Science and Technology and the 41st Millennium

In real life I work in Applied Physics and it tends to colour the way I look at things and what I read. The other day there was an article in New Scientist on a new type of exoskeleton. When I got home I mentioned this to my boyfriend (also a scientist) and stated that we could probably make power armour with current technology. He shot this down but it got me thinking. Yes, we probably could make some sort of power armour, if nowhere near as powerful as that of M41. Actually we’re at the cusp of developing, or already have quite a bit of 40K tech (giant faster than light space ships that utilise interdimensional travel not withstanding).

The real life reason why 40K tech is not quite as futuristic as it might be, is probably to do with how things have changed since the days of Rogue Trader. Take computers for instance, I’m a little bit older than Rogue Trader and I can remember my first computer an, admittedly second hand, Amstrad portable that filled a desk. At the time, being able to type something and then print it on a dot matrix printer was pretty nice. Actually, I have a feeling that I may have used a BBC Micro before then (I loved those machines). Today I’m typing this on my laptop, having also used two desktops and a phone with considerably more memory than my first computer (I don’t even want to try calculating it- the Amstrad worked using a series of floppy disks!). Even something as seemingly basic as lighting has changed considerably, today’s LEDs would have been unthinkable twenty five years ago.

However it’s a mistake to directly try and compare today’s technology with that of M41, and this is where Games Workshop scores Brownie Points for designing a background that is independent of real life technological advances.

As anybody who has read more than just the rules section of the 40K rulebook knows, science and technology in the 41st millennium has stagnated. Most of the technology is archeotech, technology from previous societies, which has been preserved, stored, dug up or recreated and may or may not be fully understood.

Now, a problem with lab equipment is that the device itself, a spectrometer, or deposition system etc., is often designed to last for a very long time- years or even decades. A lot of these bits of equipment come with software which is required to operate them and this software either is unable to be upgraded, or is too cripplingly expensive to replace. This leads to old PCs being used well past their use-by dates. I’ve actually seen a stockpile of old machines in a lab that was moving, because they were expecting at least one to fail in the move.

Now imagine this problem on a planetary or even a galactic scale. The more fragile, probably the more complicated and advanced, devices will become extinct over time. The remaining technology will be robust, but it might easily be quite primitive.

It may also be that a large proportion of the preserved technology was that which was less successful or obsolescent in its own time. Think of the things that clutter up an attic or basement or even the garden shed. Some technology gets used until it breaks, things like kettles, toasters washing machines or dishwashers don’t end up in the loft. Other things get used for a while and then becomes superseded by a newer model, things like an old PC, or a CRT TV or an old radio. Sometimes such devices are recycled, at least partially, especially peripherals such as cables, sometimes they just gather dust. Other things, particularly gadgets are less attractive over time and are replaced by a new toy, often these are the less successful gadgets, something that looked like a good idea at the time, or were not the winning format, things like the Betamax or the minidisc player. Eventually the more successful replacements might make it to the attic, if they haven’t been worn out, but they will be in far poorer condition.

Imagine such an attic being re-opened after five years, ten years, fifty years. Imagine trying to set up a piece of equipment from 2000 or 1994 or 1985. Imagine that you’re from 2112 and you’re trying to do this without the manuals. You might not know that a CD is different to a DVD, or that a dot matrix printer is incompatible with an ultrabook. You might not have the manuals or you might not even be able to understand it. You would have to try and figure it out by trial and error. I imagine that this is the situation Tech Priests are in when they find “new” technology.

Of course all the constant fighting does not help with the preservation and development of technology. Historically war has been a catalyst for new developments, particularly in medicine, a recent example being the surge in the development of bionics, but also in areas such as chemistry and physics with things such as the Manhattan project.

The thing is that war in M41 is constant and unrelenting, it is a war of attrition.. Resources have long since been allocated to getting more or more soldiers armed and armoured rather than pure research and development.

Power armour is a good example of this. In M31, during the Wars of Unification, the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy, there were seven marks of power armour: the mk.I Thunder Armour, the mk.II Crusade Armour, the mk.III Iron Armour, the mk.IV Imperial Maximus Armour, the mk V Heresy Armour, the mk VI Corvus Armour and the mk.VII Aquilla Armour. After the Heresy any modifications were made on a suit by suit basis (Artificer Armour). The Lexicanum mentions a mkVIII armour, but that only appears to appear in a Deathwatch book, and there is also Grey Knight Aegis Armour, but that is only utilised by a single chapter.

The trouble with Artificer Armour is that it is unique, if anything happens to the suit or the chapter, then the knowledge how to make the improvement is lost. Also knowledge is not going to be freely shared. Can you imagine the Dark Angels sharing information with the Space Wolves, for instance?

The artificers themselves could also be lost, a promising techmarine could be lost in battle and his half-developed method to stop plasma guns overheating would be lost with him. A real life parallel can be drawn here with Henry Moseley, who figured out why the periodic table was in the order it was before being killed aged 27 at Gallipoli during World War I.

Another cause of tech stagnation is fear. The Imperial Citizens of M41 are scared of technology, a legacy of the Age of Strife and the Dark Age of Technology. Clarke’s Third Law states that:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

For Imperial citizens technology is magic, a view promulgated by the Adeptus Mechanicus who treat technology as a religion, complete with prayers and heresy. I’m not sure whether prayers to the Machine God are instructional i.e. “Press Ctrl Alt Del, press Ctrl Alt Del. Have you switched it on?” or more like the cursing that occurs when trying to deal with a piece of recalcitrant equipment i.e. “Work damn you!” “Please don’t break, please don’t break, please don’t break!”but by treating technology as a religion they’re not encouraging science, just compliance with their views.

I’m beginning to think that in general the 41st Millennium is quite primitive, almost Fantasy Medieval. This is why it is a mistake to compare it with real life technology in the early 21st Century. There are some very cool developments out there at the moment, but the thing is, they are developments. The Imperium in the 41st Millennium is an empire in decline, the citizens are struggling for survival and so development has been sidelined. This combined with a lack of understanding as discussed above, probably means that the average Imperial Citizen is far less tech-savvy than an average citizen of a developed or developing world country today, and they probably own less of it.

I hope that I haven’t been too boring!

L.o.F.

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