You can’t say no. Not that you’d want to. Not if you’re a real soldier.
And I am. I’m a real soldier.
A real fucking hero.
I’m made of light.
The news is always grim. A nightly news bulletin that crams the world's pain into half an hour is bound to make its viewers feel like the end is forever nigh. Still, the last few weeks have felt especially bloody; each report full of the consequences of wielding weapons filled with devastating power. Governments enter new conflicts. People take life over and over. And the idea that society might have conversations about the use of these weapons - tools that can destroy a person, many people, in a second - is ridiculed, ridden over, written off.
In the middle of this context, Lightspeed have published Kameron Hurley's newest short story "The Light Brigade"; a story directly relevant to the times in which it appears. This story breaks down some of the rhetoric people get fed in a war and, by performing the vital SFF process of reimagining the world, gives the reader a chance to examine how they feel about war, violence and the concept of military justice. It is an intelligent and admirable story that demands to be read now by anyone desperate for stories clever enough to really imagine; to think very differently indeed. It proves that Hurley is becoming one of the most interesting SFF writers to read on the subject of violence, the horrors of empire, and military conflict.
Hurley's work often focuses on stories of combat. From God's War, a novel about a woman and a society shaped by a never ending conflict, to her non-fiction essay We Have Always Fought, a loud reminder that women have always been found on battle grounds, Hurley has spent many words dealing with military conflict and the effect combat has on everyone touched by war. When I hear Hurley has new fiction out, I know to prepare myself because it's going to get bloody somewhere along the way. Readers comment on the darkness of her novels, especially the overall effect of her novel The Mirror Empire. I think what "The Light Brigade" brings into focus is something I felt was missed in the general reception of The Mirror Empire. Hurley writes about war. She does not use war as a grimdark set dressing for her characters to play about in (although she sets up high octane explosions just as much as any other SFF writer putting together an action-packed story). Her stories are brutal, they are full of body parts and characters - good characters who the reader connects with - die suddenly and finally all the time. But this is done in the service of telling stories that attempt to dissect war, and to understand what creates it1.
"The Light Brigade" uses a first person narrator to reveal and critique the rhetorical backing that can sit behind a war. This unnamed narrator (whose gender, by the way, is never revealed) is a soldier - a regular citizen who signed up in a patriotic fervour after seeing aliens apparently use superior technology to devastate San Paulo. At the beginning of the story, the narrator sounds fully committed to the war and the army. They talk about being 'a hero of the fucking light' and fighting 'The bad guys'. These are the kind of phrases readers may be used to hearing from people who will brook no discussion about the necessity of war. However, as the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that this narrator is more of a war weary cynic whose initial patriotism has been eroded as they learnt more about the aliens they were fighting.
The initial characterisation of the narrator as a patriotic mouthpiece is an illusion and, on reading the opening sections of the story a second time, it's easy to see the verbal clues which initially indicate their more weary, critical nature. The constant use of 'fucking' when referring to being 'the light' is not just soldier punctuation but an indicator that being 'the light' is not as truly pure or heroic as it sounds. The section where the narrator remarks that 'They're always the bad guys, right?' takes on a more tongue in cheek tone. Here is a self-aware soldier narrator reflecting on the corruption of the war. But, a narrator still deeply embedded in the war, and one who knows they ignored their growing alarm at the way the war was being run.
Throughout the story, the narrator displays several popular pieces of rhetoric that allow soldiers of 'the light' to commit to this war. For example, although distressed by accidentally amputating a civilians legs with a laser, the narrator reminded themselves that 'I deal with it when bad things happen. So should she.' A piece of rhetoric, commonly used by politicians in our own world, appears with an SFF twist: 'They are aliens. They aren’t like us. They have a whole other language. Different clothes.' Except, as it turns out, these "aliens" are humans who went off to colonise Mars many years ago and then returned to help save Earth from famine. Not so different after all. My favourite way that "The Light Brigade" references the rhetoric of war is when the narrator explains the 'escalation of commitment'. 'I wish I was as stupid as I used to be,' says the narrator after that passage because, wow, does it ever hurt to realise how hard you've worked to keep yourself from seeing the truth.
