Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Sliding Scale of Tyranny - Is The Imperium A Better Federation Than The Tau Empire?

Times have been interesting for the Tau Empire. Between a new codex, a major plotline devoted to their faction, the death of a major character and a plethora of new stories, they're definitely having their moment in the spotlight. This said, as Mont'Ka showed, this has hardly been the start of some new golden age, and the authors involved seem to have very particular opinions about how the Empire works.

Games Workshop as a whole seems to be more focused upon the darkness hidden behind the Greater Good and repeating the Emperor's past mistakes. While that can result in some awe inspiring tales (read Fire Caste, it's woefully underrated) the pendulum seems to now be swinging the other way. Authors have been pushing hard against the idealistic "good guy" outlook they arrived with back in 2001, so much so that the Empire's shade of grey morality has turned well and truly black. In fact, it's so bad by now that you have to question if the Imperium of Man is actually doing a better job at being a diverse alliance of people than the Tau Empire.

Let's be clear here, the Imperium at its heart is most definitely a Frankenstein's monster of dystopian governments. Cobbled together from just about every worst fascist dictatorship in history, you'd be hard pressed not to find some iconic ideal, method or image not embraced by its governing body. The police are closer to special forces than anything else, and combined with the Inquisition they have near unlimited authority. Their armies are perpetually conquering worlds, fighting wars of annihilation against hostile alien races in the name of their leaders, and stepping out of line will often result in a short drop with a sharp stop. Well, if they don't have a bullet to spare. Really, if the Aquila wasn't obvious enough, their warships, great machines and even the astartes themselves are reliant upon a slave caste to ensure continued operation. Adepts, in many major worlds, are little better and the ghoulish use of Servitors only furthers this, ensuring the corpses of dissidents are put into their service.

Long story short, the Imperium isn't exactly all sunshine and rainbows even on the best of days. However, that is just the core of the human empire itself and the surprising thing is that it only seems to care about certain parts of humanity. For the most part, so long as they pay their tithes, continue producing their wares and ultimately play their part, most worlds are left to their own devices. While any attempt to actually break away from the Imperium would be met with hostility, and you still have the odd Inquisitor or Lord Commander throwing their weight about, some doctrines are looser than would be expected.

Think for a moment of the worlds seen in Black Library's releases or even just some of the bigger names from human armies. You have Tanith, Mordia, Necromunda, Macragge, Medusa, Cadia and Tallarn just for starters. Besides the same general technology and loyalty to the Imperium, no two are even remotely identical. On a governmental level they're incredibly diverse, ranging from being ruled as a feudal loosely linked series of duchies, a group of borderline Mad Max survivalists living out of war caravans to a hierarchical autocracy. Hell, even if you focus upon the one truly universal factor among all of them - their worshop of the Emperor - even that shifts and changes about. Tanith is noted to have various spiritual figures worshiped besides him, Tallarn is puritanical to a fault but with a heavy spiritualist streak, and Necromunda... god only knows. The point is that, even at their cores, their lifestyles, traditions and linking aspects are wildly different from one another. Before you even get into the differences in language, taboos or class structure, these are varied worlds granted a good deal of autonomy from the Imperium itself.

Even the planets which do serve as a hub for Imperial rule are hardly cookie cutter designs, with the likes of Thracian Primaris and Scintilla having their own unique governmental foundations. Both are ruled by noble houses to be sure, but at the same time the way in which those houses negotiate power, deal among themselves or associate themselves with other Imperial authorities varies quite heavily. As much as some critics might claim the Emperor stripped worlds of their unique cultures and identity during the Great Crusade, it only takes a moment to see that the exact opposite was at work. The last strands of his plan, his real plan before the Great Heresy, still hold in place, uniting the bulk of humanity under one banner despite their differences.

Now, with the state of the Imperium in mind, let's consider how the Tau Empire has been presented over the years. Let's even be generous and ignore Mont'Ka's depiction of press ganging entire human populations as slave labor. That might well have been an out of place or extremely badly worded statement, and for argument's sake we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, consider this for a moment - What was different about Mu'gulath Bay compared with other Sept Worlds? Really think for a minute about everything from that book, and what it involved. The population were devoted to the Greater Good, they were divided up into a caste system, and they were trained from an early age to fulfill a single role within their Empire. When it comes down to it, sadly, there was little to nothing else. The problem is that, this is no different from just about all tau held worlds.

