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Not what they are...
...But how a Chapter obtains and sustains them. I've read that they consist of failed aspirants (those who aren't dead or vegetables anyway) in many Chapters, or the descendants of them. Came up with a couple theories between helping idiots through self-checkout at work (by the Emperor, some people shouldn't breed).
1. The failed aspirants. A Chapter tries to get Marines, the process fails, they're left with a few who are strong or lucky enough to still possess life and limb. They're Serfs.
2. Hereditary service. I dunno if this one flies well, but as a Chapter has to have allies in the Imperium to survive, is it possible that some families, organizations, etc. dedicate some of their members to service to the Chapter? Like some noble families send their third sons to the Navy or whatever.
3. Home world recruits. Those who are obviously not up to being an Astartes but are up to the task of being what that planet would usually put out for PDF or Imperial Guard tithing if it wasn't a Space Marine home world could be inducted into the Serfhood.
4. Volunteers from worlds the Chapter has helped out. The Chapter wins a battle, and some very grateful schmucks pledge their lives to the Chapter (or the lives of their firstborn, or what-have-you).
5. Bondsmen. Like the Space Wolves have some Marines they send off to help Rogue Traders and the like (Let the Galaxy Burn compilation), could certain organizations send people to help the Chapter out (most likely permanently) to settle a debt rather than a trade agreement?
Also, tying in with the italicized descendants from my first paragraph: is there a 'no girls allowed' sign on a Chapter's Fortress-Monastery, or do you think Serfs would have families (and thus the descendants)? I think it's possible, though it might complicate things (it's tough to be dedicated to your Chapter's Cult as a Serf if you're thinking with the wrong and less-intelligent brain).
Also, in before 'it varies from Chapter to Chapter, most likely.' I'm just curious what you all think of these ideas: are they plausible, would you like to expand, and what other ideas can you think of?
Any and all of these are possible, depending on the chapter in question. The Space Wolves use people from their homeworld who were chosen (as well as their Bondsmen), the Grey Knights use Malleus-indoctrinated servants, most from breeding programs. The Ultramarines run a whole sector, so they have it easy.
As for "No Girls Allowed" the Imperium is (or seems to be) rather egalitarian in that respect. It varies from world to world and sector to sector though. The Tallarn in the Cain novels are implied to be scandalised that his Colonel is a woman, but nobody else seems to bat an eye (certainly not their friendly neighborhood Inquisitor, being female herself)
"The sergeant major asked me what my job is. I told him it's to do what I am told. He gave me a medal. I like the Imperial Guard."
"Innocentia Probat Nihil"
Depends on the Chapter and what function the serfs will be performing.
For general cleaning/Serving chores their might be a separate recruitment or application process. For reserve force duty (i.e acting as boarding parties on Marine vessels then i would imagine failed aspirants would be the most obvious choice.
If you consider Chapters as Warrior Monks and the serfs as lay brothers then you won't go to far wrong.
"God is dead" Nietzsche- 1886
"Nietzsche is dead" God- 1900
Why are there scams? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q71FLDIMBc8