Warning, this review contains mild spoilers for the early parts of this book.
Do you ever start reading a book and get the feeling that the author showed their hand too early? I was feeling that way when I started Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. I had just gotten to the end of chapter two when I put the book down and thought. “Right, I think I know where we’re heading here. Hurley’s pulling a Paul Verhoeven on me. This book is going to be a complete and utter evisceration of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and I’ll be damned if these so-called aliens are not aliens at all, and these evil mega-corps are playing everyone for stooges.”
I even took a photo for posterity (See that? Page 16! I’ve barely touched the book!):
The thing is, I wasn’t wrong. The Light Brigade is a strong counter to the politics and feel of Heinlein’s 1959 novel. But I was so very wrong in how it ended up playing out.
The amusing thing is, Hurley is not at all shy about what she is doing. But unlike Verhoeven’s movie adaption, The Light Brigade is not satire. Like Starship Troopers, people’s citizenship status in The Light Brigade is tied to their service in the military. Heinlein spent plenty of time in his book explaining why he thought this would be a good thing, but he didn’t really explain how he ended up with a society where people – willingly, by my own reading – signed away their rights like that.
Hurley gives us a different scenario that results in the same endpoint – a corporate dystopia. By the time of the events of the book, everyone is reduced to working for one of six global conglomerates, and only by serving in one of their armies can one be recognised as a citizen. But its a precarious situation – everyone is one hostile corporate takeover from being belted back to a resident, with their rights rescinded. Heavy-handed? No doubt, but perhaps like counters like.
And like Johnny Rico before them, most of the book’s characters are heavily indoctrinated as recruits. Many of them live a marginal existence where their rights have been stripped away and their family destroyed by the conglomerates that govern them, but most of their thoughts of resistance are pushed away by the threat of ‘aliens’ and a good dose of corporate propaganda, One young recruit even parrots out a line about there being no such thing as a free lunch, and I had to have a little bit of a laugh. It seems like Hurley’s pissing on old Bob H from more than one front.
The story is told through the perspective of Dietz, who has been newly recruited to the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps. Deitz is motivated to join after the Blink: a massive event that ended up carving São Paulo right out of the ground, destroying their family and upending their entire life. This event, along with the wreckage of the Moon, are both purported to be acts of war committed by the aliens. Deitz deliberately describes themselves as a paladin – a crusading knight – on their path to vengeance. This attitude persists even after the grim Full Metal Jacket style training they go through in the first part of the book. Deitz is heavily invested in their mindset at this stage, and you’re left anticipating what will be their breaking point.
It turns out to be something quite left field. Once training is done, Deitz and their cohort are deployed on their first mission. And this is where things start going off-kilter. Troop deployment involves transportation at the speed of light. To achieve this, the soldiers are broken down into atoms and then beamed to their destinations. The process is not perfect, and gruesome botched materialisations are frequently mentioned. But Deitz’s problem is not just physical – it’s temporal. Prepared for one mission, they frequently end up deployed at a different place and a different time, only to return home to missing squad members and displaced memories. This scrambled turn of events only makes the effects of war even more horrific; seeing a friend blown to pieces in front of your eyes is brutal enough, but then returning home to see them perfectly whole – while knowing exactly what fate awaits them – is torturous.
Dietz then spends their time battling on two fronts. Their most immediate fight involves surviving each of their deployments, no matter what order they are experienced in. But they also have to fight off the urge to fall into a Billy Pilgrim-esque pattern of fatalism, and instead wrestle control of the situation. At the same time, it’s up to you, the reader, to pay close attention, otherwise, this puzzle-box of the plot is going to remain elusive.
For me, this was a very engaging, fast-paced read that did not feel like it covered 300 pages. The time travel feels consistent and generally well handled – but you do have to read over it carefully. And despite my early worries that the story might devolve into nihilism, The Light Brigade is not as bleak as it initially seems.
One of my main criticisms is that after you put in the work to follow the events of the novel, the ending can come across as very blunt. This isn’t to say that covers most of the elements needed to be satisfying but is very, very abrupt. The novel is also very dialogue-driven and spends little time describing settings. This does help keep the rapid pace, but I do wonder if keeping track of people and locations could have been made a little easier with more extensive descriptions. I’m still undecided as to whether or not this was a deliberate choice made by the author.
Overall, this is a clever, albeit unflinchingly-heavy-handed book, which is more than just an aggressive takedown of Starship Troopers. And I have no problem seeing how it ended up with a Hugo Award nomination.