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Exclusive excerpt from Kameron Hurley's sparkling new military sci-fi novel, The Light Brigade
It's still early, but 2019 has already delivered a sweet shelf of compelling and inventive sci-fi, fantasy, and horror novels — and now March arrives with Hugo Award-winning author Kameron Hurley's (The Stars Are Legion) futuristic combat novel, The Light Brigade.
Think Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers meets Hiroshi Sakurazaka's All You Need Is Kill and you'll have a hint at what's in store for those who crave raw, military sci-fi and PTSD-style depth offered at a blistering, breakneck pace. Even better? We have an exclusive excerpt.
Available on Mar. 19 from Simon & Schuster's Saga Press, this impressive science fiction thriller packs a mean punch with a frantic narrative focused on infantry soldiers fighting a future war and dealing with the mind-warping effects of battlefield amnesia and time distortion.
The Light Brigade's title comes from the slang term for what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back changed. These expendable grunts enlisted into the corporate corps get distilled down into light beam to travel to and from violent interplanetary battlefronts. Those fortunate enough to survive stick to the mission brief, no matter what actually happens during the intensity of combat.
SYFY WIRE chatted with Hurley on the origins of her brilliant new novel, the influences that seeped into the front lines of its raw storyline of soldiers chewed up by the corporate military machine, and the extreme importance of cover design in marketing.
What was the genesis of The Light Brigade and how did your love of the sci-fi genre influence its narrative?
Kameron Hurley: The Light Brigade began as a short story with a fairly simple concept: what if we transformed soldiers into beams of light to transport them across interplanetary battlefronts? Unlike instantaneous travel, it would be limited by the speed of light. A technological go-between that exists between our present and the instantaneous travel of the distant future. But great science fiction stories don’t hinge on a single idea: they tend to accrue clusters of ideas that develop into a more complex novel.
I have always been a fan of military science fiction. I grew up in an extended family with a strong military tradition. My grandfather participated in the liberation of France in World War II, and the stories he and my grandmother – who survived the occupation – told about those times had a profound influence on me and on all the work that I've done. Books like The Forever War and Armor were also influential. They address the psychological impacts of war more than the political. The political aspect is what most of us will see and experience from afar. Fewer understand the psychological cost of war on a deep level.
There's a palpable tone of realism in the novel that places readers inside the chaos of combat. What was your research process and where did you find inspiration?
KH: A number of family and friends are military veterans, and I incorporate some of their stories here. The account of expecting more people in the recruiting office after a terrorist event, of eating the injured bird, of blowing off a civilian’s legs during a firefight, of driving trucks full of the dead, those and many more are real incidents and impressions from veterans I know that I’ve fictionalized here.
My academic background is also in war and resistance movements, and I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades immersing myself in the history of propaganda and recruitment, training and trauma, around the world and across a number of conflicts, large and small. I value firsthand experiences more than strategic texts, though they can complement each other.
What are your feelings on the cover's eye-catching appeal and how important are memorable covers in the marketing game?
KH: For most authors, the biggest investment a publisher makes in a title’s marketing is the cover art and design. It’s the first thing potential readers see, and it not only needs to make an impact but signal to the reader what kind of story they can expect inside. I love the boldness of this cover. The figure looking up and into the light, one misty hand raised either in greeting or to shield the eyes. Many science fiction covers seek to give too much away; they don’t need to be literal interpretations of the text. What they must do is communicate the feeling of the story, and this cover succeeds in that.
Flick the switch on our exclusive chapter excerpt below and tell us if you'll join up for the high-wattage interplanetary ride!
From The Light Brigade with permission from Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. © 2019 Kameron Hurley. All rights reserved.
“What do you know about the enemy?” said Sergeant Older from the head of the classroom the next afternoon. She was a steely woman, all hard angles. She must have been fifty or so, though it was hard to tell, with half her face scarred by acid or some explosion (I never asked. Nobody else did either). She wore a shit-brick of military honors on her jacket. Her left arm was an organic-machine hybrid, and she walked with a hitch in her step. I wondered if she was supposed to serve as a warning or a promise.
We had at least three hours of classes every day. I’ve never been one to volunteer first, but she called on me.