While some Septs are noted to retain a few key differences ranging from a grudging distrust of aliens to a hot tempered stereotype among their people, that's about it. There's no cultural variation here, nothing to truly distinguish each world from one another save for a small handful of basic tropes. The tau as a people aren't so much a massed coalition of varying beliefs as a single force spread out over a few different planets. The way it's presented would be akin to each and every planet on the Sabbat Worlds being identical to Tanith, right down to the faux Scottish accents. Even the very subject of autonomy or right to rule themselves is out of the question, as they all have exactly the same hierarchical structure and same rulers. In this regard, it's not so much a federation or alliance as just a single massive nation.

Some are going to inevitably going to argue that just focusing upon the tau is unfair. In some regards they're right, as the Empire itself is fairly young and compared with the Imperium it's still developing. One empire's worlds are thousands of years old while others have only been set up for a few generations, and while I would personally argue that's more than enough time to show some real variation, there's some merit to that remark. Even culturally you could argue there's a reason for this inward uniformity, and that the caste system is just a diverse series of people following a single goal. At least until you looked into how recent stories have treated worlds absorbed into the Empire.

When they were initially presented, the tau effectively allowed most races to retain their basic social structure. While they would often be altered or fitted in to align with one caste or another, and were required to dedicate their lives to the Greater Good, that was about it. Those we saw willingly join (even those suspected to have joined them Empire thanks to weapons grade brainwashing) didn't change much. 
The kroot were allowed to continue their ways, serving as scouts and auxhilary troops for the Fire Caste. 
The vespid were largely divided between the Earth and Fire Castes, with some serving as miners and others as rapid assault troops. 
The same even went for minor examples such as the nicassar, a race of space nomads, who were allowed to continue on their way but were occasionally asked to serve as scouts, escorts and transports for the Air Caste. This last one is especially notable as the nicassar were one of the early examples forced to join them through superior firepower. Yeah, even those races the tau actively subjugated were basically left untouched once they joined.

This outlook of having the tau as more a varied coalition of forces remained consistent for the better part of a decade. There was always an undertone of darkness to be sure, always a question of "how good are they truly, when Plan B is 'I'll keep shooting you until you agree to my terms'?" That was about it though. However, just before the Sixth Edition, it seemed that a few Games Workshop employees had other ideas about how they operated, especially in regards to human integration. What started initially as "join us, stick to the Greater Good, don't kill anyone doing the same" started to take on a bizarre mix of Communist, Borg and Middle Ages Crusade ideologies.

Rather than just joining them, humans were suddenly instead expected to embrace their entire culture and utterly abandon everything which was non-tau. Really, let's go through just a few stories which really touched upon the subject:

Courage and Honour. Easily the worst novel of Graham McNeill's otherwise excellent Ultramarines saga, the tau here were presented as mind controlling bastards. Along with getting many other things wrong, the tau seemed to regard alien cultures as something to be censored and eventually erased entirely in favour of their own Greater Good. This was not only the reason initial negotiations broke down, but  was also what shook the heir to the governor's throne from mind control after an seeing an Ethereal's utter contempt for faith in the Emperor.

Shadowsun: The Last of Kiru's Line. It featured Fire Warriors who were basically Imperial Guardsmen with an added streak of xenophobia. You can read more here, but the basics relevant to this discussion of it were:
Sneering, self-superior contempt for religions of any kind.
A regard for any non-tau icons as effectively unclean, doing all but screaming "Blasphemy!" at them.
A self-righteous belief that all species should bend over to serve the tau and submit to their innate superiority.
Xenophobic, petty reactions to other species. I.E. When the tau force is decimated by a forest predator, Shadowsun vows to have its entire species exterminated for humiliating her.

The Kauyon. The audio drama featured many similar elements found in the aforementioned Shadowsun novella, with added flaws such as treating respect of the Ethereals as effectively religious worship. There's honestly a point where the protagonist hopes that the "Auns are watching over him". The protagonist retains an odd contempt for humanity's own beliefs and attitudes, all the while quoting the "Axiom of Mindfulness" a-la Codex Astartes.

For The Emperor. Yeah, even the Ciaphas Cain books aren't exempt from this, and actually feature one of the earliest examples of character assassination. Supporters of the Tau Empire are shown instantly emulating their traditions and cultural details, notably shaving their hair save for braids in the manner of the Castes.

The Shape of the Hunt. The human forces engaged by the White Scars are presented as borderline fanatics, thrown at the astartes to slow them down and almost seem like a gross exaggeration of tau traits. It goes so far as to show humanity trying to emulate their new alien masters by painting their faces blue.

