2020 Hugo Awards Reviews: Novels – Part 1

Featured Image for 2019 Hugo Award

Welcome to another instalment of the WWAC series that takes a close look at the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards. Previous posts have examined the contenders for Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella; now, we reach the final stretch. Here are two of the six finalists for Best Novel: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine…

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Cover of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

After an entire city is wiped from existence, the corporations in control of Earth blame the atrocity on the people of Mars. Filled with a desire to avenge the attack, a young woman named Dietz signs up for a unit of soldiers able to travel at the speed of light — by having their entire bodies transformed into light.

This process is still experimental and has its share of drawbacks: when the soldiers are reassembled, they are not always the same shape that they started out as. Dietz is amongst those affected, but instead of physical side-effects, she notices something happening to her memories. She finds herself being ordered to follow a brief that is not the one she remembers being shown at the start of her mission, and is told about missions that she has no memory of taking part in, or else remembers differently. She also begins experiencing hallucinations.

As these phenomena continue, Dietz realises that being transformed into light has affected her place in time. She is witnessing the past, present and future of the conflict simultaneously – and despite all of the ensuing confusion, she ends up with a clearer picture of how Earth has misled its people about the nature of its conflict with Mars.

Say what you will about Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the novel has certainly sparked decades’ worth of conversation. Sundry authors from Joe Haldeman to Yoshiyuki Tomino have borrowed Heinlein’s core premise – a wide-eyed space cadet being flung into the brutalities of war – and used it to tell stories fitting their own times and societies, often countering Heinlein’s militaristic saga as much as paying homage to it. With The Light Brigade, expanded from the 2015 short story of the same name, Kameron Hurley delivers still another variation on this oft-told narrative – once again tailored to suit our own times.

The Light Brigade takes is to a future in which the nation-states of Earth have been replaced by six corporations, with a seventh having recently been destroyed in a corporate war. Those who get on the wrong side of the ruling corps run the risk of being attacked by Kevlar-clad, Taser-wielding Business Loss Management squads, or of having their citizenship denied – leading to them being dismissed as parasitic “ghouls” by full citizens, a fate that befell Dietz’s family. Martian settlers, meanwhile, are given a status below even that of the ghouls: they are termed aliens, and treated with utmost suspicion. This new world looks with scorn upon the old, which it sees as a decadent age rotting from within thanks to freedom of speech and compassion for the unfortunate.

This is a novel that walks a narrow precipice and frequently threatens to stumble into some pitfall or another. Its binary between a totalitarian capitalist Earth and a benevolent but maligned socialist Mars is clearly simplistic, and the central character arc is based on a realisation that Earth is a dystopia – something that the reader knows from the outset.

But The Light Brigade is exactly the sort of novel that can benefit from a straightforward core conflict, as the surrounding narrative is so deliberately disorienting. As seen through Dietz’ eyes, the story is a discordant swirl of past and future, of false and true memories, of reality and hallucination. Even Dietz’ training sessions – traditionally an aspect of military SF storytelling in which the basics of worldbuilding are laid out – plays with perceptions of what is and is not real.

In one scene, Diez takes part in target practice, her target designed to closely resemble a living, breathing person: “The target staring back at me through my scope was a lean, wrinkled woman. She wore dark glasses and a red headband… She even moved; the hands coming up and down, the eyelids fluttering.” The targets used in close-range training are even more realistic, being made from laboratory-grown flesh. Meanwhile, the virtual reality training modules are so convincing that Dietz concludes that she and her fellow cadets should have been given psychiatric help afterwards.

The novel directly invokes a classic work in the field of reality-blurring: Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which convinced members of the public that Martians are invading. When Dietz learns about this incident, it is a step towards her eventual realisation that not everything she has heard about the Martian menace in her own time can be believed.

This is one of several references to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that dot the novel’s thematic landscape. These tend to be fairly obvious – we hear the classic Bushian phrase “they hate our freedoms” in relation to the Martians – but once again, The Light Brigade is the sort of novel where a degree of obviousness is justified in the face of so much warping of reality. The story is also able to use its reference points on multiple levels. For example, the parallels to Nazi Germany – as when the characters discuss a “final solution to the Martian problem on Earth” – are hard to miss. But in a more subtle engagement with this theme, we also see how the dystopian society differentiates itself from the Third Reich in an effort at self-justification: according to Dietz’ corporate leaders, the main problem with the Nazis was that they abused drugs.

Given how confusion and uncertainty are incorporated into its very narrative style, The Light Brigade is able to shift tones dramatically. This enables what may be the novel’s biggest feat: the way in which it explores the horrors of warfare in detail, yet also contains a strain of rosy optimism. It is this element of positivity that steadily grows before becoming prominent towards the end, and which will remain in the author’s mind long after the mayhem and bloodshed are over. The Light Brigade is, ultimately, a fresh and fertile specimen in a well-trodden field.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Cover of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

The city-planet capital of the Teixcalaani empire has an enigma on its hands. Yskandr Aghavn, an ambassador from the remote Lsel Station, has disappeared under uncertain circumstances and is described as being “dead, compromised, or simply fallen prey to some internal imperial shakeup”. His replacement Dzmare Mahit travels from Lsel to Teixcalaan to help investigate his fate – and she is not alone. Sharing her head is the mind of the former ambassador Yskandr Aghavn, whose personality is stored in an imago implant: a technology known to the people of Lsel but kept a secret from outsiders.

