Book review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Not every book needs to be highly original and well written to receive praise.  Sometimes, all it takes is to slap an interesting twist on a highly derivative work, and the reader will think about the story well past the last page.  This is the case of The Light Brigade.  I found it too similar to previous works, with unlikable characters and too many repetitions, but in hindsight the book gave me something to think about for quite a while.

Dietz is growing up in a corporate state where his family only recently switched from a stateless scavenger to worker class.  In order to gain full citizenship, he enlists in the army to fight the Martians who destroyed Sao Paulo and everyone he loved.  He lives in a world ruled by ruthless corporations, who previously destroyed a portion of Earth and then imported Martians to re-terraform it.  Now, apparently, the Martians want to strike at the corporations.

After a very grueling (and graphic) training, Dietz and his fellow soldiers are sent to combat.  To speed up their deployment, they are subjected to technology that breaks their bodies into individual atoms and transfers them at light speed to the battlefield where they get reassembled.  The technology is not perfect, though.  Some people materialize in walls, others have their organs or appendages scrambled, and Dietz ends up jumping in time.  He turns out on a different battlefield than expected, and with every jump he must piece together his personal history, as not to come across as someone who went insane.

After a while, Dietz starts assembling the full picture of the war and his deployment.  He convinces a few of the soldiers, including an old friend who became his commanding officer, about his ability.  The commanding officer helps him to master realistic immersive situations, which train his mind to control when he would jump.  Dietz tries to change the future, but after he sees that it’s impossible, he forms a different plan and executes it.

The first part of the book reads like straight from Starship Troopers.  The movie, not the book.  The similarities are so obvious that I suspect the author wanted to lure the reader into complacency before turning the plot around.  Dietz in the book replaces Rico in the movie, and Sao Paulo replaces Buenos Aires.  A trio of friends joins the army straight from school.  The bootcamp training is grueling, and a recruit dies in tragic circumstances, which affects the protagonist.  The brutality of the training and the corporatist regime are turned to max, so the story read like a particularly cruel fan fiction of the movie.

“Brutal” is the key word of the entire book.  Depictions of body horror, mental breakdowns, foul language and the complete disregard of human suffering are so common that after a while the reader gets sanitized.  If the author’s goal was to shock me into considering the evils of corporate greed, she failed.  By the time her anti-corporate diatribes reached their crescendo, nothing in the book could shock me anymore.  And it wasn’t for the author’s lack of trying; she was really pushing the anti-corporate message, repeating herself in a thousand ways.  Due to the book’s unfortunate timing, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, all I could picture was a pint-sized dictator sending waves of his troops to die in a needless war.  I didn’t need a corporation for that.

Instead, I focused on the human and the technological aspect of the story.  Dietz is jumping around in time, and he’s trying really hard to appear sane.  His struggle to grasp the situation is fascinating.  He goes from feeling completely lost to an ice-cold pro, who can explain away even the wrong outfit that he is wearing at the end of a mission.  He even goes on to close certain casual loops, just so that his former (or future) self can perform the same actions he did in his subjective past.  Hurley is also doing an outstanding job having Dietz untangle the mess of his timeline at the same pace as the reader, so nothing comes across as expected.

Note that I said, “his timeline”.  In this story, each of the soldiers who are capable of jumping in time have their own future, which may not be necessarily the same as someone else’s.  Does that hint at a multiverse theory or an immersive simulation?  We don’t know, and the extensive training in other immersive simulations messes with the reader’s head even more.  Is that a red herring, a way to manipulate the light-speed transfer of the protagonist’s body, or a way to beat the overreaching simulation?  This, and the final big bang that ties everything in a neat casual bundle, is the highlight of the novel.  Each reader can take from the story what he or she wants, but we all have one thing in common: we’ll keep on thinking about the book for quite a while after we finish it.

From a technical perspective, the novel is a mixed bag.  I appreciated that there were few side characters, with distinct enough names and voices to differentiate them.  Almost all of them were very flat, as not to distract from the protagonist and the main story.  On the other hand, the narration seemed inconsistent.  At times, it was the sloppy talk of a soldier without even two braincells that could rub against each other, at other times the narration was quite sophisticated.  There have been inserted sequences from a seemingly different storyline, where one of the characters sounds so radically different that I didn’t even guess at their identity until the story caught up with these inserts.  I suspect these interruptions were added after the novel was completed, when the author thought that the reader didn’t receive enough of her anti-corporate education.

All in all, The Light Brigade is an interesting book, with quite a mind-bending conclusion.  However, I found it very derivative of other works, and brutal for brutality’s sake.  I picked it up blind, without reading any reviews first, and only after reading it I checked the reviews.  I can’t understand why the book is so polarizing, with very few people sharing my lukewarm attitude to it.  This novel was an interesting diversion on my daily commute, but not something I’d enjoy in long stretches.

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One Response to Book review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

  1. Dean Alexander says:

    I’m with you, dead on. The story is so grim and the anti-capitalist beating and much-repeated opinion that corporations self-serve regardless of the consequences (however true) was way over the top. I especially hated the interview sections. I found them to be very self-aggrandizing. I’m not quite through it yet but I’m ready for it to be over. Still, I want to know what happens.

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