“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade (2019), a Hugo and Locus award nominated novel, drives that point home. The brutality of a soldier’s life combines with dystopia and hellish corporate behavior, but it’s lightened by the gritty determination of the main character, Dietz, and a handful of others to find the right path out of the nightmarish war, and by a hopefulness that refuses to be beaten down.
In a near-future day, six huge corporations, called the Big Six, control most of Earth’s society, doling out vital services only to people who are citizens. Dietz, a non-citizen of São Paulo, has suffered the loss of family and friends in “The Blink,” a mysterious event that instantly destroyed São Paulo and killed over two million people. Martian colonists, considered “aliens” by Earth, are blamed for the Blink, and Dietz promptly joins the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps to avenge the deaths and to try to be a hero, a personage of light. Which Dietz becomes, but not in the way envisioned.
Earth has one major advantage over Mars in this war: scientists have figured out how to break down the soldiers into atoms and transporting them, like a beam of light, to various battle locations, even across space. This teleporting technology doesn’t always work out well for the soldiers, but nobody asks the privates for their opinions. The corporation considers that it owns the soldiers, body and soul, and has the ability to order them to do anything and everything. But the war isn’t what the brass in power have made it out to be, and Dietz begins experiencing the war in a non-linear fashion. Each teleporting jump lands Dietz in a different time and place, though generally with the same platoon.
The Light Brigade is a military science fiction novel that follows the time-honored path, first popularized in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, of following an eager but naïve recruit into the military machine, through basic training and into battle, gaining experience, seniority and skepticism along the way. Dietz’s Brazilian origins and yearning for the benefits of citizenship, among other things, make it clear that The Light Brigade is in conversation with Starship Troopers (there are a number of these deliberate homages and references to various MilSF novels). But Hurley’s novel is far more spiritually akin to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which speaks to the dehumanizing effect of war and the alienation experienced by soldiers.
The Light Brigade takes the discussion in a somewhat different and more modern direction. It’s more viscerally and overtly brutal and bloody and profane, punching home the point that war, in addition to being hell on earth, is more often than not unjustified by the circumstances. Dietz narrates almost the entire book, other than some occasionally transcripts of interviews with a prisoner of war, the purpose and import of which become clear much later in the novel. It’s interesting that we don’t find out Dietz’s sex for a long time, or first name for even longer. Soldiering and war are equal-opportunity, and equally brutal for both sexes. Dietz is truly just a cog in the warfare machinery … until Dietz isn’t.
There’s a lot of jumping around in time and place and the plot can get a little hard to follow as a result. In the acknowledgements at the end, Hurley mentions her debt to the person who helped create a mathematical graph to track all of the events in the book and ensure that they line up correctly, so I’m certain that the events and timeline(s) would make far more sense on a second read. The Light Brigade is a bit simplistic with its villains, contrasting the profoundly uncaring and frequently even evil corporations and their leadership with the hopeful and hope-bringing socialists. The world-building is also a little sparse, as are the characterizations of the soldiers other than Dietz. With just a couple of exceptions, I tended to lose track of who was who.
But Hurley’s handling of the events and themes is powerful. There’s optimism and hope in the face of despair, corrupt corporations and governments, abuse of authority and a blasted world. The teleporting and time travel aspects add to the intrigue of the plot.
The Light Brigade is based on Hurley’s 2015 short story of the same name, published in Lightspeed magazine. I read it after reading the novel, and it’s rather like reading the CliffNotes for the novel (so, spoilers ahoy). I don’t always prefer novelizations of shorter works; for example, I think the original short versions of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall and Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain were all more potent than the subsequent novels. But in the case of The Light Brigade, I’d definitely recommend the novel, as long as the reader has the stomach for unpleasant wartime events.