“What do you know, Dietz?”
“Sir, they’re aliens, sir,” I said. Four or five people guffawed.
“Well, that’s a good start. You learn that in a book?”
Martinez said, “Sir, they turned on us after we gave them land up in Canuck. Started shooting babies in their beds . . . sir.”
I hadn’t seen propaganda billboards outside Tene-Silvia. I didn’t know you just say the same shit about whatever new enemy you’ve got. All I knew was what I was told. Every enemy shoots babies in their beds. It’s kind of amazing.
“They are indeed aliens,” Sergeant Older said. “How did this conflict begin?”
“Sir,” Martinez chimed in again, “they hate our freedoms, sir.”
Silence. One woman in the back was asleep. She snored so loudly the sergeant rapped her on the forehead and sent her out to do a lap.
“Is this boring you?” Sergeant Older said. “Knowing your enemy is the best way to defeat them.”
“Sir,” Jones said, “I think military strategy is a better way to defeat them than that . . . sir.”
“And what will you base your strategy on, Jones?”
“Experience,” he said. “Sir.”
“Experience of what?” she said. “Being a citizen?”
Jones’s complexion was dark, and it deepened even further.
“We are fighting an enemy who bit our extended hand,” she said, “like a rabid animal. Such an enemy is unpredictable.”
“Aren’t all of them?” Muñoz said.
“No,” Sergeant Older said. “Who are we fighting? We gave these alien people half the northern hemisphere to rehabilitate, because it was such a wreck after the Seed Wars, and the climate shifted. Nobody cared who settled it, not even CanKrushkev. It was their territory. Nothing would grow there until the aliens came. They had technology that they developed when they split from us on Earth and made their communist colonies on Mars.”
“Sir,” Jones said. “What tech was it, though? That reseeded Canuck?”
“That’s not important, Jones,” the sergeant said. “Let’s stay on target. We cut ourselves off from them when they left, so it was a real surprise when some of them asked to come back. I guess they thought they were saving us, but we don’t need saving. The tech, whatever it was, got rid of all the radiation and restored the soil, probably the same way it did on Mars after the Water Riots. And stuff grew. We trusted them, but they betrayed us. I don’t just need to tell you. You can experience it.”
Sergeant Older pulled up a series of augmented experiences and immersives for us to engage in firsthand, so we could feel like we were there, seeing all the horror our parents did when these aliens turned on us. It wasn’t pretty. It never is. They know what to show you. They know how we work. They know how to turn people into aliens. Kids into monsters.
After that was marksmanship. We lined up for bayoneting practice, skewering dummies made of real flesh and skin grown in a lab.
The DI yelled, “Hit that slab like you mean it! This is the enemy! Give me your fighting face, you scuttling little roaches. This is the enemy that blew up the goddamn moon! They Blinked two million of our own! Gore them! Gore them!”
All our targets looked like people. All our targets were meant to be Martians.
People ask what aliens are like. I can’t say I’d seen an alien outside of a corp news bulletin back then. The images they gave to us were of lanky, sneering men and women bundled in colorful clothes and carrying outlandish, oversized firearms painted with the number of their kills. They were just people. Like us.
This is who you kill. This is how you kill. You kill without thinking. You kill. You kill. You kill.
I remember the first time the DI praised me. Remember it starkly, even now. Me and Muñoz at the firing range, me at the sniper rifle, her stretched out just behind me, acting as spotter. Using her direction, I adjusted for wind, corrected the angle.
The target staring back at me through my scope was a lean, wrinkled woman. She wore dark glasses and a red headband. The flesh wasn’t real in this extended range exercise, but she looked as real as they could make her. She even moved; the hands coming up and down, the eyelids fluttering.
I took the shot.
The shot hit her just above the left eye. I pulled away from the scope, and there was the DI above us, checking my shot with his heads-up.
“That’s a good shot, Dietz,” he said. “Muñoz.”
I huffed in a breath. I felt such a profound sense of relief that it’s almost embarrassing to talk about now. I wanted to please him, no matter how much I hated him. And the only way to please him was to kill without hesitation.
This is how they break you.