Mahit is faced with a number of tasks. As well as helping to investigate the possible murder of Yskandr, she must try to ensure that the imago technology is kept hidden – a tricky thing when an autopsy on Yskandr’s body reveals his brain to have contained a metal implant. All the while she is faced with adapting to the ways of the Teixcalaani, who view her as a barbarian interloper.

Her main companion in her mission is Yskandr; although out of date – the copy of Yskandr’s personality was made fifteen years before his death – the implanted mind of Mahit’s predecessor is ready and present to help her to adjust. That is, until Yskandr mysteriously vanishes from the implant. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack suggests that whoever killed Yskandr now has their sights on Mahit.

All of this intrigue unfolds against a backdrop of imperial machinations: Different segments of Teixcalaani government – amongst them the ministries for Heritage, Science, War and Information – have their own agendas, their own allegiances and their own rivalries. And with a successor to the current emperor soon to be decided, each faction will want the ear of the next ruler.

Drawing upon her background as a historian, Martine uses the Byzantine Empire as the template for her empire of the far future, although she also incorporates other cultural influences. Rather than the Christianity of Byzantium, Teixcalaan adheres to a religion that once practiced human sacrifices, remnants of which can still be seen in its rites. Teixcalaani culture shows a number of Mesoamerican influences, hinting perhaps that its origins lie in an alternate history of Earth.

The people of Lsel, meanwhile, consume the ashes of their dead as part of a funerary rite – a practice that strikes the Teixcalaani as barbaric, despite the sacrificial aspects of their own religion. Such ironies of cultural contact run through the novel: Lsel’s advancement in neurosurgery beyond that which the empire has to offer is seen by the Teixcalaani as yet more evidence of Lsel’s barbarism, clashing as it does with Teixcalaani religion’s stance on the soul and body.

Not all of the cultural differences in the novel are religious in nature. Women of Lsel use artificial uteri to develop children, their culture seeing natural childbirth as “a luxury of resources the station didn’t have – women died doing that, or destroyed their metabolisms or their pelvic floors, and women were people who could be doing work.” Teixcalaan, meanwhile, is affluent enough to afford the luxury of childbirth, an idea intriguing to Mahit: “To have that much to easily spend felt both offensive and compelling.”

The novel paints a convincing picture of one culture imposing its norms upon others. The empire forces children to adopt Teixcalaani names, which – like the names of certain Mayan mythological figures – take the form of numbers followed by nouns: Three Seagrass, Eleven Lathe and so on. Some choose to subvert this by choosing deliberately absurd names like Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle.

Details such as this do much to establish depth for the invented culture of the novel, clearly one of Martine’s main concerns in telling her story. The Teixcalaani empire is shown to have an entire body of literature about its history, with chapters opening with excerpts from fictitious documents, books and even film scripts. Mahit initially understands Teixcalaan through its fiction – and, by extension, knows something of its self-image and self-justifications:

She knew a thousand stories, poems, novels – bad film adaptations of poems – all of which told the stories of people who had tried to usurp the sun-spear throne of Teixcalaan, and mostly failed – or succeeded, and been acclaimed emperor, and by virtue of their success declared the previous emperor a tyrant, unfavored by the sun and the stars, unworthy to hold the throne, and justly replaced by a new version of himself.

During the course of the story Mahit must shake off some of the assumptions that Teixcalaani fiction has fed her. But her grounding in the empire’s stories proves to have its uses: her familiarity with Teixcalaani fiction and the values celebrated therein gives Mahit an insight into the political intrigue that surrounds her. The upper strata of the empire’s society thrives on references and allusion to fictionalised history, and so Mahit is able to use storytelling as a major reference point when piecing together the facts of the case she is investigating. As well as providing material for the mystery narrative, this piece of worldbuilding allows the novel to explore the role of fiction in propaganda and of narrative in cultural self-image.

More than just background detail, these cultural concerns flow through the central characters. Mahit must navigate a maze of etiquette, adjusting even the smallest mannerism to fit her new surroundings (“Mahit tried not to spoil the effect by smiling like a foreigner, wide and genuinely amused”). The early scene of the bomb attack offers a particularly vivid portrayal of an outsider’s experience: Mahit struggles to find the right words for the situation in the Teixcalaani language, and becomes scared that, as a foreigner, people will immediately suspect her of committing the attack.

Perhaps due to its origins in Martine’s studies of ancient history, the novel ends up focusing more upon matters of religion, social structure and courtly intrigue more than the futuristic technology at its disposal. However, the story’s science fictional concepts are occasionally allowed to take centre stage. Martine’s handling of the imago concept is typical: a reader might expect that the provocative idea of a deceased individual’s personality being stored in a living person’s head via an implant to be the central idea of the novel. Yet, the plot does not get underway until Yskandr’s mind vanishes from Mahit’s implant – meaning that, for much of the novel, the imago concept is characterised by its absence rather than its usage.

However, the imago still comes to play a major role in the narrative. Imogen technology turns out to be directly connected to both Yskandr’s fate and the surrounding political intrigue of the empire. Then, towards its end, the novel finally embraces the potential of the memory-storing concept, with Mahit’s imago implant being used to send her – and the reader – on a giddily disorienting journey through time as multiple levels of the intricate mystery unfold before us simultaneously.

A Memory Called Empire takes place in an elaborate fictional setting, full of different parts that grind and clash against one another. Likewise, its storytelling aesthetic is a framework of aspects from distinct genres – the vast scope of a space opera, the intrigue of a political thriller, and cyberpunk’s intersection between psychology and gadgetry – all coming together to create a marvellous work of science fiction.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.