Grimdark in the City: On Warhammer 40,000 and urban warfare

A game of Warhammer 40,000. Distances between models on the playing field must be measured with tools, as there is no grid, apparently. Image: Joxemai/Wikimedia Commons.

In the grim darkness of the far future – as the blurb of every Warhammer 40,000 product begins – there is only war. Games Workshop’s sci-fi tabletop game and the books, comics, videogames and merch it has spawned are set in a dystopian universe where war is everywhere, on every world, in the deserts and the mountains and, yes, the streets of bleak futuristic cities.

In the slightly less grim darkness of about a decade ago, I found myself pitching Warhammer 40,000 novel ideas to Black Library, the publishing arm of the Games Workshop empire. This seemed like a good fit – I retained a fondness for the property from a brief phase of obsession during my teens, although I’d never been much of a wargamer, and I liked the Black Library books I read, which struck me as a kind of 21st century pulp, violent popular fiction. I could do that, I thought: I just needed to get my head into a military fiction mindset.

The war stories I was drawn to were not about sweeping battlefields or large scale manouveres, but urban warfare. There’s plenty of precedent in Warhammer 40,000 for ruined cityscapes – the human Imperium has hive cities on countless worlds, hideous urban sprawls of towering fascistic architecture, titanic statues looming over narrow streets and the morbid, skull-based iconography of the Imperium carved on every possible surface.

These cities are illustrated in striking fashion in the pages of the table top game’s chunky illustrated rulebooks, but also brought to life in elaborate dioramas for tabletop play or display, and Games Workshop sells the pieces to build your own structures. The idea of the shattered urban landscape as a battleground is firmly, if you’ll excuse the pun, entrenched.

As someone who isn’t a military history buff, and who never got entirely into the tabletop game because he doesn’t have the mindset for games of strategy, I needed to do a bit of research, and began to dig around the fact and fiction of urban warfare. I wanted to draw not just on formal warfare between nations – Stalingrad and other cities where war has dug in – but wider ideas of urban conflict, especially the increasingly militarised conflict between police and gangs in Brazil as fictionalised in movies like City of God and Elite Squad.

One research hole led me to this excellent post from BLDGBLOG about the way Bruce Willis’ John McClane negotiates the crawlspaces and lacunae of Nakatomi Plaza in the film Die Hard;  that in turn led me to ‘Lethal Theory’ by Eyal Weizman, a paper on how the Israeli Defence Force reimagines and reshapes the city in times of conflict. Both pieces portray a form of urban warfare where our ideas about architecture and space are deliberately disrupted to confound and destroy an entrenched enemy.

The short version: if the enemy has mastered the conventional space of corridors, streets, windows and doors through patrols, sniper spots and traps, then any incursion into their territory must avoid all those conventional routes and spaces. Just as John McClane used lift shafts, air vents and a swing from one window to another to evade and confound Hans Gruber’s gang, so Israeli forces smashed through doors, floors and ceilings to search for Palestinian militants in the West Bank, moving from room to room and avoiding any conventional, potentially hazardous form of entrance or exit.     

That’s a very simplified explanation, but it’s easy to start to see how clean fiction differs from complex reality. Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza is an office building, deserted apart from the terrorists and hostages, the latter of whom are being kept in one location: McClane can therefore smash through the cold, functional office environments safe in the knowledge that he’s trashing a soulless workplace and that only the bad guys can get hurt. There’s a frisson not just in the heroic challenge of one man against incredible odds, but the transgressive joy of seeing a work space like your own blown to bits as the site of redemptive violence.

The real life actions described in ‘Lethal Theory’ are more complicated. The spaces being violated by the IDF forces smashing through walls and ceilings were domestic: highly armed soldiers hammering or detonating their way into civilian homes, throwing in a flash grenade or even blind firing a few rounds to subdue those within. Civilians would then be handcuffed and locked in a room without food or water or toilet facilities until the end of the military action. While such operations are fraught with the possibility of danger and active threats beyond every wall that falls, they are palpably indifferent to the prospect of innocents in the way. As Weizman states, “The transgression of domestic boundaries must be seen as the very manifestation of state repression.” Ploughing through homes with military force isn’t just a route to approach armed enemies: it sends a powerful message to the civilians who encounter such aggression.     

My first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Iron Guard, weaves many of the ideas about urban conflict I’d researched into the story. I had a lead character who, prior to his recruitment into the Imperial Guard, negotiated the dangerous corridors of the hive complexes of his homeworld with the same fluidity that the characters in City of God traverse the favelas. I managed to work in some of the ideas about Nakatomi space, and the demolition tactics described in ‘Lethal Theory’. As in Die Hard, I gave my fictional heroes David and Goliath odds, and cleared innocent civilians out of their way, somewhat sanitising the realities for what was, after all, a work of fiction for entertainment.

In the end, I’m not sure whether much of it was even helpful in terms of the kind of escapist military fiction the Warhammer 40,000 fan wants to read. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 is a dystopia, but its one that requires a certain level of heroic identification; and those heroic plot beats are grounded in a military mythology of valour and heroic sacrifice that fits uneasily with a cautious room-to-room neutralisation of potential threats.

The Warhammer 40,000 universe is also based on a game, and games require clear rules and a level playing field, a certain level of fairness. Tabletop war games are rooted in Napoleonic ideals whereby the grand strategies of the generals win out – but that’s not the way modern urban warfare plays out at all. As Weizel says in ‘Lethal Theory’, the “complexity and ambiguity of urban reality” confounded the idea of a fixed battle plan: one of his interviewees told him, “It becomes impossible to draw up battle scenarios or single-track plans to pursue.” Instead of fixed plans, units need to be given the ‘toolbox’ of strategies to respond to the many scenarios they may encounter. These micro-decisions might be reflected in the moment-to-moment playing of a wargame – but they sit uneasily with the ideal of a game grounded in tactics.

In the end I wrote a couple of novels and several short stories in the Warhammer 40,000, but became burned out and moved on to other things – ironically, considering we’re talking about war fiction, I think I needed to have been deeper embedded in the fandom and fiction of the universe to do it justice.

Having started out trying to bring some awareness of modern urban conflict into my work on the property, I ended up rooting my later stories in a more straightforward idea of conventional warfare drawn from the past – of war story tropes like naval battles and siege weapons, trenches and bunkers. I will leave it to readers to decide whether my work in the universe gets more or less interesting as I settled into a more conventional war story groove; you can find them all here.

Maybe there’s a smarter writer out there who can crack the formula of injecting the real life ambiguities of modern urban warfare into the operatic military dystopia of Warhammer 40,000. (They might have done it already, I always had a problem keeping up with my fellow writers on the line.) Or perhaps the reality is a too grim, too dark, too muddy and ambivalent for even that bleak universe.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.