THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Kameron Hurley): SF and the time-image

THE LIGHT BRIGADE by Kameron Hurley is an exciting book, and I read it over a single week end, unable to put it down.


The basic frame of a war between the Earth under the sway of totalitarian corporations and its former colony on Mars is well conducted and interesting in itself. The story and the characterisation are well handled. Despite the stereotyped narrative line where the protagonist, Dietz, passes from the state of “rookie” to that of hero, the narration is non-linear as Dietz becomes “unstuck ” in time, and we have to piece together both the war and the characters from the scrambled order of presentation.


Multiple allusions to the great novels of military SF (STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, OLD MAN’S WAR, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE) add depth and thematic density to the narrative, and we quickly understand that we are immersed in a new contribution to a great intertextual conversation. The dialogue is also engaged with contemporary novels, for example with ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Ann Leckie) and NINEFOX GAMBIT (Yoon Ha Lee).


The question, or rather the non-question, of gender is treated more satisfactorily in THE LIGHT BRIGADE than in these recent novels, much as the question of the color of the skin in STARSHIP TROOPERS is handled seemingly casually. We only learn the gender of the main character, our narrator, late in the book. This indifference of gender is no longer in the foreground, as is the case in ANCILLARY JUSTICE, but remains in the background, as a trivial given of the situation, not a foregrounded pedagogical gimmick. Just as in the eyes of the corporations we are all pawns, in Dietz’s eyes the gender of a friend or enemy is of only secondary importance.


My feeling reading THE LIGHT BRIGADE was that it very successfully accomplished the task of the transposition of the canonical genre of the military science fiction novel into a more contemporary political, epistemological, and ontological context. The narrative is blurred chronologically, not arbitrarily or as a literary technique, but in the image of the main character’s “unstuck in time” experience, creating a kaleidoscopic perception of the world, the war, and other characters.


These processes (chronological scrambling, temporal ungluing, kaleidoscopic perception) are well combined with the need for the inhabitants of the Earth (divided into citizens, residents, and “ghouls”) to maintain a critical, even paranoid, consciousness in a world where censorship and fake news rule. This uncertainty and fragmentation at the level of perception and information also affect the novel’s characterization. The reader, like the narrator, reduced to a pointillist depiction, must construct their image of people through scrambled snippets of information and perception.


Despite all this dispersion, the reader succeeds in constructing a synthetic image of the main characters, such as Munoz, Andria, Tanaka, Jones, Norberg. Even if we only know the characters through fragmentary sketches (justified by the narrator’s unstuckness in time), we see mostly ordinary soldiers. Hurley avoids the structural problem of NINEFOX GAMBIT whose democratic message is contradicted by his narrative fixation on the acts of the elites.


The link with NINEFOX GAMBIT can be seen in the fight for the control of the calendar (the soldiers are kept in total ignorance of the day, the date, and even the year) by the ruling power, in an attempt to control the potentially “exotic” effects of the teleportation technology and to take advantage of it in the conduct of the war. From this point of view, we go beyond the epistemological level of subjective uncertainty towards the ontological level of construction of the real.


The end of the novel disappointed me. The notion of a (partially) constructed reality, which is justified by a rapid allusion to quantum physics, and of a technological means for manipulating it, quickly becomes indistinguishable from magic. It finally allows the emergence of a deus ex machina to counter the seemingly absolute and inexorable power of the corporations. Here, the democratic message is contradicted by the use of a quasi-divine power.


The defects that some reviews have attributed to the novel (insufficient characterization, confused narrative, slow pacing, explanations too late) seem to me traits required by the nature of the narrative universe, by the situation of the narrator-protagonist, and by the image of time underlying the story. It takes time to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and reading the book is an intellectually stimulating adventure at every level.

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