The officer dips his cut-throat razor into a chipped bowl, staring at the mirror and finding a man “loyal but weary, weary but loyal.”
He commands a regiment of rogues and outcasts, whipped on the tides of constant war. They are beset by implacable enemies that give no quarter, and by aristocrat rivals scheming for their demise. They have grown old over all their years together – and one more campaign beckons.
This is Gaunt’s Ghosts; the stories of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his Tanith “Ghosts.”
Written by Dan Abnett, they span fourteen novels and eighteen years – and include perhaps some of the best-written military science-fiction of recent times. Abnett writes with vivid detail, and captures the spirit of his scenes in painstaking character. Whether brutal insurgency work on a dying farm-world, or the desolate chill of a fortress built by vanished alien hands, Abnett brings craftsmanship to his every canvas.
This is perhaps all the more impressive given Abnett’s source material: the vast, overwrought (and, dare I say, sometimes pulpy,) universe of Warhammer 40,000. For the uninitiated, this is a universe custom-built for the twelve-year-old inside you – the part of you that never really grew up.
Here, the Imperium of Man is the one bulwark against the long night. Its frontiers are barely held by trillions of Imperial Guardsmen, and by dwindling bands of centuries-old super-soldiers: the Adeptus Astartes. Together they are equipped according to half-forgotten blueprints, so ancient they are holy relics to cults of Tech-Priests. A sclerotic bureaucracy rules all, keeping haphazard order through sheer repressive force. At every point, humanity is besieged by alien terrors and the daemonic forces of Chaos.
To be clear, this is not Three-Body Problem territory. Indeed, the Imperium of Man is a deliberately anachronistic place: today’s advances in military technology – like artificial intelligence and autonomous drones –are strictly outlawed.
So, what makes Gaunt’s Ghosts relevant to writers in the security community of today?
The answer lies at the heart of what makes Gaunt’s Ghosts so compulsively readable: Abnett avoids both schlocky space-opera and dry science-factoids. Instead, he delivers stories focused on essential themes of leadership and courage. And he does so through a trench-level view with remarkable imagination and accessibility, from the Stalingrad-style city-fight of Vervunhive to the Market Garden-esque landings at Cirenholm. In this ever-busier Netflix age, writers need to emulate Abnett’s method.
Certainly, there is no lack of skill or imagination among writers in the security community. At the remarkable Staging the Future event in London, jointly organised by both the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, crowd-sourced playwrights projected likely behaviours of artificial intelligence in warfare. Jason Hansa’s A Pregame Discussion, in particular, did so with great humanity and perceptiveness.
But the value of Abnett’s work is to serve a wider reminder: until or unless the futures predicted at Staging the Future come to pass, the bravery and leadership extolled in Gaunt’s Ghosts will remain central not just of future warfare, but all walks of life. As anyone with experience in the corporate world will tell you: there are few things worse than toxic leadership. Any writer looking to the future of warfare should keep that truth in mind, even when looking to the exciting potential of new technology.
In the meantime The Warmaster, the next Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, is due to drop this December – and I for one am ready to get back into the fight.
Hal Wilson explores future warfare challenges through narrative and fiction, and has been published by the Small Wars Journal. He has written finalist entries for fiction contests held by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, as well as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Hal lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry.
He graduated in 2013, with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is now studying a masters degree in the History of Britain in the First World War.