Review: The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Jul 3 20:50:53 PDT 2020

The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley

Publisher: Saga
Copyright: 2019
ISBN:      1-4814-4798-X
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     355

In the wake of the Blink, which left a giant crater where São Paulo
was, Dietz signed up for the military. To be a hero. To satisfy an oath
of vengeance. To kill aliens.

Corporations have consumed the governments that used to run Earth and
have divided the world between them. Dietz's family, before the Blink,
were ghouls in Tene-Silva territory, non-citizens who scavenged a
precarious life on the margins. Citizenship is a reward for loyalty and
a mechanism of control. The only people who don't fit into the
corporate framework are the Martians, former colonists who went dark
for ten years and re-emerged as a splinter group offering to use their
superior technology to repair environmental damage to the northern
hemisphere caused by corporate wars. When the Blink happens, apparently
done with technology far beyond what the corporations have, corporate
war with the Martians is the unsurprising result.

Long-time SF readers will immediately recognize The Light Brigade as a
response to Starship Troopers with far more cynical world-building. For
the first few chapters, the parallelism is very strong, down to the
destruction of a large South American city (São Paulo instead of Buenos
Aires), a naive military volunteer, and horrific basic training. But,
rather than dropships, the soldiers in Dietz's world are sent into
battle via, essentially, Star Trek transporters. These still very
experimental transporters send Dietz to a different mission than the
one in the briefing.

Advance warning that I'm going to talk about what's happening with
Dietz's drops below. It's a spoiler, but you would find out not far
into the book and I don't think it ruins anything important. (On the
contrary, it may give you an incentive to stick through the slow and
unappealing first few chapters.)

I had so many suspension of disbelief problems with this book. So many.

This starts with the technology. The core piece of world-building is
Star Trek transporters, so fine, we're not talking about hard physics.
Every SF story gets one or two free bits of impossible technology, and
Hurley does a good job showing the transporters through a jaundiced
military eye. But, late in the book, this technology devolves into one
of my least-favorite bits of SF hand-waving that, for me, destroyed
that gritty edge.

Technology problems go beyond the transporters. One of the bits of
horror in basic training is, essentially, torture simulators, whose
goal is apparently to teach soldiers to dissociate (not that the book
calls it that). One problem is that I never understood why a military
would want to teach dissociation to so many people, but a deeper
problem is that the mechanics of this simulation made no sense. Dietz's
training in this simulator is a significant ongoing plot point, and it
kept feeling like it was cribbed from The Matrix rather than something
translatable into how computers work.

Technology was the more minor suspension of disbelief problem, though.
The larger problem was the political and social world-building.

Hurley constructs a grim, totalitarian future, which is a fine
world-building choice although I think it robs some nuance from the
story she is telling about how militaries lie to soldiers. But the
totalitarian model she uses is one of near-total information control.
People believe what the corporations tell them to believe, or at least
are indifferent to it. Huge world events (with major plot significance)
are distorted or outright lies, and those lies are apparently believed
by everyone. The skepticism that exists is limited to grumbling about
leadership competence and cynicism about motives, not disagreement with
the provided history. This is critical to the story; it's a driver
behind Dietz's character growth and is required to set up the story's

This is a model of totalitarianism that's familiar from Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four. The problem: The Internet broke this model. You
now need North Korean levels of isolation to pull off total message
control, which is incompatible with the social structure or technology
level that Hurley shows.

You may be objecting that the modern world is full of people who
believe outrageous propaganda against all evidence. But the
world-building problem is not that some people believe the corporate
propaganda. It's that everyone does. Modern totalitarians have stopped
trying to achieve uniformity (because it stopped working) and instead
make the disagreement part of the appeal. You no longer get half a
country to believe a lie by ensuring they never hear the truth.
Instead, you equate belief in the lie with loyalty to a social or
political group, and belief in the truth with affiliation with some
enemy. This goes hand in hand with "flooding the zone" with
disinformation and fakes and wild stories until people's belief in the
accessibility of objective truth is worn down and all facts become
ideological statements. This does work, all too well, but it relies on
more information, not less. (See Zeynep Tufekci's excellent Twitter and
Tear Gas if you're unfamiliar with this analysis.) In that world, Dietz
would have heard the official history, the true history, and all sorts
of wild alternative histories, making correct belief a matter of
political loyalty. There is no sign of that.

