Helsreach/1491: Archeology and Fantasy

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a recently published account of pre-Columbian civilizations by Charles C. Mann arguing that they were older, larger, and more complex than most non-archeologists believe.

Helsreach by Aaron Dembsky-Bowden is a “Space Marines Battles Novel” in the Warhammer 40,000 series, set in a dystopian fantasy universe of far-futuristic warfare,  also the setting for role playing and video games.

Two books that should not be combined in a single review. Interest in one of them is almost surely an indicator you will have no interest in the other, and I am therefore reducing my audience of potential readers to nearly zero. Nonetheless, I put them here, together: one, encased in hulking battle armor, crackling Crozius hammer held in a huge mailed fist, looking out of a Imperial helmet like a metal skull. The other, a tattooed paleo-indian, builder of burial mounds, balancing a spear of napped flint and native wood, her mind filled with boats and botanical knowledge, legs well-muscled with running from the gaze of history.

“Speak,” I tell them.


The New World is, according to Charles C. Mann and the archeologists he cites, much older than previously thought. Rather than arriving after the last glacial maximum little more than 13,000 years ago, sites have been discovered that would place homo sapiens on the American continent as early as 30,000 years before the present. “Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago,”Mann points out, “the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the ‘New World.’” (192).

Aztec Calendar: Wikimedia Commons Image

As a side-note, I find the level of uncertainty concerning these dates amazing. The disputed margin for when these first migrations occurred is still, despite advances in radio-carbon dating and other  technological aides in uncovering the past, almost 100 times longer than the entire history of the United States! If implicit nationalism and racism didn’t trump real curiosity and inquiry, we would know a lot more about these ancient societies, and a lot less about our founding fathers.

According to Mann, the landscape encountered by the adventurers, gold-hunters and heretics who crossed the Atlantic was one already ravaged by the pathogens that had preceded them. One out of Five inhabitants of Earth died as a result of traffic between the continents, and the collapsing of what had been two distinct human and natural ecologies. Walking through an immense graveyard they had unknowingly created, European settlers and later historians took the recent desolation as a natural state, proclaiming the Americas an untouched and uninhabited wilderness.

My brother recently found an arrowhead in a Kansan river valley, thumb-sized, with thin, sharp edges. Most of the legacy of pre-columbian American societies, though, is in the living landscape, its grasslands and genetics–we live in a garden, the size of a continent, grown by them. The prevailing stereotype of native Americans living in savage harmony within a pristine nature precludes, Mann argues, recognition of just how much the environments encountered by Europeans were maintained, even created, by Indian populations.

“Until Columbus,” he writes, “Indians were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere. Annually burning undergrowth, clearing and replanting forests, building canals and raising fields, hunting bison and netting salmon, growing maize, manioc, and the Eastern Agricultural Complex, Native Americans had been managing their environment for thousands of years” (353). The ecosystem in which native Americans lived was, in other words, an extension of their culture and conscious practices, not merely a pre-existing backdrop for unthinking, nomadic savages.

This is the main point of my review. Thoughtful consideration of previous modes of existence forces us to redefine concepts such as technology, complexity, and cultural development. Mann quotes a geneticist, for example, telling him that the selective breeding of Maize from previous species (none of which are even close in terms of nutrition or morphology) is a feat still far out of reach of modern bio-engineering.

Why should it be surprising that prehistoric mesoamericans, painstakingly hybridizing cultivars over millenia should be able to do something that a handful of grant-seeking technophiles with little understanding of ecology as a system would be unable to accomplish?

Nature is technology, the paleo-indian might say. We make steel, pesticides and plastic, while they made species populations and livable landscapes. There is no reason to feel superior.

Here is something to think about: the neurology of the human species has been constant for over 60,000 years. Physically, we are no smarter or more capable of reflection than any of our ancestors. Any evolution that has occurred has been in the “machinic phylum.” Our inventions, not us, are responsible for the tremendous changes double-entry bookkeeping, milk-drinking and meat-eating, steel-forging, war-making cultures have wrought.


“…the approach to the Real is at best fitful, the retreat from it into this or that form of intellectual comfort perpetual.” -Frederic Jameson

Which brings me to the other book, an equal distance into the future as Charles Mann goes into the past.

As a reader, I might never have taken Helsreach off the library shelf. As a writer, I see the value of soaking up diverse language-sets and atmospheres. Helsreach is all atmosphere: toxic, crunching, filled with the shimmering fog of war and bloodthirsty engines. Lascannons, augmetic implants and upgrades, servitors, machine-gods and Templar Reclusiarchs.

The dystopia is several layers deep: the world itself is a scorched universe dominated by the reach of an Empire, whose two-hearted titanic crusaders have been engineered for unquestioning servitude and violence. Unlike the natural world the Mann’s history invokes, on the planet Armeggedon where the events of the novel take place “the call of the wild [is] the rattle and clank of ten thousand ammunition manufactories that never halted production. The stalking of animals was the grinding of tank treads across the world’s rockcrete surfaces, awaiting transport into the sky to serve in a hundred and more distant conflicts” (23).

Derivative Fan (?) Art
My Sketch of Jon Sullivan’s Cover Illustration

Grimaldus, the armor-plated anti-hero, can no more question the will of the Imperium than Aaron Dembski-Bowden (“a British author with his beginnings in the videogame and RPG industries”) can question the genre in which he writes. The unconstrained techno-militarism of the novel is morbidly alluring, like pornography with zombies. The horror of the book is that you are taking the time to read it.

The reason we like zombie movies, a friend of mine once said, is that we don’t have to feel bad about watching them be killed. Violence against monsters, or robots, is acceptable, and zombies are a bit of both. In the same way, the Warhammer novel pits the Imperial Legion against–importantly–orks, subhuman brutes whose spattered ichor drips from the pages, and always just before the hammer or saw-bladed sword crushes them we read that their faces are green-skinned, disgusting, repulsive, deserving of the violence about to be inflicted.

The obvious question, then, is how these undeveloped orks are able to wage war against the Empire’s armies in the first place. Why would such inferior beings pose a threat? Some kind of savage, unholy magic–it is better not to ask. How was Machu Pichu built? How did prehistoric mesoamericans develop maize?

This is my last point about Helsreach, and similarly syndicated fictions: like Maize, the Warhammer universe has been developed communally. It’s narrative phylogenetics, encoded in genre, evolved through the selection and hybridization of linguistic seeds and the limbic responses of innumerable gamers and role-players. The publishers, however (like the Empire) retain the rights to what others produce.

This is what seems obvious to me about popular culture, and why I devoted my graduate career to a Darwinian literary approach (thereby drastically lowering my own “fitness value” in the academic market): movies, books, and the meme-pools from which they rise, are not the result of single creative acts, but rather the slowly engineered outcomes of thousands of feed-back loops between producers and consumers. In the same way, polled constituents are responsible for the speeches of politicians, by selecting their rhetoric through their applause and reflexes of voting.

For the “intellectual property” of these worlds and stories to be owned by their nominal producers seems as ridiculous to me as an agricultural company owning the patents to, say, the genetics of a type of corn.

Oh, wait.

Charles C. Mann ends his book with the dubious assertion that modern, secular, humanism owes much to the egalitarian ideals of the Haudenosaunee and other native Americans. Considering our own wars, our own killing fields and armor, nightmares of the future seem more relevant than dreams about the past.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s