Space Marine by Ian Watson – Review [Christian D'Amico]

"Say hello to my little friend!"

Christian D’Amico kicks off his reviews for The Founding Fields right where he should, at the very beginning. He puts his thoughts to “paper” in a review of Space Marine by Ian Watson, the first novel published in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

“I found myself paying almost three figures for a copy, I wanted it that bad.” ~Christian D’Amico

Warhammer 40,000. It’s been around for quite a while now, and recently turned twenty five! Quite an achievement, I think you’ll agree. With this in mind, I figured why not go back to the first publication for Warhammer 40,000 in Black Library: Space Marine.

Dark; claustrophobic; grim; gothic. Four words that describe Warhammer 40,000 (40K to its fans) in a nutshell. It’s impressive to say the least that an entire galaxy can give the sense of claustrophobia in its styling, but it does. And it works. Over the last twenty five years it has drawn in and inspired some of the most (arguably) talented writers to help develop the mythology and backstory. Dan Abnett; Graham McNeill; Gav Thorpe; William King. All well known and liked, but before these literary behemoths stepped into the limelight, another name forged the path that other writers would walk down. His name, is Ian Watson.

Watson is well known outside of Warhammer 40,000. As one of the most creative science-fiction authors in Britain, his first words birthed the gritty setting and layout of 40K in the novel Space Marine. His research came mostly from reading the game manuals and rulebooks that were used for the tabletop gaming. Mix this with the wild imagination of an established sci-fi author and you have the first workings of 40K in novel form. Interviews that later surfaced after the release of the book showed that Watson literally had to live the characters. In an interview he stated that he hallucinated the characters he wrote about, imagining how it would feel to be in a setting where, in order to survive, you had to let some of the madness in.

The book became a huge seller, going out of print for many years. As a result, used copies quickly gained value, and even I found myself paying almost three figures for a copy, I wanted it that bad. Since then, Black Library has turned the novel into a Print-on-Demand piece, allowing anyone to own a copy for considerably less than I paid a while ago. Still, the original cover holds a place in my heart for the liberal use of a certain facial feature from the film Scarface. It just works, in a cheesy kind of way.

"Say hello to my little friend!"

Having only recently joined The Founding Fields for a very specific reason of backlogging reviews for 40K novels, I found that upon re-reading the novel, I forgot just how strange and bizarre the writing is compared to the more modern literature available in this day and age. This shouldn’t be taken as a negative however, as it means the novel stands out even now for a unique take on something we have grown used to. It still reads well, and even with the knowledge of what happens already in my mind, I still found myself reading on at a good pace, eager to get from chapter to chapter in an effort to find out what happens next.

The only problem I have with Space Marine is that I imagine a lot of current 40K fans will be pretty disappointed with Watson’s take, as it doesn’t fit into the current mythology of the setting. The fact that the book reads more like what some people would describe as “purple prose” might also factor. Personally, it feels more poetic to me, if anything, and I have no trouble reading it, but then I’m one of the very few readers who eagerly grins when reading something like JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It’s just a different style of writing that for one reason or another (the changing nature of readers, perhaps the impatience, too), has fallen out of grace in recent times. True followers of 40K however, and possibly even non-40K followers, should really give the novel a chance, as it is classic, punchy and has many strengths despite the change in writing style over the years.

Space Marine gives the reader more than just the now-ubiquitous “bolter-porn” found in 40K. Here you’ll find a very human story about revenge, backstabbing and, ultimately, brotherhood. The overwhelming feelings of humans are pushed aside during the story in order to allow the more practical whims such as teamwork and survival to take place. This is the training involved in becoming a Space Marine, and the book digs deep to discuss the human psyche and how it changes as the recruits are made into something more than human.

The psychological complexity is another layer to Watson’s style here, and it is enhanced by his writing style. The immediate thing that is easily noticeable is the prose. Alliteration is big here, and you’ll find yourself often re-reading parts, not because you need to, but because you want to. The first time through is an experience, but reading a part again offers a further insight into the writing. This is offset by the use of various technical proponents from philosophy, and more commonly science, that are used throughout the novel.

Being the first novel for 40K, Watson spends a lot of time introducing the reader to the 40K universe. There are discrepancies from today’s setup however. Orks are basically extravagant space-pirates here, and squats (yes, I said the ‘s’ word!) are essentially dwarves aligned to Chaos. Daemons are the big thing here, and haven’t changed from Space Marine to anything more recent such as any of the ‘Space Marine Battles’ series of novels.

Watson’s novel is a brilliant look into the start of 40K’s background. The interactions, underpinning psychology and style of writing gives the reader a fantastic mental image of the utter mayhem that can ensue in the mythos of the setting. It’s a fun, if slightly unnerving read.

In my eyes, Space Marine is the ‘Primarch’ of 40K novels, if you will. It’s the Black Library equivalent of Starship Troopers, and the heritage it gives goes to show that Black Library as an on-going franchise is most definitely one of the top science-fiction publishers out there. Watson was simply the trailblazer for a long, illustrious list of past, current and future authors. We owe him everything.


Christian D’Amico

Christian ‘Phalanx’ D’Amico is a freelance journalist who has been around the industry longer than he cares to remember. He has previously worked for Multiplay UK and Gamespy amongst others, and is an aspiring writer of science-fiction literature when not busy blowing things up in virtual worlds.


  • BaneofKings

    Awesome review, welcome to the team :) .

  • J D Dunsany

    Excellent review, Christian. I really enjoyed ‘Space Marine’. Like you, I found the prose a real cut above the usual 40K fare – there’s a real sense of literate playfulness with the language that appeals to me on a lot of levels. One to keep and re-read. Which your review has prompted me to do! Great job! :)

  • thetalldesigner Miles Cheverton

    Sorry – as someone who bought this new and even has a signed copy after taking it to games day (I think 93) I have to take small umbrage.

    “Orks are basically extravagant space-pirates here”

    They still are today!

    “squats (yes, I said the ‘s’ word!) are essentially dwarves aligned to Chaos”

    Not true, the squats featured are true loyal Imperials (as they should be) it’s just their top top leadership is swayed by a chaotic worshipper nothing else.

    The biggest difference in my mind is how the treatment of Chaos differs, in Space Marine anyone encountering it was pretty much guaranteed to be killed or mind wiped, in todays stories, entire legions of Imp. Guard go up against greater demons and just get told to get on with it.

    Great novel, worth reading the sequels and tie ins.

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