Review: The Light Brigade

Has Kameron Hurley ever written an insignificant novel? Her first, God’s War, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and the BSFA award, and won a Kitschy; her Worldbreaker Saga trilogy radically retools the tropes and assumptions of epic fantasy; her standalone novel The Stars are Legion does something similar for space opera. And now we have The Light Brigade, shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel award this year and, again, the Clarke.

A military SF novel set in a dystopian future in which corporations rule most of the population, doling out citizenship – and thus basic rights – to only a privileged few, The Light Brigade takes aim at a range of contemporary issues, from the moral bankruptcy of the military-industrial complex to capitalism’s reduction of human lives to the value of their labour. Our protagonist, Dietz, is a corporation soldier who’s joined up partly for the promise of citizenship in return for ten years of service. The war she’s drafted into is against the Martians, who, she’s told, are responsible for the destruction of Sao Paulo, where her family were living. The corporations use a sort of FTL technology to move their soldiers vast distances instantaneously, a dangerous process that often leaves people mangled or split between two places. In Dietz’s case, though, it does something far stranger, displacing her in time so that, for instance, she might experience the aftermath of an operation before she’s actually gone on it.

Hurley renders the loneliness and disorientation caused by this displacement very well: because the novel’s narrated in first person, we only ever have as much information as Dietz does; we are just as confused and lost as she is, giving the inevitable revelations about the nature and cause of the war real force. That in turn serves to underscore Hurley’s points about how self-serving the corporations are, how little they value Dietz and her compatriots.

It’s a well-crafted novel with lots of important points to make, set in a future that feels all too likely. I didn’t really like it.

This is a problem I have with much of Hurley’s work: much as I want to enjoy it, the violence and gore that pervades it always throws me out of the text. It’s not that the violence is egregious or titillating (there’s certainly no sexual violence in The Light Brigade): quite the opposite, it’s core to Hurley’s artistic vision. Her novels make visible various sorts of structural violence in order to examine the effects of oppressive regimes on the bodies of their subjects. Through its use of violence The Light Brigade makes clear the brutality of unchecked capitalism. It’s there for a reason, and a necessary one.

No, what I struggle with, I think, is the lack of any counterbalancing weight of joy or hope, a glimpse of what a better world might look like. This, I will freely admit, is on me, not on the novel; bleakness is as key to what Hurley is doing as violence. But, there it is – as a reader I need something vital and excessive to leaven bleakness, and I’m not getting that from The Light Brigade. It’s a significant novel, and a good one; but not one I’m ever going to love.

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