"The Light Brigade" also highlights concerns with creating unethical weapons. The army has designed a method for getting soldiers into battle areas faster; a procedure which also makes them generally 'faster, smarter, tougher,' if the military party line is to be believed. As the narrator says 'who wouldn’t want that?' Except, the way the soldiers are given this advantageous treatment, and the way they are treated by the army in general, sounds shady as hell: 'They inject you with a lot of stuff in training. They don’t even wait to see if you wash out, because even if you wash out, they still need you… Anyway, you don’t even know what any of this shit is they’re pumping you full of.' In this world, soldiers aren't highly trained workers. They're average people off the streets who make up the numbers; disposal bodies pumped full of SFF wonder juice to keep them shooting.
Like SFF stories about drone-a-likes, "The Light Brigade" asks the reader to consider its SFF tech (and, by comparison, certain kinds of real world military tech) in light of ethics rather than just efficacy. Can a society make use of the military technology it has designed and hold onto its humanity? This is an important question for the real world but also an important measure for the SFF one. In a world where any kind of military tech and strategy can be written into being, there's a temptation for SFF writers to glory in the kinds of battle tech and strategy which would horrify people if it ever emerged in the real world. Using a story to critique the ethics of military technology serves to remind writers that just because you can imagine something doesn't make it good, and that the stories writers tell about war have an impact on how readers respond to real war.
In Hurley's story it is comprehensively clear that the technology being used to win the war isn't ethical. Soldiers are turned into light in order to be sent to battle faster. During this process:
You burst apart like . . . Well, first your whole body shakes. Then every muscle gets taut as a wire. My CO says it’s like a contraction when you’re having a kid, and if that’s true, if just one is like that, then I don’t know how everybody who has a kid isn’t dead already, because that’s bullshit.
Then you vibrate, you really vibrate, because every atom in your body is being ripped apart. It’s breaking you up like in those old sci-fi shows, but it’s not quick, it’s not painless, and you’re aware of every minute of it. You don’t have a body anymore, but you’re aware, you’re locked in, you’re a beam of fucking light.
Anyone familiar with the argument that the transporters on Star Trek reconfigure those who use them will be rightly concerned about the idea of soldiers bursting apart and being put back together. Soldiers also 'ghost out' or come back together wrong. They suffer night sweats and anxiety attacks. Soldiers are psychologically monitored and grounded if problems present but it's easy to beat the tests. Very little care if taken on these people, and very little training is needed or given before they throw their bodies into this war.
This concentration on the need for ethical war will be a fraught line of enquiry for some readers who may wonder, considering the final direction the plot takes, why the story doesn't simply stick to condemning war. I suggest "The Light Brigade" is so invested in deconstructing how we wage war, before it comes around to asking 'What if there was a war and nobody came?', because it is a story aware of the real life context it appears in. As Colleen Mondor said recently, "It should be a last choice, it should break our hearts" to send soldiers to war. And yet so many people, who will never fight themselves, bay for us to throw soldiers into conflict as if their lives are disposable. When others question the human cost of war, the solution is planes and drones - as if the ability to bomb groups of people without seeing their faces is just plain sense. Sometimes, it's important to address the world as it is before remaking it.
It's not only the commentary on war that makes this story well worth reading. "The Light Brigade" is written with Hurley's characteristic sharp, clear cut prose. The first person voice is easy and natural (Hurley excels at writing people who sound like people). The structure of the story, built around a series of slow reveals from the narrator, is smart but not so rigorous that it gets in the way of the easy flowing voice and character feel. The SFF solution to the war is full of hope and beauty. And, a personal favourite detail, I loved that all the characters mentioned in this story (from the aliens, to the commanding officer, to the shrink) were either female or never had their gender confirmed. It was fantastic to see Hurley write the ethos and reality of "We Have Always Fought" into a fictional story about combat but also to see the story complicate the reader's experience by refusing to confirm the gender of the main character and background soldiers. Smart.
I know it's too early to even whisper the 'H' word but consider one of my short fiction slots already filled. This story is too timely, and too well written, to ignore.
"The Light Brigade" by Kameron Hurley is available for free at Lightspeed.
1 Though, I'm totally open to discussion about the necessity of some character deaths in The Mirror Empire. There were a couple of deaths that I was really hung up on.
We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative by Kameron Hurley
Renay's essay Women in Perpetual Motion: Thoughts on We Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley
Guest Post: Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier by Kameron Hurley
Short Business: "Elephants and Corpses" by Kameron Hurley
Jodie's essay My Life As A Weapon - Nyxnissa so Dasheem
Lady Business+ - Episode #1: God's War