The Light Brigade

by Kameron Hurley

Cover image

Publisher: Saga
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-4814-4798-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 355

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

In the wake of the Blink, which left a giant crater where São Paulo was, Dietz signed up for the military. To be a hero. To satisfy an oath of vengeance. To kill aliens.

Corporations have consumed the governments that used to run Earth and have divided the world between them. Dietz's family, before the Blink, were ghouls in Tene-Silva territory, non-citizens who scavenged a precarious life on the margins. Citizenship is a reward for loyalty and a mechanism of control. The only people who don't fit into the corporate framework are the Martians, former colonists who went dark for ten years and re-emerged as a splinter group offering to use their superior technology to repair environmental damage to the northern hemisphere caused by corporate wars. When the Blink happens, apparently done with technology far beyond what the corporations have, corporate war with the Martians is the unsurprising result.

Long-time SF readers will immediately recognize The Light Brigade as a response to Starship Troopers with far more cynical world-building. For the first few chapters, the parallelism is very strong, down to the destruction of a large South American city (São Paulo instead of Buenos Aires), a naive military volunteer, and horrific basic training. But, rather than dropships, the soldiers in Dietz's world are sent into battle via, essentially, Star Trek transporters. These still very experimental transporters send Dietz to a different mission than the one in the briefing.

Advance warning that I'm going to talk about what's happening with Dietz's drops below. It's a spoiler, but you would find out not far into the book and I don't think it ruins anything important. (On the contrary, it may give you an incentive to stick through the slow and unappealing first few chapters.)

I had so many suspension of disbelief problems with this book. So many.

This starts with the technology. The core piece of world-building is Star Trek transporters, so fine, we're not talking about hard physics. Every SF story gets one or two free bits of impossible technology, and Hurley does a good job showing the transporters through a jaundiced military eye. But, late in the book, this technology devolves into one of my least-favorite bits of SF hand-waving that, for me, destroyed that gritty edge.

Technology problems go beyond the transporters. One of the bits of horror in basic training is, essentially, torture simulators, whose goal is apparently to teach soldiers to dissociate (not that the book calls it that). One problem is that I never understood why a military would want to teach dissociation to so many people, but a deeper problem is that the mechanics of this simulation made no sense. Dietz's training in this simulator is a significant ongoing plot point, and it kept feeling like it was cribbed from The Matrix rather than something translatable into how computers work.

Technology was the more minor suspension of disbelief problem, though. The larger problem was the political and social world-building.

Hurley constructs a grim, totalitarian future, which is a fine world-building choice although I think it robs some nuance from the story she is telling about how militaries lie to soldiers. But the totalitarian model she uses is one of near-total information control. People believe what the corporations tell them to believe, or at least are indifferent to it. Huge world events (with major plot significance) are distorted or outright lies, and those lies are apparently believed by everyone. The skepticism that exists is limited to grumbling about leadership competence and cynicism about motives, not disagreement with the provided history. This is critical to the story; it's a driver behind Dietz's character growth and is required to set up the story's conclusion.

This is a model of totalitarianism that's familiar from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The problem: The Internet broke this model. You now need North Korean levels of isolation to pull off total message control, which is incompatible with the social structure or technology level that Hurley shows.

You may be objecting that the modern world is full of people who believe outrageous propaganda against all evidence. But the world-building problem is not that some people believe the corporate propaganda. It's that everyone does. Modern totalitarians have stopped trying to achieve uniformity (because it stopped working) and instead make the disagreement part of the appeal. You no longer get half a country to believe a lie by ensuring they never hear the truth. Instead, you equate belief in the lie with loyalty to a social or political group, and belief in the truth with affiliation with some enemy. This goes hand in hand with "flooding the zone" with disinformation and fakes and wild stories until people's belief in the accessibility of objective truth is worn down and all facts become ideological statements. This does work, all too well, but it relies on more information, not less. (See Zeynep Tufekci's excellent Twitter and Tear Gas if you're unfamiliar with this analysis.) In that world, Dietz would have heard the official history, the true history, and all sorts of wild alternative histories, making correct belief a matter of political loyalty. There is no sign of that.

Hurley does gesture towards some technology to try to explain this surprising corporate effectiveness. All the soldiers have implants, and military censors can supposedly listen in at any time. But, in the story, this censorship is primarily aimed at grumbling and local disloyalty. There is no sign that it's being used to keep knowledge of significant facts from spreading, nor is there any sign of the same control among the general population. It's stated in the story that the censors can't even keep up with soldiers; one would have to get unlucky to be caught. And yet the corporation maintains preternatural information control.

The place this bugged me the most is around knowledge of the current date. For reasons that will be obvious in a moment, Dietz has reasons to badly want to know what month and year it is and is unable to find this information anywhere. This appears to be intentional; Tene-Silva has a good (albeit not that urgent) reason to keep soldiers from knowing the date. But I don't think Hurley realizes just how hard that is.

Take a look around the computer you're using to read this and think about how many places the date shows up. Apart from the ubiquitous clock and calendar app, there are dates on every file, dates on every news story, dates on search results, dates in instant messages, dates on email messages and voice mail... they're everywhere. And it's not just the computer. The soldiers can easily smuggle prohibited outside goods into the base; knowledge of the date would be much easier. And even if Dietz doesn't want to ask anyone, there are opportunities to go off base during missions. Somehow every newspaper and every news bulletin has its dates suppressed? It's not credible, and it threw me straight out of the story.

These world-building problems are unfortunate, since at the heart of The Light Brigade is a (spoiler alert) well-constructed time travel story that I would have otherwise enjoyed. Dietz is being tossed around in time with each jump. And, unlike some of these stories, Hurley does not take the escape hatch of alternate worlds or possible futures. There is a single coherent timeline that Dietz and the reader experience in one order and the rest of the world experiences in a different order.

The construction of this timeline is incredibly well-done. Time can only disconnect at jump and return points, and Hurley maintains tight control over the number of unresolved connections. At every point in the story, I could list all of the unresolved discontinuities and enjoy their complexity and implications without feeling overwhelmed by them. Dietz gains some foreknowledge, but in a way that's wildly erratic and hard to piece together fast enough for a single soldier to do anything about the plot. The world spins out of control with foreshadowing of grimmer and grimmer events, and then Hurley pulls it back together in a thoroughly satisfying interweaving of long-anticipated scenes and major surprises.

I'm not usually a fan of time travel stories, but this is one of the best I've read. It also has a satisfying emotional conclusion (albeit marred for me by some unbelievable mystical technobabble), which is impressive given how awful and nasty Hurley makes this world. Dietz is a great first-person narrator, believably naive and cynical by turns, and piecing together the story structure alongside the protagonist built my emotional attachment to Dietz's character arc. Hurley writes the emotional dynamics of soldiers thoughtfully and well: shit-talking, fights, sudden moments of connection, shared cynicism over degenerating conditions, and the underlying growth of squad loyalty that takes over other motivations and becomes the reason to keep on fighting.

Hurley also pulled off a neat homage to (and improvement on) Starship Troopers that caught me entirely by surprise and that I've hopefully not spoiled.

This is a solid science fiction novel if you can handle the world-building. I couldn't, but I understand why it was nominated for the Hugo and Clarke awards. Recommended if you're less picky about technological and social believability than I am, although content warning for a lot of bloody violence and death (including against children) and a horrifically depressing world.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-07-03

Last modified and spun 2020-07-04