogeymen for both sides. Although anarchism was technically a school of political thought (basically imagine communism without the centralized government), it was popularly perceived as a kind of pretentious madness practiced by bomb-throwing intellectual crazies. Although the movement never really took hold on a large scale, the anarchist bomb-thrower was commonly invoked figure in popular culture.1 Much in the way that black leather trench coats came to personify the school shooter during the late nineties, the anarchist was everybody’s worst idea of what a revolutionary could be.
‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ opens with an a park in London where an anarchist poet (Gregory) regularly hangs out. One beautiful evening he meets and debates another poet (Syme) who worships order and progress. They have a casual argument, and Syme challenges Gregory’s claim that he is, in fact, a ‘serious anarchist.’
Gregory is…irritated. So he invites Syme to join him for an ‘entertaining evening’ on the promise that Syme will never reveal what he sees or hears to the police. Syme agrees and Gregory reveals that he is not only a real anarchist but a member of a literal underground organization of anarchists from across Europe who plan to overthrow the very notions of right and wrong itself.
“And who are we?” asked Syme, emptying his champagne glass.
“It is quite simple,” replied Gregory. “We are the serious anarchists, in whom you do not believe.”
“Oh!” said Syme shortly. “You do yourselves well in drinks.”
“Yes, we are serious about everything,” answered Gregory.
Then after a pause he added –
“If in a few moments this table begins to turn round a little, don’t put it down to your inroads into the champagne. I don’t wish you to do yourself an injustice.”
“Well, if I am not drunk, I am mad,” replied Syme with perfect calm; “but I trust I can behave like a gentleman in either condition. May I smoke?”
“Certainly!” said Gregory, producing a cigar-case. “Try one of mine.”
Syme took the cigar, clipped the end off with a cigar-cutter out of his waistcoat pocket, put it in his mouth, lit it slowly, and let out a long cloud of smoke. It is not a little to his credit that he performed these rites with so much composure, for almost before he had begun them the table at which he sat had begun to revolve, first slowly, and then rapidly, as if at an insane seance.
“You must not mind it,” said Gregory; “it’s a kind of screw.”
“Quite so,” said Syme placidly, “a kind of screw. How simple that is!”
The next moment the smoke of his cigar, which had been wavering across the room in snaky twists, went straight up as if from a factory chimney, and the two, with their chairs and table, shot down through the floors if the earth had swallowed them. They went rattling down a kind of roaring chimney as rapidly as a lift cut loose, and they came with an abrupt bump to the bottom. But when Gregory threw open a pair of doors and let in a red subterranean light, Syme was still smoking with one leg thrown over the other, and had not turned a yellow hair.
The underground lair to which Gregory leads Syme is filled with weapons and bombs, and it is there that he reveals the truth about the great conspiracy of European anarchists! There are seven great leaders of this movement, each of whom are named for days of the week, with their supreme leader being an evil genius known only as Sunday. London’s chief is called Thursday, and he has just died. It is Gregory’s intention – that very night no less! – to be elected as the new Thursday and to take his place by Sunday’s side in the great war against society itself.
So far so good. Gregory has proven his case to Syme beyond a shadow of a doubt. Except that, even as the rest of the Anarchist council can be heard arriving to conduct the election, Syme reveals a secret of his own.
He is, in fact, a police detective.2
This is barely thirty pages into the novel, and the improbable drama has only just gotten started. Horrified at his mistake, Gregory tries to play the organization off as less violent than it actually is, leading to him being rejected for election to the post of Thursday. Meanwhile Syme, who has been carefully studying Gregory’s speech all evening, parrots back the man’s earlier revolutionary rhetoric. The council is swept up by Syme’s performance, and by popular acclaim he elected as the new Thursday in the place of Gregory.
That’s when things get weird.
Not to spoil too much, but the story goes nuts in the very best possible ways, as Syme scrambles to bring down the Anarchist conspiracy from within. Although Gregory was easily tricked and outmaneuvered, the man called Sunday proves to be every bit as fearsome as his reputation. Syme discovers other detectives amongst the anarchists, only to find that the whole world has risen up against the very notion of law and order itself, making the police into hunted criminals. As the story turns into something between a nightmare and a glorious farce you find yourself sharing Syme’s bewilderment, wondering just who exactly is right or wrong?
It’s good stuff.
So I mentioned before how I’m a fan of Warhammer 40k? Yeah, there’s a lot there to love in spite of its generally pulp-like quality. In some ways, the fact that the setting is pretty much off the rails to begin with leaves the artists who contribute to it a great deal of freedom. One of the more recent additions to the cannon is the novel ‘Praetorian of Dorn’ by John French. This particular story takes place during an event known as the Horus Heresy, when the Imperium of Man is shattered by civil war and the Solar System and Holy Terra itself is at risk of invasion.
The protagonist of the story is Archmanus, the titular Praetorian of the mighty Primarch Rogal Dorn, who is the commander of the Imperial forces of Terra. However, a great deal of the story follows one of his chief antagonists: A lone commando from the traitor Alpha Legion who has infiltrated the Imperial Palace!
Okay so check this out:
He passed through the Unity Arch, beneath the guns of the guards and through the sweeps of auspex fields. No weapons were permitted beyond the Arch, and he watched the war bands of the Terran nobility strip their gear under the eyes of the sentinels in eagle masks. A lone Knight war machine stood before the Arch, its towering bulk seeming small beneath the gilt pillars. Its cannons hung relaxed at its side, but its head moved ceaselessly – back and forth, back and forth, like a dog set to watch on a threshold. Silonius looked up at it as its gaze hovered on him for a second, and then swept past. Moments later he was through the Arch, and another step on his path was complete.
