RogerBW's Blog

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley 24 May 2020

2019 science fiction. The rebellious Martian colonists wiped out São Paulo in a devastating surprise attack. Dietz, whose family was among the dead, joins up with the corporate armies to fight them off – and maybe end up with citizenship.

So yes, well, of course this is a response to Starship Troopers. And I can picture some people who loved that book hating this one simply because it reaches different conclusions. I regard it as saying not that that book was wrong but that it was naïve and incomplete: that the idea of citizenship being dependent on service is not of itself a sufficient means of bringing about a good society, and may even be an actively unhelpful one, depending on just who's in charge.

Certainly this is a book with a message, indeed several, but it isn't a Message Book. Dietz tries to make sense of what's happening, stick to the brief, and come to terms with the ongoing desire to be one of the good guys in a war that distinctly lacks them.

I strongly suspect that most military sf is written by people who think the military system is basically a good thing and would be happy if their readers joined up; and that Hurley does not feel this way (all this as distinct from how one feels about individuals who are or have been part of that system). So we have the standard mil-SF trope of the last conversations with pre-enlistment friends, we have the obligatory boot camp sequence, we have the deployments; but we also have Dietz' realisation of just how this is all working, how if you make a human feel like crap they'll grasp for any little bit of acceptance and praise. And yet Dietz doesn't regard this as entirely a negative thing, in part because it clearly has worked.

So far so allegorical, but things get more complicated. These soldiers are sent into battle by being "converted into light", i.e. teleported (and most of them arrive intact most of the time). But very quickly it becomes apparent that the mission Dietz goes on isn't always the one that's supposed to follow the briefing. And back at base afterwards, it may turn out to be the aftermath of yet a third mission… of course many writers like to shuffle a story out of order in order to lend interest where there isn't enough in telling it straight, but here there is already enough interest, and there's an in-world reason for shuffling the story. Normally this style of narrative puts me off books, but here it works.

Things do get off to a bit of a slow start, but I felt that Dietz could be forgiven for taking a while to work out both what's going on and what it makes sense to do about it.

There are shades of Haldeman's Forever Peace towards the end here, and nobody would accuse Hurley of writing hard SF, but this book doesn't pretend to be about the tech anyway. (There are drones, but there's also recognisable artillery and rifle fire.) This is a sociological comment on how the military gets used, and on how to recognise when you might be the Imperial Stormtrooper. But also it's an exploration of Dietz's state of mind, suffering not only from combat fatigue but from living life profoundly out of order and never knowing what's going to come next. It's really very good indeed – and I say that as someone who bounced hard off God's War.

I've now read all the Hugo-nominated novels apart from the McGuire, and if I were voting this year I'd put this book at the top of my list. (Though The Future of Another Timeline would still be above it if that had been nominated.)

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See also:
Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman


  1. Posted by John P at 11:29pm on 24 May 2020

    Heinlein's rationale for the "citizenship through military service" idea is that troops returning home from a third world war find there are no jobs and that civil society is in a state of breakdown as national governments are losing their grip. The veterans band together, because they trust each other and have the vestiges of some sort of organisation, and enforce their own sort of order in the chaos - based on the harsh military justice they know. Basically, there is a political vacuum, so they fill it with what they know.

    Now, Heinlein had seen veterans returning from both world wars. The disllusionment, hardship and disdain they experienced in civilian life is a matter of record. OK, there wasn't the breakdown of civil government that he suggests, but a political system created by veterans in those circumstances isn't a totally unreasonable proposition I feel.

    Let's be clear, I'm NOT saying that such a political system is desirable and I'm NOT endorsing any political views one way or the other here. I'm simply saying that the world of Starship Troopers is not as far fetched as it might first sound.

    In fact, maybe it's a case of "there but for the grace of God go I" because you could argue that the Bolsheviks & Nazis were somewhere along those lines.

    At least, Heinlein's world is no more implausible than any other political system created for the purposes of fiction. I mean, Peter F Hamilton has a world where Britain was run by a socialist party that is so extreme it would class Stalin as dangerously liberal. Or Fred Pohl having the world run by advertising agencies. Or Storm Constantine with matriarchies.

    Anyway, thanks for the review Roger, this book sounds like it might be good. At the moment I'm working my way through Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith series. The British Space Empire powered by stiff upper lips, immaculate moustaches and copious amounts of tea. Featuring gags & references from all over the place. I've just had Monty Pythons' Three Yorkshireman sketch from some alien warriors turned accountants - "You were lucky. I would get up, fight for honour all day, then stagger 20 miles home with both my arms in a plastic bag.", "Luxury!"

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:45pm on 24 May 2020

    Indeed – Heinlein's system is not just "service gives citizenship", it's all the other stuff too. This book isn't a criticism of all-of-Heinlein, though it's poking effectively at that specific thing and how it might get subverted. (Apart from anything else, Heinlein's non-citizens lead a decent life apart from being barred from voting, while Hurley's… don't.)

    I've read the first two of those Toby Frost books, and enjoyed them, but somehow the next one is taking a while to get to the top of my to-be-read queue. Hmm, maybe I should write a scheduler that prioritises series entries where it's been a while since I read the previous one. Same sort of thing I use for blog posts in fact…

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:04am on 27 May 2020

    The vitriol that Heinlein's Starship Troopers always seems to me to be ill informed for many reasons. The one I tend to point out is that it's a SF reframing of Plato's Republic; an examination of an idea. and isn't that what SF is noted for?

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