Powers of 10 and WH40K

August 30th, 2008

I’ve got a cold, so my mind isn’t working all that well.  So this post may not be very organized.

Are you, dear reader, familiar with the short film “Powers of 10”?  It’s an old education short, about 9 minutes long (you’d think they would have added a minute of padding in there), which zooms out from a picnic scene, further and further into space, giving the viewer a sense of cosmic scale.  It then zooms in, going into the skin of the picnicker’s hand, the cells, the DNA, the molecules, the atoms, giving the viewer a sense of the utter smallness of the things that make us up.

I enjoy the cruft (backstory, setting, history, etc.) of Warhammer 40K for the same reason.  Lots of sci-fi has tried to go with the “massively big” angle.  Setting things not hundreds, but thousands of years in the future.  Having some planet entirely covered by city.  Having battles which last years and kill millions.

Warhammer 40K just turns all that up to 11.  Instead of a setting thousands of years in the future, how about 38,000 years in the future?  One planet covered by a city?  How about that being an entire class of planets.  Battles lasting years?  How about sieges lasting over a century.  Death tolls for which numbers are just silly.

Basically, as big as you can imagine something, Games Workshop (the publishers of WH40K) are focussed on making it bigger.  And somehow they make it work.  You don’t get “big number fatigue”, where everything is so large it seems normal.  Instead, everything seems to factor off something else, so when you think something is big, there’s something out there which is only 1/10th as big, and still seems huge, and something which is 10 times as big, and still seems huge.

So, in a sense, it ends up working like the Powers of 10.  You can start looking at the universe, and realize “Wow, the sun is REALLY REALLY big!  It’s HUGE!”, and keep moving out, to “Wow, the solar system is  REALLY REALLY huge!”, “The galaxy is REALLY REALLY huge!” “The universe is REALLY REALLY huge!”.  And yet you never think “Well, the sun is actually really small after all”. Likewise, you never think that some battle which lasted 100 years and killed every living thing on a planet is small, even though there is some other battle that lasted 5 centuries and wiped out a whole system.

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