In 1959, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein struck the mold for military science fiction with his novel Starship Troopers. It told the story of an idealistic young recruit who joins the military and gets swept up into a war that changes their perceptions of the world, all accompanied by some political proselytizing. That novel inspired numerous other novels; one of the rare ones that equals it is Kameron Hurley’s latest, The Light Brigade.
Hurley’s future is a bleak one: six massive corporations run vast parts of society, controlling the media and privatizing services that their citizens have access to, provided they’ve signed extensive contracts. We’re introduced to Dietz, a young soldier who joins the Tene-Silvia Corporate Corps in the aftermath of “The Blink,” an event that destroyed much of São Paulo and has been blamed on colonists from Mars.
That mysterious incident sparks an intense war, and Dietz signs up out of a desire to find some meaning in her life and to avenge the 2 million people who were blinked away, not thinking about what signing up might cost her personally.
Based on a short story Hurley published in 2015, The Light Brigade roughly follows the formula that Heinlein came up with decades ago. We follow Dietz’s progress through basic training where, as in books like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, trainees are pushed until they break, and are then rebuilt to obey orders and fight for whatever values they’re told. Hurley’s soldiers have a bit of tech that Heinlein and Haldeman’s didn’t have: teleportation. The corporate soldiers are beamed down to the battlefield, and because this is a Kameron Hurley novel, there’s plenty of body horror when things don’t go quite right.
But Dietz experiences a different wrinkle beyond getting beamed into a wall or with body parts not where they should be: she gets unstuck in time on her first jump, rematerializing alongside new soldiers somewhere on Earth, on a completely different mission. After returning home, Dietz learns that the Mars mission was a disaster, and that she was the only survivor — and she can’t explain what happened, because she ended up somewhere completely different. Dietz chalks that experience up as a glitch and plays dumb for her unit’s psychologist, and pretends to have lost her memory. As she’s deployed over and over, she begins to realize that she’s experiencing the war in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth in time, catching glimpses of horrific futures in store for her fellow soldiers.
Hurley uses this hellish situation to provide a scathing commentary on the nature of warfare and capitalism. Dietz is caught in a war that she can’t escape, but she has a unique vantage point; one that leads her to question the very nature of not only the war that she’s fighting, but of the entire society of which she’s a part. Dietz, with her unique way of experiencing the world, learns that her situation isn’t beyond her control, and that she has the power to change the state of the world.
This sort of political examination is part of the tradition laid down by Heinlein. Starship Troopers was immediately controversial when it was released, with some critics charging that it was a thinly veiled argument advocating for fascism, while others claimed it was satirical. Haldeman’s The Forever War drew on his service during the Vietnam War, portraying soldiers caught in an interstellar war for generations through which they saw the world they fought for become unrecognizable.
The world Hurley presents in The Light Brigade is a feudalistic nightmare, and makes a sharp commentary on the growing influence and dangers of a world ruled by corporations. Corporations control all aspects of the lives of the citizens, from the information they have access to, to how they’re educated and where they live, their lives given up to supporting whatever unknowable corporate goals their overlords have planned. It’s a perverse twist on Heinlein’s arguments about serving to earn citizenship, which implied that one has to earn their freedom through service. In Hurley’s world, freedom is an illusion. It doesn’t matter what you do, you end up serving your host corporation.
Hurley’s time travel element makes for a slick, recursive plot, and the real fight becomes apparent: it’s not a battle against good or evil, it’s about control, and the lengths that corporations will go to ensure that their hold on the world is locked down and tight-fisted. As Dietz experiences disorienting jumps back and forth in time, she learns that the key to her entire predicament comes down to taking control of her situation in order to save everyone.