Kameron Hurley’s 2020 The Light Brigade is a stand-alone military science fiction novel.
Having been rescued from democracy and socialism, the dwindling population of the Earth prospers under the prudent guidance of their corporate rulers. Those who are useful are rewarded appropriately (but not excessively); the useless are discarded. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Dietz’ father was a criminal who was eventually disappeared. Dietz’ mother died of a terminal illness. Dietz’ brother vanished in the Blink, an attack that erased a swath of Sao Paulo. The attack inspires Dietz to join a corporate army to get revenge on the damn dirty Martians who attacked Earth.
The Martians are descendants of colonists from Earth, ingrates who cut off contact once they were self-sufficient. Reopening communications after a lengthy hiatus, the Martians volunteered to restore blighted North America to habitability. Were this display of technological and ecological prowess not offensive enough, the Martians attacked targets on the Moon and erased Sao Paulo for reasons that are unclear. At least, that is what the news says and if you cannot trust the news, what can you trust?
In the old days, reaching Mars mean months travelling in chemically-propelled rockets. Today, Science! allows soldiers to be disassembled in one location and beamed across the Solar System to the surface of Mars in the time it takes light to get from Earth to Mars. Not is this method fast and cheap, it is perfectly safe … or so the corporate bosses say.
Life for soldiers like Dietz is an endless sequence of abusive training, violent skirmishes, and the ever-present risk of being reassembled in a non-viable configuration. Life for Dietz in particular is worse. For reasons unclear, Dietz is poorly suited to teleportation. The main side-effect? Dietz begins to experience the battles out of sequence, jumping back and forth in time.
Dietz’ situation is alarming. However, it is also highly illuminating, providing Dietz with a perspective others lack. A bird’s‑eye view of history underlines just how badly the executives are lying to the masses. The world is heading to hell in a handbasket. But what can a single soldier do?
This novel is just another entry in a long list of stories about young people signing up for a tour of military service and undergoing exciting personal learning experiences. As one might expect from the title, which references a British military effort as notable for its boldness as the subsequent saving on military pensions, The Light Brigade is much closer to the All Quiet on the Western Front end of things than it is to books like Starship Troopers or any of a number of Alien Space Lizards Must Die! series from Baen. Dietz’ war is not much fun and the war’s goals are petty and stupid.
The author makes clear that she is well aware of earlier fiction in the tradition. For example: there’s a soldier named Omalas who spends part of the book concerned about the well-being of an abused boy. But the book didn’t remind me of other military SF novels I’ve read, novels that I would guess other reviewers mentioned in their comments on this particular novel. It reminded me of satirical works like Heller’s Catch-22 or the novels of John Sladek. There is much the same sense that a collection of self-deluded, self-centered idiots is running society into the ground. But in the novel under review, there is very little bleak humour. The plot is played straight and nobody at Dietz’s level has much reason to laugh.
The novel is an astonishingly quick read. It is competently executed and engaging … but, alas, not terribly enjoyable. Watching naïve kids backed into corners where they have no choice but to sign up for as many battles as it takes to kill them, and doing so in service to monstrous ends, isn’t tremendous fun and probably shouldn’t be.