The impetus to write Relentless came from Lindsey Priestley, the Black Library senior editor. I'd been pitching novel ideas to the BL for about two years, and they had covered everything from Marines, to Exodites, to Titans, to Skitarii and so forth. None of them, however, had been about the Imperial Navy, and it was Lindsey who suggested that I think about proposing something along those lines.
When I sat to think about the pitches I could make, I went through all the different kind of stories I could imagine within the Imperial Navy: mighty fleets clashing amongst the stars, worlds destroyed by orbital barrages, escort patrols dogfighting on the fringes of the Imperium, heroes, villains, renegades, pirates and so on. The idea that hooked me the most, however, was the concept of a single ship. In few other universes besides 40K is the ship such a powerful symbol. They are massive, housing tens of thousands of crew; they're centuries, millennia-old; they're powered by arcane machines that no one person fully understands. Each one is a piece of living history. To serve on one is to tread in the same steps as millions of others, to be its captain is to be forever associated with that ship's glorious name.
I wanted to write a book that focused on a ship, not simply as a means of transport or a weapon of war, but as a character, a protagonist, an environment, a goal all rolled into one. More than that, I wanted to take a can-opener, open an Imperial warship up and discover not only what was there, but how it worked, how it lived. There are so many questions: how do a hundred officers control ten thousand men? If astropaths are so rare that they can only convey the most vital messages, how is the vast amount of necessary communication achieved? How can the Imperium control worlds across the galaxy, how can an admiral control the actions of his ships when they're hundreds of light years apart? How can the ships even keep themselves fully crewed when the conditions onboard are so appalling and death is routine?
To help answer these questions, I needed a character who could explore the inner workings of the ship, to view it all from the bottom-up. Now, the essence of drama is conflict and contrast. I could have used an average Imperial citizen, a manual labourer, a hive ganger, but to take a character from one brutal environment to another would provide no contrast. It needed to be someone whose life before had been very different, and who better than the person under whose name this damaged system was operated? The captain. To take someone from the very top of the tree then drag them to the very bottom and see what happens. It's a familiar theme from books and movies, what counts is not how it happens, it's not even how it ends, it's what you discover in the process. And, for me, even though I start with an extended synopsis detailing every chapter, there's nothing that compares to the thrill of what you discover about a story as you write it.
With this central concept of a captain reduced to a conscript in hand, I could begin to work up the actual story: the mechanism by which this situation could conceivably be brought about. Events, characters, motives, all started to take shape.
As the plot developed, though, other themes began to work their way in. Leadership. How an officer commands his men. Every one of us, at some time in our lives, will be a leader; will be faced with the task of making decisions that impact others beside ourselves. Becket, Ward, Ferrol, Vickers, they all command in different ways and their men respond differently towards them. The leadership styles of Captain Becket and Master Ferrol especially, were designed to epitomise two markedly different styles.
Becket, when he is introduced, is the 'big ship' captain. He is used to commanding hundreds and thousands of men, in situations where personnel change often, through transfers or casualties, and close bonds are rarely formed. He summarises his philosophy early on to his one long-time friend, Officer Warrant:
"I cannot be everywhere, Warrant. There are ten thousand men aboard the Relentless. I cannot counsel every rating how best to swab a deck. I cannot advise every petty officer how best to crew his post. All I can do is give them rules that give them the best chance they can have to make the right decisions. That is what happened on the Granicus. The Granicus did not become the ship it was because I made a single right decision; it was because everyone onboard made a thousand right decisions every second."
He has a clear understanding of how the hierarchy aboard ship should function, as he comments later to the First Officer, Commander Ward:
"We command our officers, they command their subordinates, their subordinates command the common crew. That is how it should be and that is how it will be."
Master Ferrol, by contrast, represents the 'small ship' captain. He is a former shipmaster from the merchant fleet, who, by sheer force of personality, holds his small crew together through thick and thin.
'Watching Ferrol at work, amongst his men, Becket began to appreciate how it was that the former shipmaster had managed to keep his crew together. He knew every man, not just a face, not just a name, he knew their tempers, he knew their goals. He knew what drove them, he knew what quelled them and that knowledge allowed him to keep his command despite all that had happened to them. When Becket had issued an order on the Relentless's bridge it had been obeyed because of his rank... Ferrol's men followed his orders simply because they came from him.'
Neither approach is right, neither approach is wrong. Throughout the story both are tested, their strengths expounded, their flaws revealed. Any ultimate judgement lies with the reader.
On the flip-side of leadership there was the theme of control. The most obvious expression of control comes in life below decks. The conscript gangs at the bottom of the pile are often chained together, they are kept isolated from any other interaction, their rations are extremely basic and are drugged to keep them docile. For them, the Relentless is a prison. And in prisons, control is not simply physical, it is also mental. Some, if they show they can be trusted, may acquire privileges, greater liberty. Hence the concept of Trusted Crew was born, something to which the conscripts can aspire. Equally, the mere existence of the chain-gangs serves as the stick that keeps the Trusted Crew in line. If they misbehave then those same privileges can be taken away.
Control is not just explored amongst the lower orders; it reaches to the very top. Commander Ward controls the officer corps by equal parts intimidation, manipulation and by pandering to their human greed and ambition. The tools he uses are effective, but they rot the spirit of the officer corps from the inside out. Captain Becket knocks those tools from Ward's hands, and so the clash between the two is inevitable.
As events develop, the theme of control is tested more and more until at the end critical decisions are presented, where one road maintains control at a terrible price and the other casts it aside completely for a chance at survival.
The last theme that emerged, and this I discovered myself quite by accident in the middle of writing, was that of faith. And faith is one of the most powerful themes for humanity within the 40K universe. It is not a question of metaphor or moral. Their god is real, their daemons are real, the mortal danger they face every day is nothing to the immortal suffering they know they will endure should they fall from grace.
What keeps Becket going when all he has is taken from him? When he is cast down to the bowels of his own ship, without friends, without justice, without hope? It is a faith he thought had died with his previous command. It is a faith that shapes the path his character then follows.
Across it all, towers the Relentless itself.
I wanted to write a story that took a ship and described it as a character in its own right. Now, you can describe a character by what they themselves do, how they feel, how they think; but you can also describe a character by what others do for them, how others feel and think about them.
And so in the novel Relentless, the ship's character is painted, not by its own actions or thoughts, but by the breadth of the emotions that others hold towards it. Captain Becket has his journey where the Relentless goes from being a shadow of his former beloved command to becoming a sacred duty worth sacrificing his own life for. For Commander Ward the Relentless is his tool, it is what allows him to acquire the things he wants, money, riches, respect; but is also his legacy, the weight of which is almost a heavier burden to him than the command of the ship itself. The Adeptus Mechanicus have their mystical devotion and insight into the machine spirit. Senior Armsman Vickers has his own, unique, personal worship. The conscripts and crewmen such as Ferrol hate it for it consumes their lives like it consumes its fuel. And so the Relentless is loved, and hated, and feared, and gouged, and adored; and thereby it becomes the character, the protagonist, the environment, the goal, the god, all rolled into one. Which is what ships in 40K should be.
London, March 2008