Broken Sword. This is the big example, as it's more or less the sole example of a human loyal to the Tau Empire living on a conquered world. Taken from the Damocles collection, it portrays life there in a very strange light indeed. For starters, as the tau terraformed and changed the world, they rapidly went about erasing and destroying and semblance of the prior society there. Humans were taught the tau language, given tau names, taught only of tau values and ultimately were brought up to hate the society they had been before the tau arrived. Rather than having any degree of self-determination, the world is shown as being under the direct control of the Ethereals at every turn, with all decisions made by them.

These are just a few such examples of how writers present the tau, and they're by no means all bad. Most (even Broken Sword) are remarkably well written, but they all present the same thing: Cultural annihilation. Whatever societal identity an alien race might have had, it is instantly overridden once the Ethereals take control, and even its basic autonomy is denied to it. They're no longer a world defined by themselves so much as a fast they're a part of the Tau Empire and serve the Greater Good. This, to put it simply, isn't a federation. It's a dictatorship which forces any and all who align with them to exist only as a part of their Empire, and regard themselves only as helpers of the tau. While there might obviously be some bias in these tales, the fact that even pro-Tau Empire stories reflect this new attitude is telling of how Games Workshop sees this faction.

Ignoring just about everything prior to mid Fifth Edition - which the company sadly has a history of doing by now - the tau we see today focus less upon unity than they do assimilation. When you truly stop to compare one with the next, the elements which help define one government as a federation or republic are far stronger within the Imperium than the Tau Empire. While the tau certainly have a more open and friendlier attitude towards alien races, that almost exclusively comes down to the fact they won't commit genocide on sight. Plus, given that within a few generations new species are cultivated to only have the mindset, values and laws of the tau, does that even really make them alien at the end of the day?

This certainly isn't some article trying to get you to support one army over the other, but simply to encourage people to stop and take a long, hard look at how modern lore defines the armies you like. In this case, if the Tau Empire can even truly be defined by the more benevolent idealism which once established them as a major power. Once you do, you can often find that some of the more definitive ideas of the setting have been thrown into question and that, ultimately, some factions have arguably even lost their way. 


  1. I was actually thinking something along the same lines since you mentioned in a previous article about how the Sept Worlds didn't really have much diversity, and if the writers were smart I actually think you could actually chalk this up to the influence of the Ethereals. Think about it, they live on every planet, all of the Tau go out of their way to cater to them, and I don't see the Ethereals living in a place they don't find pleasing to them. Basically you could easily write it so that the Ethereals want each Sept World to appeal specifically to their own unique tastes, rather than leave them as something diverse that would appeal to the tastes of the other Caste's (meaning the Fire Caste dominated planet would look a lot different to an Earth Caste dominated planet). Maybe they have a point in making them all the same too, since Farsight Enclaves show us what the different Caste's do to planets when Ethereals aren't around to tell them to build "proper" Sept Worlds, which would explain why the Farsight Enclaves seem to be the only diverse Tau worlds, and would also explain a little bit as to why they were so stupid with their resources (and all of this without outright saying "The Ethereals are evil!").

    Now to be fair to some of the Tau literature, in some of those the Tau take over Imperial worlds with the thought of making them fully Tau worlds which is mostly due to strategic value than anything else (though this doesn't explain the ones where they act wildly out of character in battles or in other scenes), I'd like to imagine if they encountered a Feral World that was nowhere important, they'd hopefully ask them to join the Tau Empire, then leave it alone once they accepted (kind of like what they did with the Kroot) rather than indoctrinate everyone on it and obliterate their culture.

    One thing I'd like to bring up with the Imperium too is how even though they're usually extremely xenophobic, the reason behind that is because they believe the Emperor wants a human dominated galaxy (though given how xenophobic he was, that probably isn't the case) so in really rare cases aliens are actually left alone provided they do nothing to hinder humanity in any way, and in fact I remember mentioning in a previous article that even the Black Templars spare an alien race that they thought might be worshiping the Emperor by proxy.

    Also, if we're going by the Rogue Trader books, the Imperium actually has sanctioned Xenos in some sub-sectors (both with Rogue Traders and some Xenos Inquisitors), so they're actually more honest and friendly to alien relations in some sub-sectors than the Tau currently are. One more thing on that note (and to be fair, this was the case even before Matt Ward messed things up) they'd even go out of their way to capture Xenos like Jokaero, since they were aliens that didn't resist the Imperium in any way and a lot of the things they provided helped them out a lot (though back then digi-weapons were not nearly as stupid, acting more like a ring that doubled as a S4 laspistol that was so short ranged it only worked in close combat rather than the nonsense Ward turned them into).

