A little over a year and a half ago, Peter Fehervari, who in my opinion is the best author over at the Black Library, in addition to being a real great person (and very supportive to the blog), agreed to do an interview. The first few questions were billed as a "Part I", however, due to some scheduling issues and workloads, Part II never came to be. Now, I am ecstatic to announce a second interview with Mr. Fehervari.
There's only a few questions this time; but I think you can agree, the answers he provides are insightful, thought-provoking, and mind-blowing. It is a rare opportunity to see the workings and plannings of such an intelligent and deep author.
Well, read on, and I hope you enjoy. I'm sure you will. Please take the time to leave some comments on the way out.
Thank you for agreeing to do this second interview with HachiSnax Reviews. It’s hard to believe that it has been close to a year and a half since the last installment.
At the time of the last interview, I had framed a good deal of questions around your (then) upcoming Adeptus Mechanicus tie-in short story, Vanguard. However, since then, you’ve had a few more offerings come out through Black Library. There was another tie-in short story, this one for the Deathwatch series, titled The Walker In Fire, as well as the dizzyingly brilliant novella Fire & Ice, which appeared in the Shas’O collection (see reviews for Vanguard, Walker In Fire, and Fire & Ice).
Several of your stories feature the Tau in significant roles. I have to say, of all the Black Library authors, I believe your take on them is the most believable. Instead of just focusing on their wide array of armament, you infused them with a tangible air of legitimacy by delving into their philosophies. The way you presented the “Greater Good” is in a way one would imagine it to play out in real life – equal parts appealing and utterly terrifying. As a gamer, and as an author, what was your own history with the blueskins; and, going from that, how did you approach bringing them so effectively to life?
P.F.- I’ve never fielded a tau army on the table-top, however the faction has intrigued me since its first appearance. I vividly recall going into my local Games Workshop (sadly long gone and much missed) when the original tau codex and models were released and being struck by the buzz surrounding them. On fire with enthusiasm, the manager told me these were ‘the good guys’ of 40K – a rational, reasonable, all-embracing culture that was the galaxy’s best hope. Well, that certainly intrigued me. Unequivocal good guys in a world that was all shades of grey running through to deepest black? Really?
If I’m honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on the angular battle suits and overall aesthetic of this new race at the time, but I was curious enough to buy the codex. While I can’t remember the precise details of that early version I know it won me over to their side philosophically. Though this young race was almost certainly out of its depth in a reality where superstition, paranoia – arguably even xenophobia – made sense, I respected its idealism, doomed or otherwise. Since all roads in the Dark Millennium would likely end in ruin I figured I’d rather walk one that somewhat reflected my own view of right and wrong. The tau and I were both young and idealistic back then, so we hit it off!
Bearing this in mind, I’ve found it interesting that many readers feel my take on the Tau Empire is cynical, even condemnatory, because that was never my intention. For the most part I believe the tau are sincere in their intentions towards other species, genuinely recognising that sentient (and sane) civilisations are stronger if they stand together. The Greater Good isn’t just for those with blue skin and hooves – it’s a genuine, all-embracing philosophy that might just work in a broken galaxy.
However later codices and occasionally other sources (particularly Spurrier’s ideas in ‘Xenology’) added threads of shadow to the bright tapestry of these idealists. Considering their fragmented, self-destructive past, I’d argue there’s a potential darkness in the tau that can be supressed, but never entirely excised. This aspect can be played up or down depending on one’s personal interpretation of the ‘facts’. For example, the pheromone control exerted by the Ethereal caste is unsettling because it potentially denies other castes the freedom to choose the Greater Good, which would arguably undermine its ethical foundation. However, there’s plenty of wriggle room here because it’s not clear how pervasive and necessary such control is. One could argue that the pheromones (if they truly exist) are merely a support structure for tau society rather than its basis. As a writer I find such grey areas compelling, hence my fascination with the tau grew as their lore became more textured and their flaws showed through.
Nevertheless, given the countless predatory factions pressing in from all sides (and I include the Imperium here), I don’t regard the tau as particularly dark. Authoritarian? Almost certainly. Ruthless? Yes, occasionally, but rarely spiteful or malevolent. Thus, I’ve striven to present them as analytical, precise and measured in their intent and actions, but with a rigidly controlled, passionate core.
