The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

9/10 A high-action, high-concept sci fi military thriller, but it’s also a dare to think... It’s genuinely thrilling and more than a little impressive.

Dietz’s family were destroyed in the Blink, wiped out in an instant. Nobody thought anything like that could happen, nobody knew tech like that existed. But the proof is in the absence of millions of souls, a whole city disappeared. All that’s left now is revenge, so Dietz signs up for the corporate military, the best way to take the fight to those responsible: Mars. The corps have got their own revolutionary tech, a way of moving armies across space. Yet things don’t go quite as planned. Being broken down into particles of light and beamed off-planet, propelled from one hot zone to another, watching comrades die from drops gone bad even before the fighting starts….all this is grim enough, but Dietz is experiencing it all wrong. Out of sync with fellow grunts and increasingly uncertain about what or when’s real, Dietz is starting to attract the wrong kind of attention. The answer: stick to the mission brief. Say nothing. But what if the only way out of this unending war is lost somewhere in the welter of bloody, confusing images?? What if the truth is something only Dietz can discover?

This is a world controlled by corporations, giant multi-national companies which have supplanted governments but perpetuate the very worst of their combined aspects. Now they're fighting their own wars, against each other as much as the apparent Martian threat. If it seems more like a what if, than a when…well, take a better look around. People are little more than cogs in the machine, their only worth seen through the lens of their potential use to the corporations. Choice is a freedom open only to citizens and even then it’s mostly illusion. The corps are the purest example, supplied by an endless stream of people with few options. The promise of a slightly better life for themselves and their family offered as a meagre carrot to balance the very big stick of sickness, starvation, death. There’s no holding back on the processes of indoctrination and control, a ruthless system with one aim, and it becomes increasingly clear that it’s not the one they signed up for. Soldiers are brutalised, de-humanised, trained to kill without hesitation and more importantly, without question. 

‘You want to gouge the eyes of a stranger? You tried it? How did that go? Hardly anybody does that shit. If they do, it’s in a fit of rage or madness. But cold, calculated killing? Only one percent of people are psychopaths. The rest of us have to learn.’ 

It’s not hard to work out why a military-industrial-ruling corporation might want that as a foundation for their soldiers, but it becomes ever more important when people start coming back from drops knowing more than they should. The so-called Light Brigade are disappearing at an alarming rate, but Dietz is something special, and the corp brass want to know what Dietz knows. After all, it might offer some kind of advantage in the war. And that means more power, more influence, more money. Financial gain as the bottom line means anything goes, anything and anyone. Life really is cheap here (just here??). There’s certainly no leaving this with any misapprehensions about the dichotomy between powerful/powerless, part of a thoroughly cutting commentary on contemporary society as much as this future Earth. From the blasted wastelands created by climate change to pervasive surveillance tech, from limited social, political, and economic rights for certain groups to the criminal immorality of unconstrained corporate greed, this is a book for our time. It might be a high-action, high-concept sci fi military thriller, but it’s also a dare to think.

Time travel storylines can be problematic in many ways, especially if they’re hard to follow, but the primary issue for me is that they tend to work against emotional connections, both within the text and between reader and characters. What’s so powerful about this book is that the author used the fluid timeline to build deep and sincere feeling into Dietz’s experiences: the desperate grasping for some kind of mental foundation stone, for stability and understanding, the quiet anguish of interactions with friends whose violent deaths Dietz has already seen and experienced, the remorseless shattering of any illusions about the validity of the war and of the reasons for signing up. It was incredibly effective, but just one part of what makes this such a creative and intelligent offering. The methodological planning of the timelines, the attention to every detail, the sheer cleverness in the way it was all put together… it’s genuinely thrilling and more than a little impressive. Yet not once does the author lose sight of the flesh and blood aspect, the understanding that however important it is to be crafty with the book’s execution, it’s more essential to be authentically human. When the notion of time and reality becomes slippery, the veracity of the characters is what holds it together. Dietz offers a striking example of internal conflict, an emotional and dynamic search for moral action which takes the character outside the categories of hero/villain. Even with all that, the stylistic choice that struck me the most was the lack of anything to identify the main character’s gender until right at the end. Or so it seemed to me. Dietz is Dietz… and that is all. Even in the book’s blurb, nothing is specified. And I love that it makes no difference either way, not to being a soldier in a brutal war, or to being someone who just might be able to change the future. 

Cleverly crafted, with social commentary sharp enough to cause a fatal bleed, and seriously fun to boot?? Yeah, this is a real good time. An excellent addition to the genre and well worth adding to your TBR. 

ARC via Netgalley.

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