Last time I left off with a tease that we were finally going to talk about the problem of Mary Sues in 40k. I wasn’t lying. Today we’re talking about how 40k has gone full Matt Ward.
The worst problem with the leaked summary of the conclusion of Hive Fleet Leviathan’s attack on Baal is that in an epic confrontation between the Blood Angels and the Tyranids built up by multiple books, the winner was Khorne and the Ultramarines. Instead of being allowed to be antagonists in their own right, Tyranids are reduced to being obliterated by a bloodthirster to make Chaos look more badass, and instead of being given the starring role in the climax of the battle for their own planet, the Blood Angels are reduced to Roboute Guilliman’s sidekicks.
And this gets us to the unfortunate possibility that the reason why Games Workshop is turning both their main franchises into epic fantasy is because epic fantasy is a friendly genre to Mary Sues. Now, that’s not to say that all epic fantasy is bad or only there for Mary Sues. Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy, it has issues with its prose but it’s a great story, and it doesn’t have any Mary Sue characters. Nevertheless, if you want to show off your Mary Sue, epic fantasy is the way to go.
Epic fantasy’s defining feature is the battle between good and evil. In epic fantasy, all evil creatures ultimately answer, in one way or another, to some supreme overlord of darkness, and likewise all good creatures are ultimately a part of some unified front to stand against them. Being a third way faction to the titanic confrontation between good and evil is a specific and unusual decision, and often leads to being consumed by the evil (and sometimes rescued by the good guys, whereupon the previously neutral faction will join BLUFOR), rather than being the default. In epic fantasy, it makes sense to ask a question like “are the Iron Hills fighting for the Free Peoples, or has Sauron corrupted them?” Maybe the Iron Hills decide to specifically stay out of the fight, but Rohan and Gondor and Lothlorien and Rivendell are all firmly on the side of the Free Peoples, while Mordor and Dol Guldur and Gundabad are unquestioningly fighting for Sauron. Not taking a side, being painted in grey on the map, is a specific choice made, not the default state, and it is less common than siding with BLUFOR or REDFOR.
In other types of fantasy, this kind of question is weird. Which side are the Tau on in the fight between Hive Fleet Leviathan and the Blood Angels? They’re not. It’s weird to even ask. What does the Tau’s agenda have to do with the conflict between Leviathan and the Blood Angels? How would either side’s victory advance the interests of the Greater Good such that the Tau would even want to get involved? Or in the Forgotten Realms, if Hillsfar were to try and invade Phlan to solidify their control over the Moonsea, it’s weird to ask what side of that conflict Calimshan is on. Calimshan’s half a continent away and has no allies in the region. Why would they have any opinion on the conflict? Cormyr probably wouldn’t even try to assist Phlan despite being relatively close and having an agenda deeply contradictory to Hillsfar’s. Phlan and Cormyr might have some goals in common, but that doesn’t make them Team Good and an invasion of one doesn’t automatically involve the other.
This apathy is anathema to Mary Sues, because Mary Sue must always be the center of attention. Epic fantasy is convenient, because if Mary Sue is the champion of Team Good, then it’s easy to say that everyone on Team Good loves Mary Sue and everyone on Team Evil hates her (indeed, a lot of terrible Mary Sue fiction has protagonist-centered morality where Team Good is defined by supporting Mary Sue, and Team Evil by opposing her, regardless of whether they have any reason at all to do so).
The more we learn about the Gathering Storm, the more it seems like this is Games Workshop’s endgame for 40k: Turning it into an epic fantasy so that they can make absolutely everything revolve around the clash between their Mary Sue Roboute Guilliman and their favorite antagonists, Chaos. All Imperium factions become sidekicks to the space marines (if we’re lucky, and if we’re not, just the Ultramarines), and all other antagonists are reduced to jobbing for Chaos. Tyranids are no longer the main villain of their own stories, but instead are just there to set up how an upcoming confrontation between the Blood Angels and Chaos, and it is entirely plausible that this confrontation will be either resolved by Roboute Guilliman’s intervention or else that the Blood Angels will ultimately be defeated just to make Chaos seem more badass before they fight and lose to Papa Smurf.
If you go to fanfiction.net, and especially if you went there before they started enforcing any quality standards at all (the bar is still pretty low, but at least certain zero effort formats have been banned since the site’s early days), you’d find that even the most blatant and awful Mary Sue stories had their defenders. So it goes with the Gathering Storm. Some of them are Ultramarine or Chaos fanboys, and apparently their lives are so pathetic that being vicariously successful through the omnipresence of their favorite toy army men in a made up story is the highlight of their month. Some of them are Games Workshop fanboys and will defend literally anything GW produces, no matter how awful. Some of them are just contrarions who argue against the growing consensus that the Gathering Storm is awful for no other reason except that they think disagreeing with commonly held perspectives makes them look smart. Regardless of their motivation, it’s never surprising to see that Mary Sues not only have defenders, but have fervent and angry defenders. Partly because being fervent and angry is the default state of the internet, but mostly because people who like Mary Sues almost ubiquitously like them because they think of themselves as being that Mary Sue. An attack on the Mary Sue is therefore an attack on the fanboy personally. So don’t be surprised if the Gathering Storm and other plotlines like it end up with lots of defenders who declare vendetta on everyone who doesn’t like their favorite minis. The presence of these kinds of people and only these kinds of people defending a story is often itself a sign that the protagonist is a Mary Sue.