Building a Hive

What does the future smell like?

I spend a significant chunk of my working life thinking about this. To write fiction set in the 40K universe (or any other) you need to know how things look, sound, feel and smell. You need to convince your readers of the reality of the world your characters are moving through. You need to stimulate their imaginations with small, telling details that help them to believe in the place. You need to be able to describe how things feel, how they smell, how they sound if you are going to conjure up vivid images in their minds.

Games Workshop’s artists and sculptors have given us a very good idea of what the 41st Millennium looks like, but for the rest of it, you have some work to do.

Right now I am writing a story set in the Hive city of Irongrad; a vast, multi-layered urban mountain with the population of a modern country. I need, at least in my imagination, to walk its streets, and come back with a description that convinces. It’s a form of intellectual time and space travel. Once that’s done I need to be able to relate what I find to physical stimuli that readers can grasp.

How do I do that? By relating my descriptions to things that already work for me.

Let’s think about a Hive – what is it? Irongrad is a huge multi-level urban sprawl, a skyscraper the size of London that has grown organically over thousands of years. So there we have our first image; London but a London with another London stacked on top of it, and then another and then another and so on.

What does that suggest to you?

To me, it suggests something overpopulated and claustrophobic. The rich live literally on the top, in the spires. The class structure is reflected by the structure of the Hive itself. At the top, things are newer, there is more space, more light, more freedom.

Outside the world is a deadly volcanic hell. Inside there are hundreds of millions of people packed too close together. The life-support systems are over-loaded. Many of the people are armed and desperate. Most of them are over-worked and downtrodden. It’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution — both very useful things to keep in mind when describing the 41st Millennium.

Think of being on the bottom of that Hive and feeling all of that weight pressing down on you. What if the ceiling collapses? Given what we know about the rickety systems of the 40K universe, it almost certainly happens.

Actually, in a horrible way, for a writer’s purposes, that’s kind of cool. There’s a unique sort of natural disaster implied there – a sort of Hive quake, where things collapse and whole sectors of the city are destroyed. That’s something for our characters to witness.  Morbid I know—but, hey, we’re talking about writing Science Fantasy set in one of the darkest universes ever created here.

It also gives some interesting imagery. Think of areas which have already collapsed or are under repair, or are full of warning signs, and support trestles and huge hydraulic presses that hold up overloaded ceilings. Think of areas with broken treatment pipes in the roofs where sewage falls on those below like rain, literal shitstorms. Let’s make that sound a bit more 40K, let’s call them cloacal tempests. OK—I think we have seen too much evidence of my fetid imagination in action here. Let’s move on.

So we have a huge city with a lot of people. It is a controlled environment. The vast majority live in tiny apartments, stacked one on top of each other. Many don’t have kitchens. (This was the case in Victorian London. It is the case in many densely populated cities now.) People eat out in massive communal kitchens at their work-places or at vast open air food courts as people do in the tropics.

The air smells of too many people and too many overloaded systems, of sewage and trash and cooking food. What do people eat? We need to know that so we can describe how it smells. Mostly synthetic foods, I think, so there is a chemical tang.

How about fresh meat? What sort of meat are you likely to get in a Hive? Let’s leave aside the obvious answer. No. Wait a minute. Let’s not! The rich eat fresh meat. They can afford it after all. That makes meat a status symbol of sorts. There are those who might acquire a taste for human flesh. There are those in the lower hive, who, Sweeney Todd like, acquire meat for their luxury pies in nasty ways. At very least there will be urban myths about this stuff. At worst, our heroes will be encountering cannibal cultists soon.

Let’s file this stuff away for future use. Back to meat—how about rats or other vermin? This is 40K so these can be big. Maybe they are kept like pigs in pens in the streets. Maybe they are left to shuffle through the streets eating garbage as once they did in cities like London and New York. Why not? It’s an interesting detail. We have skewers of rat-meat barbecued in the street. It’s a luxury because it’s fresh meat. There is a telling detail. Eating rat is a luxury. A bit of cliché but what of it. I can spice it up by describing various dishes involving tails and paws and choice cuts of prime Grubb Street rat.

In Bangkok once I saw a cockroach that looked almost the size of my foot, scuttling up a dark alley. Maybe my imagination made it bigger than it was, it was dark and I was drunk,  but hey, not here. In the 41st Millennium cockroaches are whatever size I want them to be. In goes cockroach stew. What does it taste like? I am guessing crunchy. (Before you go ew gross, there are apparently condiments that use extracts from roach glands—who said reading about Warhammer could not be educational?) Anyway, there’s a couple of smells to describe as our heroes move through those giant street markets.

There’s an implied ecology here —scavengers that live on refuse and which in turn are eaten themselves. They might even have been engineered for such things in the Dark Age of Technology. And all of this implies an ecology of trash.

Think about all those people, all consuming stuff, all tossing it out. The systems cannot deal with it. It builds up. There’s a smell for you. There’s also another implied economy—in Victorian London there were people who made a living picking through the trash. In modern Cairo they are still there. In this world, this is why they call some skavvies skavvies. Again, it’s 40K and everything is on a huge scale. Let’s have mountains of trash, piling up along the sides of buildings. More rich, pungent aromas to be described.

What about diseases? Surely this must be very unsanitary. Indeed. This fits right in with the medieval, plague-ridden feel of the 41st Millennium. We can make these diseases spectacular and horrible. Our beggars might look like mutants, their diseases look so bad. And there will be beggars, it’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution, remember. Ramp this up to eleven, armies of beggars, swarming outside the temples, hobbling through the streets in endless processions.

