Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 5.5 Ignorance, Thy Name is Fabius

The following is the twelth entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

Falling back into problematic narratives

As mentioned before, a central element of Reynolds’ novels about Fabius Bile and his peers are characters which are trying to tread their own path in an environment riddled with competing narratives. Both in Primogenitor and Clonelord, these characters, especially Fabius, get challenged in their determination to write their own story unburdened by the mistakes of past and present. What allows Fabius to be goaded into narrative patterns he explicitly objects to is his wilful ignorance to certain running sub-plots in his life, a fact that gets exploited by competing factions with an interest in keeping him on a narrative path of their choosing.

Fabius is a decidedly complex (post-)human being. He has lived for several centuries, has seen the rise and fall of the Great Crusade and the fires of the greatest civil war the human race has ever known, was witness to miracles and horrors all across the stars and performed a variety of roles over his long life, from Chief-Apothecary of the Emperor’s Third Legion to Clonelord of the fallen sons of Fulgrim. As such, his life is riddled with different sub-plots, some complementing, others contracting themselves and each other. Echoing ideas of post-modernism, Oleander warns of the dangers of simplification of a complex whole while contemplating the burnt-out remains of a battle-automaton:

‘A proud warrior, reduced to ruin,’ he murmured. The saga of the Third, written in junk. Appropriate, perhaps. They’d shed everything else of use, everything that mattered, and waded into the roaring sea of Chaos without hesitation, seeking perfection in the simplicity of madness. All of their old glories, old royalties, and old strengths were left to rot, like the battle-automaton. But without those things, what was left?

There was satisfaction in simplicity. But perfection was found in complexity. In the multifarious facets of the thing.” (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 215)

In their craving for boundless freedom, the Emperor’s Children have over-simplified their complex whole, the inter-twined web of stories and sub-plots that forms their narrative identity, into a one-note self-story that leaves but a hollow shell of what could have been and was before. This act of simplification, in the case of the Emperor’s Children originating from the daemonic whispers of Slaanesh, is attempted rather deliberately by various interest groups over the course of both novels to be imposed upon the Chief-Apothecary. When confronted with the Quaestor, a daemonic envoy of the Dark Gods, Fabius gets told:

‘[...] Your destiny is a fractal of impossible complexity. The shadows of empires past, and those yet to be, seek to simplify that pattern to their own ends. [...]’” (Clonelord, p. 128)

In Primogenitor, the Harlequins and Oleander try to bring Fabius to take command of the 12th company and consequently the Third Legion as a whole. Oleander thinks that Fabius could rebuild the fractured Third into a semblance of its former glory and wants him to fulfil the role of Lord-Commander Fabius. The motives of the Harlequins are more obscure, as a united Third should be an active threat to them; it seems to be implied that by making Fabius accept the role of commander, he would focus less on this work, which would prevent a certain future with even more dire consequences for the Harlequins or the Aeldari race as a whole.

Oleander and the Harlequins want Fabius to take a running sub-plot of his life - that of the unifying leader of men and monsters, informed by his former role as commanding officer of the Third Legion during the Heresy and the collective endeavour at Canticle City - and simplify his life around that sub-plot. Fabius, while tempted, refuses the role of commander at the end of Primogenitor, as it would be a “distraction” of his chosen purpose and his work.

In Clonelord, a similar attempt gets made, this time to push Fabius into the role of teacher and servant of a new-born primarch Fulgrim. While Fabius’ discovery of a healthy, uncorrupted clone of Fulgrim was obviously no coincidence, it is not entirely clear exactly who is guiding Fabius’ steps as he explores his old labs. The Harlequins are surely involved, but over the course of Clonelord it’s being made clear that a daemonic envoy of Slaanesh is also pulling strings amongst the occupants of the Vesalius. Whatever the truth, Fabius finds the clone, takes him into his care and thus allows a new invitation to a narrative aside of his work into his life.

Round and round and round you go...

The clone represents an opportunity for Fabius to return to a former point of his life: that of the dutiful son and wilful follower of his father, the Primarch Fulgrim. Fabius tells the clone: “You are a vessel for hope and change. [...] Or you were. What you are now will be up to you.“ (p. 189). The clone is, indeed, a vessel for hope: Fabius’ hope for a Fulgrim “as he should have been. The Phoenician, Unfettered. A true Illuminator, capable of leading a New Humanity to its destiny” (p. 187). Fabius is nevertheless heavily conflicted about the clone. Only a few passages earlier, he contemplates disposing of him: “It would be safer, in the long run. His New Men had no need of such a thing.” (p. 186).

