The Light Brigade

Book cover: The Light Brigade - Kameron HurleyWhen war takes everything Dietz has left, she joins up. Her dreams of killing Martians and gaining citizenship sustain her for a while. But some experiences can make even the most loyal soldier wonder what they’re really fighting for…

Reading the opening chapters of Kameron Hurley’s latest stand-alone SF offering, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve read it all before. It’s Starship Troopers by way of Jarhead (amongst others), set in a dystopian corporate future (is there any other sort?) but fuelled by a distinctly 21st century rage. And frankly, that’s enough to make it stand out like the bared-teeth scream of rejection that it is.

In this post-capitalist hellscape, everything is about the megacorps. After decades (centuries?) of consolidation there aren’t many of them left, as their private militaries long since put the hostile into takeover. Governments are as dead as the competition: this is a future where only those who work for the corps get citizenship of a corporate state, and only citizens get benefits like housing and healthcare.

A good citizen adds value and you get what you earn, one character opines – nobody likes a freeloader – but it’s pretty obvious that life is a lottery. Even if you’re born a citizen, you’ll never be wealthy unless you come from the right family. And if you’re not born inside the fences, your choices are very, very limited indeed. Our protagonist Dietz is from the wrong side of the citizenship divide, half a step up from a ‘ghoul’ picking through the leavings of the body corporate on the shoreline. She joined up because it’s a route to legitimacy – but mostly because her family were all killed in the Blink.

Because no matter how deadly inter-corporate warfare can be, the corps all agree that the true enemy is Mars. The Blink was their greatest atrocity – disappearing an entire city. No matter how Full Metal Jacket basic training gets, Dietz is determined to make the grade so she can kill Martians.

The bulk of The Light Brigade is the sort of hard-boiled military SFnal narrative that I just don’t enjoy, even when I’m appreciating what it’s doing. The Light Brigade depicts boot camp as a dehumanising hell of humiliation and live fire, just as the war against the ‘alien socialists’ (not renegade colonists, oh no) is an exercise in corporate propaganda. It’s often explicit about what it’s doing – it’s worth considering when Dietz’s cynical narrative is being delivered – and once Dietz makes the grade, it uses that constructed context as a launchpad to show just how fucked up things really are.

This is a future where military deployment is by a beam of light that transmits you to your engagement and reassembles you ready to open fire: on the plus side, you don’t need to pack; on the down side, Douglas Adams called the downsides of teleportation – and, implicitly, the trust you need to have in your logistics corps – a long time ago. Dietz remains in one piece, but nothing is quite what she expects. As each deployment – and each return to base – becomes ever more bewildering, it’s clear there’s a lot more than just the truth about Mars being withheld from the cannon fodder.

Military discipline helps keep secrets: however strong the bonds between the people in a unit, affection is communicated by bad jokes and bullying. There’s no room for compassion, let alone admitting you don’t know who the person ragging on you is – and when a stray buddy from boot camp makes it clear he has some inkling of what Dietz is going through, he also shuts her down: Don’t talk about it. People who mention experiences like yours disappear.

I enjoy a well-told conspiracy as much as the next reader (oh, you don’t? I do) and The Light Brigade ticks all the boxes. The chain of command is toxic. There really is something going on. Nobody can be trusted, least of all our narrator Bad Luck Dietz, whose reputation grows with each deployment as her unit respond to actions she doesn’t remember taking. But that’s okay, I enjoy an unreliable narrator too – especially when they’re unintentionally unreliable.

The result is a time-slip evisceration of war as a great con and of systems that encourage people to act against their best interests. Hurley has plenty to say about how easy it is to control the narrative by insulating people from conflicting perspectives and by not educating for critical thinking. Timely? Obviously. On the nose? Well yes, that too.

The Light Brigade is a hellish vision of a possible future, saturated in politics and rage. I more or less hated reading it – I really don’t enjoy military SF (or indeed military narratives, full stop) – but I could appreciate it even as it cut far too close to the bone. Those who enjoy military tropes and are less squeamish about gut wounds will no doubt have a better time than I did, but I think it’s worth the effort even if you don’t.