One of the most consistently pleasing responses to “After Desh’ea” has been reader comments along the lines of “I’d never really thought of Angron as a big dumb berserker, but now…” or “I never thought I’d actually like Angron, but…” And the reason those responses in particular are satisfying is that they retrace my own thought processes when I was getting ready to write the story, and mean that “After Desh’ea” not only seemed to work as a story but worked in a particular way.
When I was approached to contribute a story for Tales of Heresy I had already been playing with a couple of ideas. Not to pitch as stories, necessarily, since the Horus Heresy is a strictly-by-invitation affair and I hadn’t been invited, but just as thought exercises. If I were going to tackle a Heresy topic, how would I do it? Which events would be interesting to write about, and what angle on them would be the most interesting to use?
Now, as a general digression, I’m a big believer in stepping off tracks and out of comfort zones. A class I was in got taken to one of the Canberra Word Festivals when I was a kid and remember one thing that stuck with me from then to now (which is more than the speaker’s name did, sorry): the worm’s eye view. That was this poet’s pet expression for what writers should be striving for. It’s common to talk about a bird’s-eye view when you’re talking about wanting a different perspective on something, but what about when you want to reverse even that second perspective and come up with a different way of looking at things again? Look for the place to stand that no-one’s ever stood before, and find the angle from which the familiar feels… not.
I also firmly believe that no subject in fiction is unwritable, impossible or played-out. In writerly circles you do hear the occasional remark about how a certain subject, genre, or plot is overused, outdated, discredited or whatever and “you just can’t write that story any more”. To which my response is always “no, you can, if you’re good enough”. I’ll grant you that outdatedness, flogged-to-deathness or whatever may make a story harder to do, might in fact move it beyond some or most writers’ reach, but all that means is that it’s more of a challenge.
So that’s some of what was at work when I started thinking about an Angron story. Because I remember a definite moment when I was reeling off some Heresy places and names to myself, thought of Angron’s name, and shrugged him off with a little half-smirk thinking “heh, yeah, one-note screaming psycho-zerker, nothing there”. And then I caught myself, and made myself go back and take another look at him, because as I’ve just been saying, that’s not true, is it? It’s never true. And in fact the second thought that I had was that the very fact of my initial reacion mean that bringing Angron to life was going to be that much more intriguing a challenge, and that much more of a satisfying achievement.
There were two thoughts that became focal points for my picture of Angron. One was the idea of heroism The idea of the “hero” as someone not only mighty but virtuous, a good person and role model, is actually a relatively modern way of thinking. People with more literary history than I can tell you when exactly the idea of virtue started being explicitly added in, but the point is that originally heroes were people who simply did mighty deeds, not necessarily good ones. A lot of modern tellings of Hercules talk about his fighting monsters and going on quests, but those tellings seem a little lighter on the bit where a lot of that monster-fighting was in penance for him massacring his wife and children in a drunken rage. I’ve always thought the best approach for chronicling the Emperor and his Primarchs was to make them heroic in that old, darker sense: these were beings of statures far beyond your or I, capable of world-building or world-shattering feats, beings whose virtues carried them to pinnacles far above normal humanity… and whose flaws ran devastatingly, inhumanly deep. When I was thinking about how he was going to react to being taken away from his army of escapees just before their last stand, the thought crystallised that Angron’s rage at this would be monstrous, but so would his grief, and recasting that whole story with Angron in mourning rather than in fury immediately opened up whole new ways for him to behave. Graham McNeill is a surveyor, he’ll tell you: when you’ve got that second observation point, that’s when you can start triangulating, get a proper fix on what you want to map.