For the powers that gifted the clone to Fabius, he serves as a powerful tool to bring Fabius to simplify his complex narrative identity so that he focuses on a narrative of their choosing. The clone tempts Fabius with his innocence, lack of obvious corruption and the powerful sway a Primarch holds over all of his “sons”. Despite his concerns and doubts, Fabius allows the clone to mature and blossom into a fully-grown Primarch – a decision that leads to catastrophe.

In both of these cases, what allows for Fabius to be manipulated is his deliberate ignorance to running sub-plots of his life. He denies wanting to be a figure of authority, but nevertheless is the focal point of the Consortium and a figure of worship for most of his creations. After refusing command over the 12th company at the end of Primogenitor, he nevertheless ends up taking responsibility and leadership over them by having picked them up and being in the process of using them as military assets by the beginning of Clonelord. Fabius closes his eyes from every sub-plot of his life that he deems a “distraction” of his work, while still perpetuating those sub-plots.

This wilful ignorance allows for those narrative threads to affect other people around him in ways that harm them and Fabius in turn, while Fabius denial of those threads prevents him from engaging with the consequences to himself and those important to him in a meaningful way. In the case of the clone, Fabius closing his eyes to a harmful story forming right in front of him nearly destroys all he holds dear.

Over the course of Clonelord, Fabius lets himself get drawn back into the narrative pattern of the Primarchs, a narrative pattern that he explicitly judges as harmful and rightfully abandoned. At several points in Clonelord, he becomes aware of familiar narrative patterns he is following, patterns that are obviously luring him in, but still denies the hold they have of him and the conclusions that he should draw from this realization.

“He recalled a story. It was perhaps one he had heard as a child; a folktale from misty Albia. A sorcerer had raised a king and brought about a golden age. It had not had a happy ending. Such stories rarely did. But this was not a story. He was no sorcerer, guided by portents and hoary wisdom. And the being sitting before him was no man; though he might be a king. Or an emperor.” (Clonelord, p. 187)


“If the gene-seed were real [...] it might be enough to rebuild the Legion. But could he do it. Should he? It was all too perfect, too neat. A story, moving along familiar lines. He’d heard similar stories as a child – a lost king, a slumbering army, a new golden age. ‘Am I the Myrddin of myth, now, aging backwards and growing swords from stones?’ “ (p. 199)

After a heart-felt speech of the clone, in which he swears to never succumb to the mistakes his predecessor made, Fabius thinks:

“The force of [the clone’s] words thrummed through Fabius, unsettling him. Here was the youthful Phoenician, come again. Here was the demigod he remembered kneeling before, on the fields of Chemos.

But there were oceans between that moment and this. Fabius had endured the storm such words conjured before, and though forceful, they had little power over him now.” (p. 261)

Fabius’ words ring hollow when viewed against his actions or lack thereof. Because he denies the running sub-plots of his life, he fails to engage with them on a meaningful level, just as he fails to trace the pattern to its inevitable conclusion if left unchecked.

The Primarchs are, at their core, weaponized beings, weaponized stories designed by the Emperor to follow an unstoppable course and pull their whole world into their pattern. They are fully artificial beings, not born but created, designed with a singular purpose in mind, domineering narratives hauled towards the stars to tell themselves wherever they land, to be woven into the greater narrative of their creator upon rediscovery. An early dialogue between the clone and Fabius points to this:

‘Am I a story?’ Fulgrim asked. Fabius hesitated. Fulgrim was looking at him, violet eyes wide and full of innocent curiosity. How did one answer a question like that? He cleared his throat. ‘Of a sort. Your name, for instance, is derived from a Chemosian folktale.’ Fulgrim smiled. ‘I would like to be a story, I think. I would be a good one.’

The Fulgrim that Fabius finds in the ruins of his labs acts in the context of Clonelord not so much as a person, but as a pre-written story growing before Fabius.

Designed by the Emperor to be the ultimate tools of conquest, the story of the Primarch unfolding before Fabius eyes runs its course exactly as it has nearly twenty times before, from Roboute Guilliman on Macragge to Perturabo on Olympia:

The Primarch is found by a human civilization and is quickly introduced to a powerful authority figure (Fabius), who takes the wondrous youth into its care. The authority figure gives the Primarch access to knowledge and training (as Fabius does for the clone in his hiding place), both of which the Primarch absorbs at dazzling speed.

The authority figure attempts to shape the youth into an asset for its own goals, usually by raising them in a paternal relationship (the clone respects Fabius as his creator and teacher). Quickly, the Primarch outgrows the limits of his environment and those of the people around him (the clone grows bored and reads books faster than Fabius can provide new ones). Attempts at containment are first tolerated by the Primarch, but are more and more subverted (the clone starts sneaking out of his hiding place).