The embittered Fire Warrior, Jhi’kaara exemplifies this tension when it’s pushed to the limit. She is a broken reflection of the tau ideal, twisted out of shape by ambition and disillusionment. This makes her an outcast, more in tune with the toxic jungles of Phaedra than her own kind, yet even she never willingly betrays the Greater Good. Her discipline and respect for social order are too ingrained.
Which brings me to the Water caste ambassador, O’Seishin, who presided over the Phaedran war. Despite his incipient corruption (again rooted in personal ambition), his plan was arguably sound, saving many more lives (particularly tau lives) than it cost. It was harshly utilitarian, but undeniably effective. Rational. Hence the novel’s protagonist was faced with a murky, corrosive moral choice at the novel’s conclusion, which underlined the story’s main theme – complex questions rarely have absolute answers. Which reflects my view on the tau themselves.
I’ll conclude by saying the Tau Empire remains the faction I’d sign up with if I lived in the Dark Millennium and was offered a choice. In fact, given the chance, I’d call the tau in to sort things out in the here and now!
H.S.- Over the course of your Black Library stories, you have given your readers some truly memorable Imperial Guard (sorry, Astra Militarum) units. Take the Verzanate Konquistadores, the Lethean Penitents, and the Iwujii Sharks, to name a few. In your fashion, you have also provided detailed and comprehensive backstories for these units. However, of all the Guard companies you’ve created, the Arkan Confederates are forever cemented in the minds of readers.
Now, it is no new thing for Warhammer 40K Guard units to draw design inspirations from historical or culturally-influenced military units. Reception to drawing inspiration from Civil War soldiers seemed to run the gamut from readers thinking it was great, to some thinking it was odd, and others, silly. The thing is, once you picked them, the presentation was amazingly detailed. It wasn’t just grey uniforms, kepi caps, and a pseudo-Southern dialect. There were references to obscure Civil War era unit types, and authentic representations of social classes (from the upper crust plantation owners to the holy book thumping fundamentalists) and dialect.
My question is, was your inspiration in using that Confederate template born from picking well-known “rebels” and diving into insane amounts of research? Did it spawn from an affinity for that segment of military history? Or was it another clever puzzle piece (i.e.- Civil War – Blue vs. Grey. Blueskins vs. Greybacks)?
P.F.- My starting point for the lead regiment in ‘Fire Caste’ was that it should be strikingly ill-suited to the conditions on Phaedra. I’ve already mentioned that Herzog’s film, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ was an aesthetic inspiration for the setting – the images of conquistadors hauling cannons through a steaming rainforest were unforgettable and I wanted to capture that sense of absurd striving and misery while going my own way and amping things up for 40K. Secondly, I wanted to push the idea of the old and the new clashing, both technologically and ideologically, so a ‘period’ regiment was appealing as a foil for the tau.
I’ve always been fascinated by the American Civil War – the intensity, the appalling internecine waste of lives, the distinctive and striking uniforms, but above all, the irreconcilable clash of tradition and new ideas – so a Civil War regiment seemed a good template to build upon. I’m far from an expert, but I did my research, which is where I discovered colourful units types like the Zouaves, though I took them in pretty eccentric directions. Other than Colonel Cutler, who is obviously loosely inspired by George Custer, none of the characters are based on historical figures, but many of the names were derived from old regimental lists (though I discovered that a fellow BL writer had apparently been there long before me and snapped up some of the best ones!)
I’m aware that some people felt the Arkhan Confederates were too literal a take on their real world counterparts, but I feel this criticism was overcooked given how established 40K lore also draws so deeply from human history. In hindsight, perhaps I’d tone down some cultural aspects - the language perhaps - though I tried hard to make it authentic rather than clichéd, however I’m not convinced the story would be better for such changes. Besides, I’d argue that the Arkhan’s steampunk slant already goes a long way towards distinguishing them from the reality. Furthermore, in my alternate history, the Confederates (who reluctantly sided with the Imperium) were the victors, so the more conservative side won the war. This was probably just as well for Providence because it would have been steamrollered otherwise, but there’s a pervading sense throughout the book that it was a hollow victory. Many of the Confederates feel like traitors to their own people and have little affinity for the Imperium, let alone the Imperial Cult. They are lost – out of place, time, culture and increasingly, mind. The potential this offered for storytelling was always the most important thing for me.
