Kameron Hurley’s writing career has been both marked by variety, and unified in its mission. Across a varied bibliography—a gritty sci-fi noir with tech that feels like magic (God’s War); a sprawling, cross-genre multi-verse fantasy (The Mirror Empire); a gory, feminist spin on space opera tropes (last year’s The Stars Are Legion); a killer collection of genre-focused non-fiction (The Geek Feminist Revolution); several volumes’ worth of inventive short fiction (Meet Me in the Future arrives this summer)—she’s mounted a convincing case against the status quo, and in favor of raging against corruption, unbridled capitalism, discrimination, and the dying of the light.
Her newest novel fights the light, too, after a fashion: The Light Brigade follows a soldier who is part of a squadron of grunts who are repeatedly broken down into light waves and beamed across space to serve as cannon fodder in war between Earth and Mars—until the process begins to go haywire, and she discovers the dark truths fueling the ceaseless conflict. It is a masterful work of military sci-fi, honoring the history of the subgenre while subverting its most beloved tropes. The result feels like an instant classic, as relevant to 2019 as Joe Haldeman’s anti-war military adventure The Forever War was when published in the aftermath of the U.S.’s hasty exit from Vietnam.
Before signing up to fight, infantry recruit Dietz was a nobody, born a non-citizen in a solar system in which citizenship means everything, and a handful of powerful, constantly feuding corporations have largely replaced governments the world over. So-called “ghouls” are denied the rights and benefits that would make their lives more than brutal and short, and military service is Dietz’s only shot at a better life. After her home city of São Paulo is destroyed by forces from separatist Mars, she joins up to take revenge and to improve her lot.
The plot hinges on a fun bit of tech that allows for the movement of soldiers by light beam: they’re broken down, zapped to a new location, and reassembled almost instantaneously. It’s not 100 percent safe, and not everyone takes to it particularly well, but there’s no more effective way to drop people into a combat zone, so the corps (and the corporations) take the risk. Initial tests suggest Dietz might not be the best candidate for the process but it’s a time of war, and she’s just a grunt.
After a couple of disorienting drops gone sideways make Dietz question whether she’s lost her memory, she realizes that the process is acting on her in a unique way: she’s jumping back and forth on her own timeline, experiencing the war out of order. Each combat drop sends her off on a new mission… just not necessarily to the time and place at which she expected to arrive. Initially she keeps quiet about her experiences, fearing she’ll be removed from the fight and lose her shot at citizenship. But her growing disillusionment with the nebulous aims and mounting casualties of war—and the dark vision of its apparently disastrous end, glimpsed during one particularly harrowing time-screwed jaunt—leaves her determined to reset the future.
Dietz, as our point of view character, undergoes a transformation from tough but wide-eyed recruit to someone more cynical hardened cynic as she comes to better understand who is really benefitting from the missions she and her fellow soldiers are bleeding and dying for (advanced medical tech means the soldiers can suffer quite a bit and survive; Hurley’s penchant for body horror remains on full display). From Dietz’s temporally challenged point of view, she’s seen friends die and then live again, only to be lost forever. Her perspective grows clearer even as her timeline becomes more jumbled, and the chaos and confusion with which she’s forced grapple throughout the conflict is a wholly convincing take on the real-world mayhem of the battlefield and of the psychological disturbances of post-traumatic stress. On one level, it’s a very sci-fi premise, full of time travel and fantastic future gear. On another, it’s a jarring chronicle of warfare that speaks as much to our present as to the future.
The Light Brigade has all the action and drama that readers would expect from military SF, but is also utterly believable in its portrait of battlefield trauma. We come for the futuristic battles, and Hurley delivers, but the bookis hardly overly enamored with war. The title refers not just to the time-twisty premise, but to that earlier, real-life Light Brigade: the British cavalry unit that became, via its immortalization in Tennyson’s poetry, the perfect example of noble soldiers doomed by thoughtless leadership.
The book also serves as something of a modern response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, that ur-novel of military science fiction, which, for all its virtues and longevity, generally glorifies war and demonizes an underdeveloped enemy. In both narratives, citizenship is granted by virtue of military service, by Hurley is less trusting of the carrot, and more focused on the stick: the promise of full rights in exchange for service seems more like a way to field extra bodies to fight and die for a corporate war machine that has no interest is actually winning the war.
Hurley is operating at full speed on several levels here: The Light Brigade is a fast-moving action thriller; a drum-tight time travel tale; a war story that’s deeply ambiguous about war; a sharp rebuke to a military industrial complex in which corporations, rather than accountable democratic governments, exert undue influence (wild, right?). The fact that each of these disparate elements work, and that they work together, is evidence of the ambition and skill the author has brought to the novel. Hurley has crafted an exhilarating work of big-idea science fiction that’s as heartbreaking as it is pulse-pounding. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still talking about it a few decades from now—assuming civilization manages to survive that long.