    1. Well, the closest thing we have to a Fire Caste world is Vior'la which is basically their version of Caida. It's best known for their Fire Caste training academies, but beyond that it seems to be more defined by its environment than the actual dominant caste. In this particular case, the fact that the world is ravaged by plasma storms for months at a time, until most cities are just shielded domes. You could argue that this could be for training or spiritual purposes, but there's actually not much to really reflect that. I do agree entirely upon your point about the Ethereals though for two reasons. The first is that they're one group with more or less total dominance when it comes to decreeing how things are done on each world, and the other is the pheromone control they have over other tau. It could be that the reason their society is so formulaic is thanks to their will, which would give credence to your idea here. Though, personally i'm still a bit dubious on directly comparing them with Farsight Enclaves lore given how badly that book went. Especially as, well, let's face it, each and every one was basically given a one-note gimmick and that was about that.

      It is also certainly true tha the terraforming process is made to suit them normally, and I would probably agree that you'd be right. That said, recent lore has shown they are more than willing to use just about any excuse to change a world to their will. For example, prior books of late basically featured the Fire Caste hunting entire species to extinction so worlds were made safe for colonists and certain human worlds were changed entirely. Sometimes this was justified to help reverse pollution, but in other cases it basically wiped out most of the eco-system. I'm not saying that this is the normal modus operani of the Tau Empire but it does again show a major shift in how they've been presented of late. Plus, it kind of doesn't help that for better or worse that idea of rendering member races sterile so they can take their planets for themselves has cropped up a little more, lately.

      Well, that's certainly an interesting point and i'll admit that personally it's a subject I was personally trying to sidestep. I'm not saying it's not relevant here but it kind of opened up a big can of worms, and it probably would be better saved for the hypocrisies of the Imperium or how writers differ on certain points. Just to give an example with that Black Templars point, there's also famous instances of the same chapter completely wiping out Emperor worshipping races known as the Crusade of the Ophidium Gulf. It's the famous one where the Dark Angels were thought to have destroyed a strike cruiser in order to get to Cypher. The other issue is, of course, that the subject of Rogue Traders always goes back and forth on how extreme they are in terms of dealing with alien races, or how accepted they are. You have the Ordo Xenos going so far as to wipe out alien crops in some stories, while in others the trade of older alien relics is absolutely fine.

      Also, for the same reason, I kind of skipped the Rogue Trader books. Not that they're bad, not by any means, but Fantasy Flight always has very particular views on the canon. For example, they always take the technological degeneration to an absolute extreme and they often focus upon one single view of a faction. As such, the subject of Rogue Traders there is a well written single perspective, but personally I was torn on calling it the definitive perspective.
      Oh, also, yeah, I still facepalm at reading how they turned those things into lascannons. The biggest extreme in fiction was compatible with a plasma pistol, and even then that might have just been it setting a man's clothes on fire.

    2. I'd figure that at least the one note gimmick appealed to the different Castes that lived on those various planets, and at least intentional stupidity (though I'm certain it wasn't written like that) actually gives a reason for the Ethereals to exist (maybe you could even write in how some of the castes argued about which planets they should own in the Enclaves when the Ethereals were gone), providing unity rather than the current fluff where the Ethereals are decadent dictators who exist for no real reason.

      Yeah, as I mentioned my excuse only applies to the worlds they'd want to settle as major Tau worlds, for example, having lines like Shadowsun wanting to see the gothic architecture on Imperial worlds destroyed in favour of Tau domes is a bad misunderstanding of the Tau at best.

      Actually the Crsuade of the Ophidium Gulf is one of the times they spared an alien race, all they did was destroy their temples (and how many temples at that is questionable), just in case they weren't worshiping the Emperor, though I'll grant you that they intended to come back, however what they'd do when they came back's unclear, especially since how their fluff was changed quite a bit.

      I can understand avoiding the Rogue Trader books, while not bad and definitely offering some great lore, they're mostly focused on one specific idea of the Imperium, and I've always found the Dark Heresy books a lot more interesting because they offered more takes on how different areas in the Imperium work.
      At least too Forgeworld is trying to reign in the Digi-weapons, changing them back to being a small laser effective only in close combat, and I also remember in the Legion of the Damned "Codex" (ha) that an adept of an Inquisitor uses one like that too to kill some Eldar since they thought it was only decorative.