The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Publisher: Saga Press | Release Date: March 19, 2019 | Pages: 369 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
On her Twitter page recently, Kameron Hurley noted that one reader said The Light Brigade is “like The Forever War meets 12 Monkeys” and that’s probably the most on-point assessment of this book imaginable. I’m legitimately bummed that I didn’t come up with that description first, but huge kudos to whoever opined that one! What I can say, though, is that The Light Brigade is the military science fiction novel of 2019 to beat — and good luck with that.
This is an absolutely marvelous read. It’s tough, gritty, challenging, intricate, thoughtful, dark, and violent. It’s also got one hell of a knock-out premise that’s marvelously executed.
The six corporations that control Earth are at war with revolutionaries from Mars, some of whom have returned to Earth to repair the land destroyed by climate change. An act of terrorism known as The Blink has wiped Sao Paulo off the map, costing soldier Dietz everything once held dear. In order to combat the Martian terrorists, the military has devised a new method of travel to quickly route soldiers to and from the battlefield, a technology very similar to Star Trek’s teleportation, only with far more periodic disastrous results. Soldiers are broken down into particles of light and projected to their destination, whereupon their atoms are reassembled. Sometimes, they even reach their points intact!
Dietz is experiencing strange occurrences with each drop, though. Although she doesn’t suffer from the physical misalignments befouling some other unfortunates, she does have some highly disorienting traumas that call into question her sanity. Is she suffering from PTSD or is she really experiencing this war out of sequence, traveling not just across space, but through time as well?
Hurley does a fantastic job establishing the tone and worries surrounding Dietz’s experiences, and her world-building is wonderfully rich, drawing on current trends in social, political, and economic worries and philosophies to project a far-future outcome where unchecked capitalism and corporate monopolies and eroded freedoms have created a highly fractious society. There is no dividing line between the military-industrial complex, and these once-separate roles have become unified with the bulk of planet Earth divided into corporate hegemonies rather than individual nations and governments. CEOs have taken their place as rulers of the land, and people have become little more than disposable widgets. It’s kind of like living on a planet composed solely of six different version of Amazon, each caring equally about nothing and nobody unless it serves their bottom line, fiscally, and hell bent on wiping out of the competition with little regard for anything else.
The Light Brigade is also excruciatingly assembled. In the afterword, Hurley thanks her friends, assistants, and editors for helping her keep the timelines straight and making sure all the various puzzle-pieces fit together. Everybody involved certainly had their work cut out for them! There’s a meticulousness to the various scenarios presented over the course of the book, but goddamn is it ever creatively and smartly assembled. This is the type of mind- and temporal-bending sci-fi I love, and since it’s Kameron Hurley, it’s also vicious and gritty as hell. It’s is all hard, jagged edges, but it’s also got a lot of food for thought. It’s violent, and at times unsettling with the graphic mental imagery some scenes call up, but it’s damn smart the whole way through.
Given the entrenched nature of Dietz’s world, the idea of the Light Brigade takes on some really lovely metaphorical overtones as the novel progresses. These soldiers are broken down into particles of light to fight against the forces of Martian darkness, but as the war wears on and Dietz begins to learn more and more about what is truly at stake, and what dark forces need contending with, the war between light and dark takes on additional meaning. Hurley seeds in some measures of optimism and hope, even as Dietz’s reasons for joining and her outlook on the war are forcibly scrutinized. You want Dietz to become that figure of brightness shining in the dark, even as you’re never quite sure what eradicating those shadows might mean or how it can be done.
The Light Brigade is an assault on the senses every bit as much as it’s a wonderful thought puzzle. The depiction of war and the life of a soldier is necessarily grim and violent, but the biggest selling point is the remarkable skill and intelligence with which this story is told. Hell, just from a craft perspective alone, the manner in which Hurley plots and assembles her story is remarkable. This is a thinkers take on military science fiction. It’s also the first real contender I’ve come across for one of 2019’s best reads. You’re gonna want to add this one to your collection ASAP, grunts.