The Primarch starts to build himself his own position of power, apart from that of his paternal authority figure, amongst the people of his environment (the clone comes in contact with the creatures of the Vesalius). At some point, violent conflict erupts, either provoked by the Primarch or by some outside force, which is the opportunity for the Primarch to rise to military power (Alkenex’ attempted take-over of the Vesalius).

The Primarch uses his by-then-built net of influence and takes to the conflict (the clone convincing Igori to let him lead the resistance against Alkenex), using every asset under his control as well as his own incredible martial and personal abilities to decide the bloody conflict for himself (Alkenex and his warriors stand no chance against the clone and his army of Fabius’ making). The Primarch reigns supreme and assimilates the remains of the defeated opponent into his ranks (Alkenex and his warriors kneel before the new-born Primarch), but inevitably at a cost of lives for those who followed him (Igori gets badly wounded and countless creatures and gland-hounds get killed).

The Primarch mourns the losses, but sees the foundations for further conquest before him, and strikes out to further his goals and spread his ideology (the clone announcing that “We shall rise. And the galaxy shall rise with us”).

It’s only at this point, at the climax of the familiar story that he has allowed to run its course, that Fabius fully realizes what he has allowed to happen. He doesn’t even seem to blame the clone for doing what he did, for he did exactly what was in his nature to do, exactly the narrative pattern that was written in the artificial bones of every Primarch by the Emperor. The clone is likened to a child, and acts in a child-like manner towards Fabius:

“’What? Fabius?’ [The clone] took a step, and Fabius backed away. [The clone] frowned. A child’s frown. Confused. Hurt. He did not understand. He could not understand. He simply...was. [...]

’Teacher? What are you talking about? I have done all this for you. Are you displeased? What have I done wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ Fabius said. The word felt like poison on his tongue. ‘You have done nothing wrong. But this was a mistake. I must rectify it.’” (Clonelord, p. 355)

Fabius realizes that he is repeating the narrative pattern that has led to the Horus Heresy and the dire state the universe finds itself in, the very narrative that he seeks so desperately to subvert with his New Humanity, the gland-hounds, who, instead of becoming independent from the sins of the Space Marines, kneel exactly like them before the whims of a Primarch:

“He could see it now – the madness that had gripped them, him included. He had almost slipped back into the old ways, and let the future burn in the fires of the Phoenix’s resurrection. His great work, all for nothing. All that he had endured, all that he had striven for, undone by the being before him. Igori...his New Men...he saw them now, in his mind’s eye, bending knee before Fulgrim. Abasing themselves. He would not allow it. Could not.” (p. 355)

When he is fully confronted with the violent end-result of the story he has written, Fabius is struck by a volatile mixture of anger, guilt and shame. He tries to erase the story before him by asking Trazyn, the immortal, self-appointed archivist of the universe, to incarcerate the clone, Alkenex and his warriors inside his vault. Trazyn gladly obeys, and Fabius is left to care for Igori and contemplate what he has done and will have to do next.

The novel ends with a final critical question aimed at Fabius. Veilwalker, the leader of the elusive Harlequins, appears in Fabius’ lab for a final conversation. He points out that, despite Fabius’ repeated proclamations that he will only go on “until [his] work is done”, Fabius will never be satisfied with his work and will continue to go “round and round and round”, never finishing the story of his life:

’And when will your New Humanity be ready? If not now, when? [...] Never.’” (Clonelord, p. 359)

The final narrative, Veilwalker implies, that Fabius is perpetuating despite his vocal opposition to it, is Slaanesh’s way of achieving perfection through excess. Because Fabius will forever be hunting the most elusive prey, Perfection, never able to catch it, going to ever greater lengths to achieve it, never satisfied enough with his work to stop. “Round and round and round you go, again and again and again.”

It’s easy to imagine hypothetical real-life examples that relate to Fabius’ situation: Someone repeating the parental story of her violent parents, despite condemning their style of parenting and knowing about the hurt they inflicted upon her. A person slipping back into his old self-story domineered by a wish for self-optimization, which before had already led him to starve himself until life-threatening low levels of weight. Or someone who starts to tell her self-story again as one where alcohol is an appropriate and invaluable tool to function and to reach her goals.

Fabius’ story exemplifies how people can slip back into harmful narrative patterns they want to abandon, and it’s easy to imagine how he could profit from a narrative therapist – maybe even someone like the Jackalwolf - assisting him in questioning the narrative he is telling about himself and re-writing his self-story with full respect to his complex web of narrative threads.

Continue with 6. Conclusion

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