Delivering the relentless, brutal action fans of Kameron Hurley have come to expect, The Light Brigade is also a mystery, an exploration of the nature of time, and a full-throated battle cry to take back the world from corruption before it’s too late. A virtuosic structure—the protagonist experiences events, including space battles, out of order—culminates in a breathtaking conclusion.
I talked to Kameron about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into mapping out a complex time travel narrative, developing character relationships in an out-of-sequence structure, and more.
It seems to me that a book as big and complex as The Light Brigade would take time to take shape. How would you describe the process?
The first forty thousand words or so went relatively easily, as I’ve spent nearly twenty years studying the history of wars, resistance, and revolution. I knew the characters and the voice fairly well going into it. But once I hit the time travel stuff, I needed math. And a real structure! My agent, Hannah Bowman, came to the rescue as always, and connected me with Dr. Joshua Bowman, a mathematician who created all of the complicated diagrams that I needed to run characters through to ensure the time travel was internally consistent within the novel (I’m told this diagram was “a directed Hamiltonian path through a bipartite graph”).
There were several plot points I had to scrap or rewrite completely because they just didn’t map. That was a fun exercise for me, because I’m very much used to just making shit up. We went beat by beat through every time jump in the story, chronologically as the war happened and then again with how Dietz experiences it. It’s a mind fuck of a novel, really, and that’s because it turns out time is a mind fuck, too.
There are also concepts and thinking around how time is perceived and how we shape reality that made their way into the novel. Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time was really influential, as was his book Reality is Not What is Seems.
This book feels timely. It made me think about literature and responsibility—that in historic times, an author might feel a responsibility to address the times. And few mediums are more effective at doing so than science fiction.
Every piece of art is representative of its time. We can’t divorce ourselves from the reality of the world we are living in. Certainly I channeled a lot of frustration, anger, and hope into this novel. Interestingly, though, it’s also very much a timeless novel (ha!). The cycle of war and propaganda continues on and on, decade after decade. It’s eerie how the justifications for wars remain the same.
There is a quote from Hermann Goering that I paraphrase in The Light Brigade, about how people can always be convinced to do the bidding of the rulers. “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
We can be manipulated using the same tactics decade after decade, century after century. Equipping a population you want to exploit with the critical faculties to understand when they are being manipulated is antithetical to the desires of capitalism, oligarchy, and tyranny.
But just saying that, and showing that, isn’t very heartening. It begs the question: when and how do we stop the cycle? And that’s key, for me. I spent a lot of time writing very grim dystopias where protagonists worked to maintain the status quo because what was on the horizon was worse. This novel was certainly a breaking point for me. I’m no longer asking, “How do we work within the system to effect change?” Instead, I’m like, “Burn it all down.”
The Light Brigade combines its original concept with an homage to Golden Age science fiction. I felt as if this book was in dialogue with military science fiction of the past.
Oh, certainly. I’ve always loved military science fiction, both written and film. Books like Armored and The Forever War had a big impact on me, as did films like Starship Troopers, Soldier, Aliens, and Predator. I also have a love of low budget military science fiction films, and I’ve been watching those since I was too young to even understand what was happening. Effective low budget films rely far more on great writing, great stories, than effects or even actors. If you have a compelling story to tell, the rest is just – literally – set dressing.
There are a good many references and homages to books, films, and other writers in this book. It sort of happened naturally; and I figured if I was going to put references and homages into any book, this was definitely the one to do it.
At its heart, it seems like a story of what it means to be a hero when the destructive forces are so big, and individuals are nothing in comparison—literally cannon fodder. But of course they aren’t nothing, or nothing would be worth fighting for. Can you talk about how you explored the concept of the individual hero in this book?
We all know how different our lives would be if we made just one small choice differently. But when we talk about big historical events, we often say that a small choice, a little resistance, won’t change anything. The reality is that the only thing that’s every change the world (for good or ill) is a small, passionate group dedicated to making change. Governments like to tell us that we don’t have power, but individuals are crucial to starting movements, and movements do have power. Power comes from people. All of a government’s power also comes from people. That’s why they’re so terrified of us.
Dietz is a soldier much like those I’ve grown up knowing. After high school, a group of folks I was friends with all ran off to join the Marines. Some embraced the rhetoric of war and the corps wholeheartedly. Others rejected it and protected themselves from it as much as possible. Still others went on journeys a little more like Dietz’s: they believed they were fighting on the side of good, of rightness; they swallowed the rhetoric until they realized they were in service not to some higher purpose or noble cause, but were instead foot soldiers for an empire.
We are, each of us and collectively, driven by our choices. Choosing to follow orders. Choosing to disregard them. Choosing to shoot. Choosing not to. These are extraordinary decisions, especially when the stakes are literally life and death.
Your epic fantasy series the Worldbreaker Saga also deals with multiple realities, albeit in a different way. Is there something about the concept of multiple realities that draws you to keep exploring it from different angles? (And in different genres!)
Isn’t the joke that every science fiction or fantasy show has the “alternate timeline” episode? As noted, many of us are interested in the idea of how our lives would have been different if just one small thing changed. This is because so many of the big decisions and moments in our lives can be attributed to random chance. We all want to believe there is a bigger narrative, and in fact our brains are wired to try and create narrative out of random noise, but when you step back – there’s far more luck and chance than we’re comfortable acknowledging.
I’m fascinated with how our brains create stories from the noise. How we develop internal narratives that literally form our consciousness. When you attack someone’s story of themselves, you’re attacking the way they have built reality. Start to question one, and it all comes tumbling down. Build a different story, build a different reality.
One thing I marveled at in particular is how you developed relationships between Dietz and the other characters, despite Dietz experiencing events out of order. How did you approach the challenge?
Working out how people would respond to Dietz throughout the book was one of the bigger challenges. Establishing that they were constantly monitored and didn’t get time to talk about taboo subjects helped. One of the things you hear from soldiers who serve multiple tours is that they aren’t necessarily there because they believe in the cause, or are super passionate about it. They return because they want to fight with and protect the people they are fighting next to. Dietz needed that comradery, especially as Dietz becomes disillusioned with the war effort. Why keep going? Well, you know, Star Wars had it right: To protect what you love, not to destroy what you hate.
I worked with a complicated spreadsheet that kept track of events and how they happened in both chronological order and in the order Dietz experiences them so that I could ensure their conversations reflected “time” as each person experienced it. Also, it required a lot of editing and multiple passes. I think we had this copyedited four or five times, my agent went over it at least a dozen times, my editor at least three times, and I read it from start to finish four or five times. It’s a complicated book.
What’s next for you?
I have a short story collection, Meet Me in the Future, out in July. I’m also finishing up the final book of my Worldbreaker Saga, The Broken Heavens, which should be out at the end of this year. Yes, it’s a busy book year for me! After that, I will be writing and pitching some new projects, as I’ll be out of contract. Lots of exciting new work ahead, I expect, including a genderbent Die Hard in space novel and a Weird 80’s murder mystery.