A guest column by Just_me
The recent release of the new Tyranid codex has got me thinking about the Hive-Mind, and looking back on previous incarnations of it. In what the Tyranid Hive-Mind has become GW has managed to create perhaps one of the most alien powers in any sci-fi universe that I have read, but they have been rather vague about how the hive mind actually works. So let’s give some critical thought to what makes the Hive-Mind tick.
The way that the Hive Mind has been depicted has changed more than a little over the years and different Tyranid releases. In its earliest incarnations it really wasn’t particularly unique, we were led to understand that the Tyranid super-species was controlled by an over-reaching intelligence called the “Hive-Mind,” but exactly what this was not really very clear, and at times the Hive-Mind acted in ways that weren’t all that alien, interacting with the species of our galaxy on an individual level (re. Zoats), and seemed rather human at times. In later additions GW moved away from really attributing motivations to, or describing the plans of the Hive-Mind, but instead rendered it in much more abstract terms; it is the gestalt (i.e. a whole which is different/greater than the sum of its parts) mind of the Tyranid “species,” and the only motivations that we can understand in it are vast and predatory hunger. But this also created questions regarding the distribution of that consciousness; did “more” of it reside in the synapse creatures? Is there some sort of centralized gathering point of that consciousness, a super-synapse creature(s) of sorts? And moreover, are there multiple Hive-Minds, one for each fleet, or just a single one that IS all Tyranid organisms everywhere in the universe? And finally, what are we to make of the semi-independence of beings like Hive Tyrants and Warriors?
The new codex has (for me at least) done a great deal to clarify the structure of the Hive-Mind, giving us some real clues about how it is organized and functions. The most difficult thing in thinking about the Hive-Mind is to avoid anthropomorphizing it, we can’t really understand a mind that is utterly alien to us so we tend to attribute qualities to it that are “like us” in order to better wrap our minds around it. Unfortunately this highlights a fundamental limitation of our cognition, in order to understand the Hive-Mind we must render it in terms that are meaningful to us.
First and foremost the Hive-Mind is vast, far beyond anything we can wrap our tiny little minds around. We have trouble dealing with the dynamics of our local geographic area, let alone a whole planet. The Hive-Mind operates on neither scale; it operates on the level of whole stellar regions, or even of the galaxy as a whole. If the Hive-Mind proper is aware of our variety of life it cannot be more than as we might be aware of bacterial organisms that exist around us; at best we intellectually comprehend their presence, but we can neither see nor interact with them on their level. In order to do this the Hive-Mind must filter itself down through different levels in order to actually do battle with “us.” In much the same way as our bodies have voluntary and autonomic functions, and at lower levels reflexes, and lower still our immune systems and basic organic processes, the Hive-Mind filters down through many levels before we “meet” it.
Thus a picture emerges of the Hive-Mind as a nodal or networked entity, it reaches out to consume our galaxy as we might reach for a plate of food, but it doesn’t think about or manage the biological processes that occur as it feeds any more that we do to a mouthful of food after we swallow it. And if that food is poisonous or infected, then our immune system takes over and fights off whatever is harming us, shifting and morphing to accommodate the threat, perhaps we feel some discomfort, but we don’t even begin to understand the mighty battles that rage at a microscopic level between our internal defenses and the hostile microbes. Fortunately for us, the microbes that we deal with cannot think or plan, they do not generate strategies to overcome us, nor ambush our white blood cells in cunning traps. With the exception of a few immunodeficiency forms, they generally do nothing to actively interfere with our defenses. The “microbes” that the Hive-Mind deals with do all of these things, so its “immune system” has to be even more capable, adaptive, and intelligent than the microbes they face.
While our minds can only deal with essentially one cognitive problem at a time, the Hive-Mind must deal with many issues on many levels that demand an intelligent response, so it networks and fragments. This is where first the fleet and then the battlefield synapse creatures come in. At first glance the idea that a Hive Tyrant is self-aware and intelligent seems contradictory to the idea of the Hive-Mind as a single overarching consciousness, but when perspective is shifted it begins to make horrifically logical sense; to fight a conscious, individually thinking adversary the Hive-Mind’s “immune system” must be similarly equipped, it must react to strategy with better strategy. To this end synapse creatures are imbued with a fragment of the Hive-Mind’s consciousness, something akin to its subconscious mind. The Tyranid forces that exist on a 40k battlefield are the “immune system” of the greater Tyranid “organism,” and while a Tyrant may be “independent” in some sense, it is no more capable of having its own motivations or biases than one of our biological functions are of having their own aspirations.
These battlefield synapse consciousnesses are subservient to the consciousness of the fleet, which is itself able to react with independent and separate strategies, though in this case the Hive-Mind itself probably exerts more direct control. Thus each of the Hive Fleets yet encountered has demonstrated different characteristics and strategies, yet all act in concert to support a grander strategy.
Another important facet of the Hive-Mind seems to be that greater concentrations of Tyranid organisms have a closer tie to the Hive-Mind than smaller ones. This only makes sense when we consider the gestalt nature of the Hive-Mind. An individual Tyranid organism represents very little of the Hive-Mind, and functions more or less autonomously according to its instinctive programming, as an individual cell in the human body does. A small group has a greater tie to the Hive-Mind, and we begin to see synapse creatures that embody the filtered will of the Hive-Mind. The largest groups have still greater connections, and we see some of the more potent synapse creatures, Hive Tyrants and even Dominatrixes, creatures that have a spark of the Hive-Mind’s conscious will in them.
Consider the events of the Beta Anphelion (see Imperial Armour Volume 4 if you are curious). It began with a handful of Gaunts and other lesser organisms, but quickly accelerated out of control and saw the inexplicable appearance of the largest and most complex and formidable of known Tyranid organisms. Now that it has been confirmed that certain varieties of Gaunts can reproduce, the order of events becomes clear. Unbeknownst to the hapless Biologis technicians, their captive Gaunts began to breed, when it was first realized that there were more Gaunts in one of the enclosures than there should be, they were eradicated, right down to the bare earth. But this wasn’t an isolated incident as they believed and the other Gaunt populations went underground (one of them vanishing completely) and continued to increase their populations. At some point they reached critical mass so that their connection to the Hive-Mind allowed it to somehow generate more complex organisms, and from here the process only accelerated, so that by the time Inquisitional investigators showed up to find out why a key research facility had gone silent they were met by everything from the humble Hormagaunt to Hierophant biotitans.
So to recap, we can see the Hive-Mind as more than a single mind, it is a decentralized and internally sub-divided to cope with all of the myriad issues demanding it’s attention, synapse creatures being merely the most identifiable and visible example for us. If it has thoughts and desires beyond primal hunger, they must be far different than what we could hope to grasp, just as ours are beyond the ability of an ant to grasp, the scales and dynamics are simply too vastly different. Clearly the Hive-Mind is both extremely flexible and utterly alien.
Just_me here. This has been my 2 cents on the Hive-Mind, what do the rest of you think? Do you agree or disagree? How do you envision the Hive-Mind? I know I would like to hear your thoughts, and I’m sure the rest of the community would as well. And if you would like to see more of this sort of article, let the BoLS staff know so that they can arrange for more.