Anyway, you can see the sort of thought experiment that gets us to the smell of the future.

So far we’ve been talking about a sort of generic Hive. I need a specific one, the one in my story. This is a city that has been under the control of a nasty heretical cult for thousands of years. The 41st Millennium is a religious age and the heretics are a very religious people. There is sacred imagery everywhere. The heretics worship the Angel of Fire. There are images of it all over the place —on public buildings, in public places. These statues are very striking. They have wings of fire—literally. Flaming gas jets emerge from the statues in the shape of wings. Is this technically possible? I have no idea. It is in the 41st Millennium.  The people all wear holy symbols depicting the Angel. They have little statues of it in their homes. Somewhere in almost every work of art, there is a picture of the Angel. Wherever you go, it is there. There is no escape. It is as omnipresent as Big Brother.

I want another image—something bad is happening is this city. An evil is about to erupt. The shape of a generic Hive has always reminded me of a volcano. I want this Hive to suggest that specifically. How to do it? Well the core of the Hive is hollow, it has a caldera, a huge gaping mouth at the peak. Seen from above, from a distance this suggests a volcano about to erupt.

Why is the core hollow?  The empty space is for an enormous Cathedral dedicated to the Angel of Fire. Symbolically the Cathedral rises from the very base of the Hive and emerges from the mouth of the volcano. The Cathedral is tipped by a statue of the fire-winged Angel the size of the Empire State Building. Seen from the distance it looks like a fire-winged god is emerging from the mouth of a volcano. It’s an image I like.

Back to the smell, to something specific. There is a gassy smell everywhere, small leaks bring it. This is something I remember very vividly from the gas cookers of my childhood and from living in bedsits with gas-fires in my youth. I remember the way it used to make the back of my throat tighten and dry out my sinuses. There’s a couple of physical symptoms right there I can describe. They happen when our heroes take off their rebreather masks. It’s a small but telling piece of physical description to tantalise the reader with.

This also gives me another detail of the architecture. There are huge gas-pipes everywhere. This is 40K, so they have to be on a monstrous scale and they have to a gothic religious feel to them. Lets have monster pipes climbing up the sides of buildings like metal ivy clinging to the sides of an ancient church. Lets have huge pipeways running between buildings. Hell, let’s put some buildings on top of them like there used to be on London Bridge and there still are on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. We can have technical adepts crawling along their underside doing repairs with sacred power-mallets. And there’s another thing from my youth, gasometers, the tanks that held reservoirs of gas. They were huge metal things and looked as if they would be right at home in the 41st Millennium. They also occasionally exploded—the sort of disaster that fits right into a 40K story. Let’s dot them about the city. Gasometers and high powered military weapons will make for some interesting explosions at some point, I am sure.

This leads us to other stuff—giant pipes that run to the Cathedral and power the huge wings of the main statue and the literally tens of thousands of statues that perch on its side like an army of fallen angels.

Anyway, I think you get the picture. Good question to ask at the start of a new project; what does the future smell like? What are the telling details? Back to the 41st Millennium for me now.





  1. Michael says:

    Lovely. And I love the voice you’ve got here. Very Uncle Roger. And very technically appropriate. Your longer form work (which is all I’ve had a chance to read lately) is more discursive, has more room to breathe. This clipped, staccato voice reminds me how well you write short stories. Thanks.

  2. You give details I remember from my time in Vietnam. We see/read lots of stories about that place but little even try to tell of the one thing we never seem to forget – the smells.
    But, like you, I find it difficult to put into words the smell of too many people living in a poor, crowded area. Or the smell of human feces floating in the rice paddies.
    When you spoke of the cockroach, I’ve seen some the size of the rats running through the streets.
    Your Hive description seems to deny or not deal with technological advances. Why actual animal flesh? Wouldn’t other food sources be available? Perhaps already cooked/prepared for delivery in each individual’s living quarters.
    How about sanitation? To prevent a shortage of water, might not there be a system that cleans dryly?
    However, I agree with one thing – a huge mass of people living together is going to assault the nostrils with a huge variety of smells? Bringing that out without getting in the reader’s face would “sell” the novel.

  3. First up apologies, Dale, for taking so long to approve comment. I was away for the weekend. Thanks for the comments.

    On to the points you made. I actually think most of the food in the Hive will be artificial hence the premium on fresh foodstuffs. I think given human nature this will be as much about status as calories.

    I also tend to see the 41st Millennium as being a dead end technologically. They have access to truly awesome stuff but most people don’t really understand it. In our culture we would look at a problem and try and find a technological solution. In 40K, I don’t think they are a problem solving culture at least via tech. I think in 40K, the basic idea is if something is wrong, you are not praying hard enough to the Emperor! They may actually have had all of the stuff you mention and it might even still be in the system but its probably buggy and no one understands how to get it to run.

    I also think it’s an age when things are old, and falling apart. It’s a whole universe a bit like those old generation starship stories where everyone has forgotten they are on a starship. (This is a man who read Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky at a very young age talking here.) I want to give the readers a sense that the Imperium is old and having everything buried in an air of antiquity and slow ruination is one way of doing this.

    • Patrice says:

      Yes! Orphans of the Sky! I remember that they didn’t even know they were on a ship. Heinlein was a big part of my childhood… once I got over the fact that science fiction didn’t mean it was all about science and just for boys.

      I’m enjoying your blog and the comments, particularly in light of your new eBook adventures. Here’s to the marauding mongol hordes!


  4. Love it. You had me completely hooked and gave me a new way to look at creating a scene in a story.

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