Book Talk: 'Titanicus' by Dan Abnett - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Titanicus' by Dan Abnett

Alexander Wallace has huge respect for Titanicus.
Before I bought Titanicus, I had only so much exposure to Warhammer 40,000. It was through video games that I had really gotten to know the universe (the Dawn of War series and Space Marine), plus some wiki-walking. Then, one day, on a whim I decided to buy one of their myriad books from the section in the local Barnes & Noble and gave it a shot.

The concept appealed to me immediately: giant robots fighting each other on an alien world. Plotwise, the best way I can describe Titanicus by Dan Abnett is Pacific Rim in the 40k universe, as massive war machines (called ‘titans’ in their universe) fling fury at one another with gun and steel fist. It’s a fairly basic subject; TvTropes makes a convincing argument that a key appeal of the setting of 40k is that it allows one to recreate whatever it is from one’s favorite media franchises and send them off to war against each other. The setting is vast enough and diverse enough to allow it.

This is probably one of the more creative depictions of hulking battle robots I’ve seen. Not so much in terms of what they are physically, but rather how it depicts the people within them. The entire portrayal of the crews within these monstrosities, and their interiors, reminded me strongly of the depiction of submarines in World War II alternate history or World War III technothrillers (think something like the submarine warfare in Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising). For Abnett, mechs are cramped, crowded, dark, and smelly places that imbue claustrophobia in whoever has to work them. Also like naval vessels, they imbue a real sense of camaraderie in the crews that man them as they lurch onto battle.

There’s one scene that has stayed with me vividly even after two years since I read the book: a scene involving a clash between Imperial and Chaos titans in a city, but one that does not focus on the war machines. Rather, on some of the Imperial Guard deployed there, trying to escape the duel between the vengeful gods that rage above her, destroying the city as they try desperately to escape. The way that the combat between the titans is handled in the novel more broadly is not unlike the fight between Superman and General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, with all the awful destruction that such a battle would wreak.
I’ve found that Warhammer 40,000 books generally have much better character work than the layman would expect from a franchise based off of a tabletop role-playing game from the eighties. There are several very well-fleshed out characters in this novel, including a couple whose story ends with some crushingly done dramatic irony. There’s also a toymaker in one of the cities who witnesses much of the chaos; his meticulous painting of all his toys was only later made clear to me as a nod to the miniatures game from which the 40k setting sprouted.

As I said, Titanicus was my introduction to 40k in its written form, and I do not at all regret taking the plunge. It’s taken me to Eisenhorn and the Uriel Ventris chronicles and Forges of Mars (perhaps my favorite of all 40k books) and several others that I have enjoyed immensely. I still haven’t read the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, to which this book is linked, and writing this review reminds me that I really ought to get working on those books (I own most of them; I have several complete series that I haven’t read yet because I compulsively buy books beyond all reason, so much do I love reading). Those wanting an introduction to the setting could find worse ways of going about it. In its own right, Titanicus is a fantastic work of military science fiction, one written by a writer whose work should be better known even independent of the broader setting in which it is placed.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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