The canopy above the carriage was furled as it began to ascend the Anavros Stair. No one noticed that one of its bearers had vanished. In the gloom of a side passage, Silonius found the grating in the floor and dropped into the darkness of an air duct.
The rest of his equipment came next. He found it a piece at a time: the rounds for his boltgun in a sump pool, the firing mechanism wrapped in oiled fabric beneath a tile, the plates of his armour in a dozen different niches. Some of the items had no purpose that he knew – a cluster of metal shards, a silver sphere, a set of metal rings – but he retrieved them all the same. A different agent had planted each item over the last decade. None of them had known of more than one location, and most had been disposed of after they had performed their task. The explosives, melta charges, blind grenades and haywire detonators came last, pulled from their hiding places and settled into pouches across his chest.
By the time he reached the inner reaches of the Palace he no longer wore the robe of a serf. Plates of armour and ballistic fabric covered his flesh. His form was a blur, the substance of his outline dissolving into textures of light and dark. He moved fast, never pausing, or hesitating.
Here’s the basics of the plot: Silonius3 here is a space marine and a member of the Alpha Legion. The Alpha Legion is one of several legions of genetically enhanced cyborg super-humans who have turned against against the Emperor of Man and are fighting to overthrow Earth itself. He is infiltrating the Imperial Palace, which is crawling with security hence the reason why he can’t bring weapons in with him. Luckily, weapons and equipment have been smuggled in ahead of him, including some very specific items that get explained later on…
…And these items were smuggled in over the last decade. Yeah, decade. Even though the war against Terra is only a few years old.
So like I said before, Warhammer 40,000 is pulp sci-fi, but it’s the kind of pulp sci-fi that leans right into the ridiculousness and manages to come up with something pretty awesome. In the 40k universe, the Alpha Legion is basically ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ personified, except as cyborg super-soldiers.
Now with the rest of the space marine legions, the soldiers and their Primarch leaders are all larger than life warriors with crazy weapons, wearing badass armour with crests, capes, skulls and all kinds of other wild, baroque decorations. The Alpha legion, on the other hand, are deliberately generic looking, to the point that the individual soldiers are nearly identical in appearance. Where the Primarchs of other legions are twelve foot tall god-like beings Alpharius, the Primarch of the Alpha legion (yes, that’s his name) is no different than the soldiers he leads. He is as nondescript as every other space marines in the Legion and wears armour that’s just as generic.
He’s also a twin – unlike all the other Primarchs – although his identical brother Omegon4 remains officially hidden in the shadows. This is where the novel go waaaay over the top…but in the best possible way! Because Alpharius (and Omegon) appear identical to their thousands of troops, they regularly move anonymously amongst them as part of various plots and schemes, meaning that at any moment you could be dealing with a common space marine or with a mighty Primarch who looks just like them. The Alpha Legion soldiers all accept this, and when encountering outsiders they frequently claim that they themselves are Alpharius (even when in groups)5.
So the whole point of the scene is that all this gear has been smuggled into the Imperial Palace of Holy Terra because Alpharius and Omegon are so utterly paranoid (and so utterly brilliant) that they actually smuggled weapons into the Imperial Palace decades ago on the off chance that they might one day turn against the Emperor and need to infiltrate the place one day.
As the story approaches its climax, Silonius begins to wonder about strange gaps in his memory, which mysteriously coincide with receiving his mission from Alpharius himself…at which point the action cuts away to an inbound fleet of Alpha Legion warships. They are on course to attack the outer defences of the Solar System but for some reason they are inexplicably commanded by some common, low-ranking space marine named…Silonius!
The story eventually becomes a game of musical identities with various characters trading places and names, even as a titanic space battle rages. Best of all, the improbable plot is actually helped along by the villains’ utter acceptance of their Primarch’s lunatic eccentricity. Just when you think the plot can’t possibly hold together, another member of the treacherous Alpha Legion will confidently declare “I am Alpharius!” and everything seems plausible again.
The Man Who Was Thursday is a brilliant work that swings from absurdism to existential thriller, Praetorian of Dorn is delirious, over the top pulp. Either way, they achieve their aim by leaning hard into the ridiculousness of the premise. Neither story makes any kind of sense when you think about it, but if you jump in without thinking it’s an awesome ride. Identities within identities, schemes within schemes, a whole world turning upside down halfway through…nonsense can be brilliant if done right.
For anyone here who’s a Warhammer 40k fan (especially if you’re all about the byzantine world of Alpha Legion), check out G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who War Thursday. It’s the modern classic where a lot of this madness began. For those who are already fans of the classics but have never heard of Warhammer, maybe check out the publications from Black Library and see how the ideas have percolated and developed over the years.
And if you’re Douglas Bland, and you’ve written an allegedly realistic novel that’s somehow full of watchers watching the watchers…
…Maybe just try to be funny instead?
1 The early scenes of 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows actually does a pretty good job capturing this popular fear.
2 A major conceit of the plot line is the notion that, although mortal enemies, both the anarchist and the policeman are gentlemen, and therefore bound by their promises to each other. It’s a testament to Chesterton’s writing that this comes across as both absurd and noble at the same time.
3 Fun fact: When I first typed the name ‘Silonius’ it auto-corrected to ‘Silliness.’
4 Oh yes. You read that right. Some of the names you’ll find in 40k are in a weird category that’s halfway between groan-worthy and delicious. As another example, the Primarch of the Night Lords (the dark, evil atrocity mongers) is named Konrad Kurze. His home planet is Nostromo.
5 None of them will claim to be Omegon, since Omegon’s existence is not acknowledged, even when Omegon is actually right there and has already introduced himself. You just gotta roll with it.