I must confess that the grey and the blue parallel was pure luck – or serendipity - but it made me very happy when I noticed it.
H.S.- In evaluating your three last offerings, you can plainly see that with Vanguard and The Walker In Fire, there were certain parameters you had to follow in keeping in line with the tie-in story arc/product release. In both of those stories, you also found your way to integrate elements from your twisted, interconnected story threads. However, there is something different about the tone of Fire & Ice. In that novella, there is an almost palpable sense of an author with unbridled control over the story he is crafting; and the end result crackles with intensity. I know that sounds a bit over the top, but that story is immensely powerful. It may not have the haunting, despair-laden overtones of Fire Caste, but it is a solid, strong work.
Not to make the question too broad, but what can you tell us about the “making of” Fire & Ice? What was your original intent with this novella? Did you have any concerns with how the story would be received by readers, being as though it is so fundamentally different from the other offerings in the anthology in both mechanics and tone? And, what was your approach for getting inside the head of the enigmatic figure who may or may not be Farsight?
P.F.- While ‘Vanguard’ is a more direct follow up to ‘Fire Caste’, ‘Fire and Ice’ is closer to that novel’s spirit. Once again the ‘journey into darkness’ is at its heart, but more focused, with fewer action set pieces and a tighter focus on dialogue. Though it is a puzzle without a clear-cut solution its pieces had to make sense and work on multiple levels.
For example, setting the bulk of the story on a train served several purposes. Firstly it struck me as a fresh and unusual environment for a 40K tale. Secondly, it offered a claustrophobic, almost inescapable trap where the horror, both physical and psychological, could play out. But thirdly, I was attracted to the set-up emotionally. This trap, where the roles of captor and captive, hunter and hunted blur, is quite literally on rails, remorselessly carrying our protagonist towards judgment as his tormentors push him on a parallel, arguably more dangerous, journey within himself. This synergy of the aesthetic, the practical and the emotional is what I aspire to when thrashing out a story's location, plot and characters. Which brings me to your question about Farsight.
Last time round I talked about the sense of responsibility I feel when writing within the 40K mythos - the thrill and the fear. Well, I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did with ‘Fire and Ice’ because this was the first time I was entrusted with one of the lore’s established figures.
Being drawn to outcasts, iconoclasts and rebels, I was fascinated by Farsight from those first dark paragraphs in the codex, so I jumped at the opportunity to get to know him better. This was before the release of his supplement, so he was still a profoundly enigmatic figure and my brief was to keep him that way. I could hint at his motives and nature, but not pin anything down. Whatever depth and detail I brought to him could not be at the expense of his mystery. After some initial consternation I realized this resonated with my own instincts about the character – after-all it was his mystery that had hooked me in the first place.
I loved the notion that Farsight’s true nature, like the identity of the infamous missing legions, belonged to the imagination of the fans, without ‘official’ answers to constrain it. To some he might be an ideological renegade, to others an opportunist pirate or even a nascent champion of Chaos. My place was to offer evidence for all these theories, but never hard proof, which set the story's tone of subterfuge and shadow play – and indeed the whole puzzle-box structure. At journey's end we can't even be certain whether the Prisoner was Farsight at all. Not even I, the writer, can really know in this case.
To do this idea justice it was imperative never to go directly into the Prisoner's head. His thoughts had to be inviolate. Like his interrogator, all we have to go on is what we see and hear. We are observers, never truly confidantes in this game.
So what can we be sure of?
Regardless of his motives, I knew the Prisoner had to be impressive. Without a battle suit or a loyal cadre of followers, he had to be dangerous through his sheer presence alone. The story's title refers to the duality of his psyche, which encompasses both a razor-sharp intellect and a ferocious passion (the inherent tension of the tau amplified to the limit). Each aspect is in thrall to the other, but always threatening to break free and shatter the balance. To my mind, this is the alloy from which a great leader is forged – a warrior lord who has mastered both the detached strategy of war and the up-close savagery of battle. As to whether he’s fighting for good or evil… that’s another question, and not one I wanted to answer about the Prisoner. There’s plenty of evidence on offer, but how you interpret it… well that’s up to you. The answer doesn’t belong to me.
