Book Review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

the light brigadeThe Light Brigade
Kameron Hurley

Saga, 2019

Well, shit.

I have no idea how to give this a proper rating, as I pretty much hated reading it, and not, as I had expected, because it is confusing (though it definitely is) but mainly because it’s so fucking bleak. That is, of course, the point – hard military sci-fi isn’t about to shy away from all the visceral realities of war – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m also generally not a fan of dystopias because they often hit too close to home; so much of dystopic visions Hurley has come up with in The Light Brigade don’t seem too far off from what we’re living now. It’s kind of terrifying, when you think about it too closely.

In The Light Brigade, nations have ceased to exist; instead, the world is controlled by six major corporations who give out citizenship and residency as a reward rather than as a right. Dietz, a former “ghoul” (a non-citizen and non-resident), is compelled to sign up for the war against Mars after the Blink, an event that wipes two billion people in Sao Paulo off the map – literally. The corporations have a technology that is able to distill soldiers into light and teleport them to various locations, including Mars, at the speed of light, only Dietz starts experiencing major problems with her teleportations: she’s experiencing them on her own weird, out-of-order timeline, which eventually enables her to become prescient.

Time travel is a hell of a trip, and, generally, I don’t like it in my fiction. It’s a lot of head-scratching and paradoxes and quantum superposition and causal loops and other physics shit that I don’t understand very well and that makes my brain hurt. I mean, I think I understood what happened, eventually, but it still made my brain hurt. So much of this story hinges on the reveal of this mystery and what is really going on, that if you’re not entirely sure how things fit together when it ends, you’re left unsatisfied. (Like, was it ever really explained why Dietz is experiencing things out of time?)

I also wasn’t impressed by the pacing of this story, nor its general narrative structure; as I understand it, this is a short story that turned into a novel, but perhaps it should have stayed a short story, or been expanded into a novella rather than full-length novel. So much of this book is just repetitive scenes of Dietz going into some kind of battle and experiencing violence and death and then being confused upon her return, because of her weird time travel shit. I want to reiterate; this is a personal preference. I totally get that these chapters are necessary for worldbuilding, which is the other point of this story – Hurley wants to drive home certain theses about capitalism, heroism, fascism, and war, and she can’t do that if she doesn’t have the space. I just didn’t particularly enjoy reading all those scenes. (Also, there are so many side characters! I couldn’t keep track!)

The Light Brigade is, undeniably, an astonishingly brilliant and complex book. I would have been surprised and, yes, aggrieved, had it not been nominated for a Hugo; it’s fully deserving of the nomination because of the ideas and critiques it puts forth. Unfortunately, cleverness doesn’t always equate to an enjoyable reading experience, but I’m very glad to have read this, actually, because it is so different from what I normally read, and because I feel like it’s expanded my palette.

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