“Let me tell you how they break you,” says Dietz, a young soldier with a number of regrets, describing the grim reality behind a dream of military glory. “From the minute you step off the transport at the training base . . . you aren’t doing anything right. You don’t walk right, look right, talk right . . . No one likes you, let alone loves you. In great shape? It’s not enough. Smart? That’s worse.” Within a week, the victim of this treatment is fundamentally changed: “You yearn to kill, because it’s the only thing that gets your DI to love you. When you withhold all praise, people will do anything to get it. They’ll eat each other, if they need to.” For you English majors out there, the thrum of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the title of Kameron Hurley’s latest is as intentional as you’d expect, but you may be more immediately reminded of his embittered successors Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The characters, no older than the youths of WWI’s trenches, have ample material for a lifetime of shellshock before they’re out of basic training. Within three chapters they’re bonding over a bout of deadly illness caused by the medical treatments that the battlefield of the future demands. “When you’re running, shitting and vomiting,” Dietz notes wryly, “it puts you in touch with the fact that you’re just a bag of guts.”
The Light Brigade has the kind of gimmick memorable enough to stick in the mind after a glance at the jacket flap—at war with a terrorist colony on Mars, Earth has solved the problem of interstellar travel by transforming its soldiers into light, enabling them to “drop” from Earth to a distant planet at light speed. It would be easy to hang an entire novel on the strength of this conceit, with its blazing metaphorical resonances (“Nobody ever thinks they chose the wrong side,” says Dietz, on whom these are not lost. “We all think we’re made of light.”) and its attendant drawbacks, which would do Cronenberg proud (the human components sometimes reconfigure in the wrong order, and a dropper who remains intact still runs the risk of materializing underground or inside a solid structure). Instead, Hurley uses it as the starting point for an old-fashioned tale of time displacement. It becomes quickly apparent that for Dietz, the “drops” are happening in the wrong order, shuffling the young recruit all over the longer timeline of the war from one drop to the next. As complicated as this device may seem, it works because it remains fully in service to a story about war and its human cost. Dietz’s disorientation (how much time has really passed?) feels as much a reaction to the routine horror of combat as the confusion of an accidental time-traveler. The wider cast, though intriguing and full of individual quirks, never come through for the reader in the way Dietz does, with good reason. The isolation inherent to living out events in the wrong sequence forcibly evokes the isolation of active duty.
While Hurley leaves several character elements to be unwound with the story—blink and you’ll miss the fleeting mention of the protagonist’s gender—there is nothing coy about The Light Brigade. At times, the author’s bloody-minded determination to deliver the message (itself a strength; you can hear the frustration of the veteran, or maybe of the teenager) risks turning the story into a lecture, most noticeably in a subplot composed of transcribed conversations with a prisoner of war who monologues like a Bond villain. At its best, however, Hurley’s verb-laden first-person is as immediate and inescapable as a resounding sock in the jaw. At nearly 400 pages, The Light Brigade nonetheless goes down quickly, which is just as well—the nonlinear plot will have you calculating when to fit the reread in.