It was actually correspondence with Graham that brought the second idea properly into focus, and that was the effect that the implants must have had on him. (Angron, not Graham.) This was something I’d initially speculated on on the Black Library forums, and I think it’s where Angron’s true tragedy lies. Angron had his brain re-engineered to both streamline his mind and soul into the same sorts of killing machines that his body already was; I suspect it was also to try and make him controllable, since even a young Primarch must have been a frightening prospect to try and keep prisoner by conventional means. The fact that his captors could construct such things in the first place points to a highly sophisticated techological base – this clearly wasn’t a world that reverted to utter savagery during the long galactic strife. But that machinery, sophisticated as it was, had been put not into a human but into a Primarch. Think of that for a minute: a Primarch. A creation so powerful and complex, drawing so deeply on so many strands of human knowledge, so intertwined with the Emperor’s own intellectual brilliance and creative drives, that probably only He Himself fully understood how they had been made and how they worked. Think of Rogal Dorn confessing that thinking on his own nature even frightens him, since he knows there is simply no precedent in human history for what he is. Think of the Luna Wolves’ apothecaries treating the wounded Horus and saying that even with all their experience with the augmented physiology of the Astartes, they’re still in the dark when they work on a Primarch, since he’s been built at a level so far above them.
Now think about how Angron’s neural implants, designed to fit a normal human brain by a world that had never heard of Astartes or Primarchs, must have fitted him. I don’t care how good they were at psychosurgery (and I think they were pretty damned good), those implants are still going to work about as well as bodging a couple of old pram wheels onto a Formula 1 racer. Gone is any chance of a clean cut to take away the higher brain functions not devoted to combat: that Primarch-mind is going to want to grow and push outward, attain mastery, break out of its chains. To switch metaphors, it’s like trying to cram a lion into a cat-carrier: it’s not just not going to fit, it’s going to fight.
It’s a tribute to the psychosurgeons’ skill that they got as good a result as they did: implants that did more or less what they were supposed to and a Primarch who could still function. But long before the Emperor got anywhere near him those surgeons tore away any chance of Angron had of becoming what his brothers became. Let’s say it again, he was a Primarch. He had a mind built to be a peerless warrior, a brilliant commander, a consummate diplomat, a great lawmaker, a wise scholar, a magnificent artist, a magnificant scientist. Pick the Primarch whom you most admire in the sense of the noble hero, someone to admire and follow: the steadfast and princely Dorn, bold and fiery Russ, thoughtful Guilliman, patient and methodical Perturabo, glorious Fulgrim, mighty Horus. This is the company Angron was built to keep, and if those surgeons had never entered his skull that’s the manner of being that he would have been.
That must have been hell. To live with this constant, nagging knowledge of your own ripped-away potential, to feel this great intellect of yours ready to seize on new knowledge and experience, to feel your own abilities grow by leaps and bounds in ways your conscious mind has to struggle to keep up with… and then to feel it all fall to pieces as your implants send another blast of sizzling rage through your thoughts. To grasp strategy, leadership, everything, so quickly and intuitively, and then to have the insight slip through your fingers at the last moment because the choke-chain on your thoughts is dragging you back, not letting you think or learn. Following even the simplest train of thought through to its conclusion requires every scrap of your formidable willpower, simply to avoid veering off into blind rage. Even the boundaries between thought, action and memory are blurred.
(That point about thought and action turned into a big part of the portrayal, actually. I wanted to really emphasise Angron’s physicality: apart from actual battle scenes most of the depictions of the Primarchs I recalled from the books tended to be static, with them seated imperiously on thrones or looming over some hapless human. A good contrast seemed to be to have Angron almost constantly on the move, prowling about the room, circling Kharn, recalling his memories as much with physical actions as with words. I was trying for an ominous, animalistic air and it was cool to have several readers respond to that.)
The more thought I put into how I was going to shine a light into this story, the more I got fixated on that very first introduction of Angron to the Imperium, his abduction from his homeworld and his introduction to the XII Astartes. So much seemed to stem from that moment. So much about him was described as harking back to his brutal gladiatorial background, so the moment where that collided with his ascension to one of the greatest military elites the galaxy has ever seen – the Primarchs of the Human Imperium – had to have story potential. It’s also remarked in the early Heresy novels that Kharn, whom we meet already having taken the post of Angron’s equerry, is the only one who can calm the Primarch’s mountainous rages – that hinted at some sort of special bond between them, and I wondered how that had been forged. That started to bring together some interesting elements: the idea that although Angron might conceive a hatred for the Emperor, that his Astartes might earn his respect as warriors, and that their own loyalty to the Emperor might bring about second thoughts. It’s something Angron’s thoughts turn to in the story: if Kharn is a warrior of such puissance and will, and if the Emperor has commanded such loyalty from Kharn that he will stand unresisting and allow himself to be ripped to pieces rather than breach an order, then perhaps this Emperor might have might that Angron has not yet realised?