H.S.- Finally, your new novel focuses on the machinations of a Genestealer cult infestation. What drew you to this faction and what was your approach to their portrayal? How did you combine older canon, newer materials, and your own personal touch into making a "religion" that is both simultaneously hideous and inhuman, yet also sympathetic, believable, and, in a perverted sense, beautiful?
P.F.- There’s a grungy bio-punk aesthetic to the Genestealer cults that appealed to me from their first appearance in White Dwarf, back when they were riding around in limousines and making pacts with Chaos like some kind of xenos-tainted mafia. They embodied the rot devouring the Imperium from within, wielding doubt and discontent to subvert the everymen (and women) of humanity from the shadows. The insidiousness – the dishonesty – of their secret war made them more unnerving than the xenos and traitor hordes assaulting the Imperium’s frontlines. And then there was their utterly nauseating modus operandi - a corruption of mind and body that was unequivocally sexual in nature. They were repellent, but fascinating with it, which made them a compelling faction to write about.
When I received the brief for the novel I had some lengthy and wonderfully bizarre discussions with my editor about how far the story could – and should – go into the sexual aspect of the cult. Sex is intrinsic to a Genestealer infestation so glossing over it completely would have done the concept a disservice, but equally we had to be mindful of the readership’s wide age range. Hopefully the balance we struck, with the sexual aspect restricted to suggestion and character reactions, conveyed the horror without ever being crude or exploitative.
Actually, while we’re on this subject I’d like to clarify one…technical…point about hybrid reproduction: my understanding is that first and second generation hybrids infect humans with an ovipositor sting, much like Purestrain Genestealers. Only fourth (and possibly third) generation hybrids are sufficiently humanoid to utilize more conventional techniques of reproduction. While the codex isn’t particularly specific on this matter I pressed for an answer and this is the interpretation we agreed on. Personally I think it’s quite disturbing enough and entirely logical.
So to be absolutely clear about this and end some of the more febrile speculation I’ve read on some forums: the fallen Battle Sister, Etelka, was stung by the cult Patriarch. There was no bizarre monster sex involved, thanks.
Moving on to the character of the cult, I wanted its philosophy and aesthetics to express the biology at its heart, but in an idealized way, hence the imagery of an ever-growing spiral and the promises of ‘cosmic kinship’. From humble human converts to the Patriarch himself, whether it is instinct, intellect or passion that drives them, every member of the sect sincerely believes the infestation is a force for good. How could it be otherwise when it heals, unites and enlightens those it embraces? Within the Great Spiral the doubts and deceptions of individuality disappear and the three facets of existence - body, mind and soul – become harmonious.
The daemonic entity imprisoned beneath the Spires and held in check by the Patriarch reinforces the logic of the cult’s creed: in a malevolent galaxy only absolute harmony can prevail. This is both an inversion of the classic Rogue Trader phrase (‘In a mad galaxy only madmen prosper’) and a more extreme expression of a utilitarian philosophy like the Greater Good. Crucially the creed makes a lot of sense, which is where its beauty stems from.
Of course, we know this is all a lie perpetrated upon the cultists by their own biology, which has doomed them from the start. The Great Spiral is a trap, offering not cosmic transcendence, but oblivion in the jaws, metaphorical or otherwise, of a tyranid fleet when the Hive Mind finally senses them. That twisted tragedy is what I find most compelling about the faction, not least because it rings so true. As the lost Arkan captain, Ambrose Templeton wrote in the preface to his unfinished epic: Beware of easy answers and those who proclaim them, for what glitters is rarely gold and those who flaunt it are never true gods.
Wow. Amazing stuff there. Thanks again, Peter! A reminder, Peter's two Genestealer Cults stories, the novel Genestealer Cults, and the wicked short story Cast a Hungry Shadow (which features Chaos vs. Genestealer cult gang war and a ferocious, Mad Max: Fury Road inspired vehicle action setpiece), are out now. Grab your copies today!
And don't forget, you can go back and read the first interview with Peter Fehervari here.
Legal Disclaimer: The views and/or opinions expressed in this interview and in all articles of this blog are entirely the view of the author and are NOT in any way representative of Games Workshop PLC. All names, insignias, illustrations, et al. are the property, copyright, and/or trademark of Games Workshop Ltd, PLC. All names, titles, and illustrations used without permission, with no challenge to copyright/trademark status intended. All rights reserved by the proper owners.