Hurley does gesture towards some technology to try to explain this
surprising corporate effectiveness. All the soldiers have implants, and
military censors can supposedly listen in at any time. But, in the
story, this censorship is primarily aimed at grumbling and local
disloyalty. There is no sign that it's being used to keep knowledge of
significant facts from spreading, nor is there any sign of the same
control among the general population. It's stated in the story that the
censors can't even keep up with soldiers; one would have to get unlucky
to be caught. And yet the corporation maintains preternatural
information control.

The place this bugged me the most is around knowledge of the current
date. For reasons that will be obvious in a moment, Dietz has reasons
to badly want to know what month and year it is and is unable to find
this information anywhere. This appears to be intentional; Tene-Silva
has a good (albeit not that urgent) reason to keep soldiers from
knowing the date. But I don't think Hurley realizes just how hard that

Take a look around the computer you're using to read this and think
about how many places the date shows up. Apart from the ubiquitous
clock and calendar app, there are dates on every file, dates on every
news story, dates on search results, dates in instant messages, dates
on email messages and voice mail... they're everywhere. And it's not
just the computer. The soldiers can easily smuggle prohibited outside
goods into the base; knowledge of the date would be much easier. And
even if Dietz doesn't want to ask anyone, there are opportunities to go
off base during missions. Somehow every newspaper and every news
bulletin has its dates suppressed? It's not credible, and it threw me
straight out of the story.

These world-building problems are unfortunate, since at the heart of
The Light Brigade is a (spoiler alert) well-constructed time travel
story that I would have otherwise enjoyed. Dietz is being tossed around
in time with each jump. And, unlike some of these stories, Hurley does
not take the escape hatch of alternate worlds or possible futures.
There is a single coherent timeline that Dietz and the reader
experience in one order and the rest of the world experiences in a
different order.

The construction of these timelines is incredibly well-done. Time can
only disconnect at jump and return points, and Hurley maintains tight
control over the number of unresolved connections. At every point in
the story, I could list all of the unresolved discontinuities and enjoy
their complexity and implications without feeling overwhelmed by them.
Dietz gains some foreknowledge, but in a way that's wildly erratic and
hard to piece together fast enough for a single soldier to do anything
about the plot. The world spins out of control with foreshadowing of
grimmer and grimmer events, and then Hurley pulls it back together in a
thoroughly satisfying interweaving of long-anticipated scenes and major

I'm not usually a fan of time travel stories, but this is one of the
best I've read. It also has a satisfying emotional conclusion (albeit
marred for me by some unbelievable mystical technobabble), which is
impressive given how awful and nasty Hurley makes this world. Dietz is
a great first-person narrator, believably naive and cynical by turns,
and piecing together the story structure alongside the protagonist
built my emotional attachment to Dietz's character arc. Hurley writes
the emotional dynamics of soldiers thoughtfully and well: shit-talking,
fights, sudden moments of connection, shared cynicism over degenerating
conditions, and the underlying growth of squad loyalty that takes over
other motivations and becomes the reason to keep on fighting.

Hurley also pulled off a neat homage to (and improvement on) Starship
Troopers that caught me entirely by surprise and that I've hopefully
not spoiled.

This is a solid science fiction novel if you can handle the
world-building. I couldn't, but I understand why it was nominated for
the Hugo and Clarke awards. Recommended if you're less picky about
technological and social believability than I am, although content
warning for a lot of bloody violence and death (including against
children) and a horrifically depressing world.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-07-03


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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