By this stage scenes were taking shape. The Astartes assembling outside the meeting chamber. Kharn describing battles they had been in while Angron leapt and shouted and acted out his words: martial excellence would be something he would recognise when he heard it. Kharn’s recollection of the battles on Nove Shendak were fun to write, trying to come up with some of the weirder sorts of wars the Astartes must have fought in the Great Crusade. And then there was Angron’s own life as a slave and then as an outlaw and reaver, which again was fun to note out even though it only found its way into the finished story as quick glimpses and hints. The last element of the challenge was to make each scene and dialogue high-point function not just as a vignette on its own but as a subtle little step in Angron’s progression through the story, as the certainty that his rage gives him leaches away just a little, just enough for him to wonder what he should do now.
(Other elements came in almost out of nowhere. There’s a fair amount of material on the pre-Heresy World Eaters, but almost nothing on the Great Crusade pre-Angron World Eaters, and I needed to develop that a little since their reaction to their Primarch would be so grounded in their existing Legion culture and practices. In the first draft I’d gone for a very barbaric feel for them, with lots of bare arms, rawhide, ceremonial melee weapons and so on, but in the second I revised that since it seemed a more interesting contrast to make them a much more formal, traditional military in contrast to what they later became. The second draft was also when the War Hounds name came in, and was such a sweet and natural fit with the existing story elements that I wondered how I’d finished a draft without it.)
The whole story itself, of course, is a prequel, an illustration of one station on Angron’s journey and fall, working within the whole arc of the Heresy in the same way that each scene works in the story. One of the interesting aspects of working on stories like this is that Angron and his Legion will have more appearances and more stories, that won’t necessarily be told by me and won’t necessarily pick up directly from “After Desh’ea”. As such the story has to act not only as a self-contained piece but as a stepping stone for another author to build on or touch on when they go on to shed light on different parts of Angron’s life in their own turn.
On the basis of current discussions it looks like I may well be doing some more Heresy writing, although whether that’s going to be continuing the story of Angron and the XII is at this point open to question. I’ve really enjoyed the work I’ve done on the World Eaters so far, and it’s tempting to continue that. I’ve already got some ideas about why Angron refused to relinquish his brain implants, on how he implemented his warrior lodges and blood rituals, his clashes with the other Primarchs, and on Kharn’s own journey from what he is in “After Desh’ea” to what he became by his debut in the Chaos Codex.
On the other hand, my instinct as a writer is to take what’s there and turn it on its head, so perhaps for the next Heresy piece I should shoot to the opposite end of the Chaos spectrum and go for something insanely over-cerebral and Tzeentchian. Graham’s doing the story of the Thousand Sons, of course, but that’s only one of a whole treeful of stories ready for picking. Or I could go over onto the Loyalist side and pick up a great figure there to try and do the same thing with. It seems popular to bash Roboute Guilliman as a petty, jumped-up clerk, but in some ways he’s the Primarch I admire most: of all of them he really seemed to fully get the idea of what the Great Crusade was trying to build, not just what it was working to destroy. Then again, let’s take all those great, epic stories of might and fall and turn them on all their heads for that worm’s eye view: how would the Heresy look to a civilian who’d barely understood the nature of the Crusade to begin with, never seen an Astartes, who now has to come to terms with a raging civil war that they never asked for a part in?
There are a ton of possibilities, and if you’ve got thoughts on what I should be looking at tackling then I’d be interested to hear them. I’d also be interested to hear feedback on any of these musings about Angron and the World Eaters – there’s certainly still plenty of good discussion to be mined about the son of the Hot Dust.