We Are All Made of Light: An interview with Hugo-winner Kameron Hurley

Last week, Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade was released with much fan fare and critical acclaim. Over on Tor.com, I said, “The Light Brigade is a standout novel in Kameron Hurley’s already impressive career. It’ll get your pulse pounding, your blood boiling, and your heart aching. It’ll make you angry, scared, and, at the most unexpected moments, hopeful. The history of Military SF novels is long and storied, but Hurley’s work can stand up with the best of them.”

In the tradition of Heinlein and Haldeman, The Light Brigade is a Military SF novel that explores one soldier’s tumultuous, asynchronous experience through a war between Earth and Mars.

Here’s a little more from my review:

Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is the latest in this line of novels to modernize Heinlein’s classic tale, and like those that have come before, it too is an important, critical look at the role of how war bends and warps modern society. It is also every bit as good as The Forever War and Old Man’s War, and has the potential to become the next great Military SF classic.

Aidan Moher, Tor.com

Among its myriad themes are explorations of war’s toll, anti-capitalism, personal motivation, xenophobia, media manipulation, and vengeance. If it sounds heady, it is. Hurley digs into these themes with a razor-sharp scalpel, connecting each of them inextricably tight to the novel’s plot and characters. To further explore these themes and the story behind the novel, I caught up with Hurley for a chat about The Light Brigade, its influences, time travel, and what the future can tell us about the present.

What can readers expect from The Light Brigade?

The Light Brigade is a military science fiction novel about soldiers who get busted down into light to travel from one interplanetary battlefront to another. It’s also a very personal story about one soldier’s disillusionment with being part of the war machine. One reader described it as “Starship Troopers meets Twelve Monkeys” and that’s a pretty fair summary, though I’d say its themes are more in line with a book like Armored or The Forever War, and the film version of Starship Troopers as opposed to the book. It’s very self-aware of the sandbox it’s playing in.

What is it about the classic Military SF archetype that make it so compelling to readers, decade-after-decade?

How and why people go to war is of perennial interest to human beings. Most of our great sagas are about war, conflict, and battling an enemy – whether that’s beasts or humans or supernatural forces. Human beings are soft, spongy creatures, and we’ve always been easy prey for predators.

There’s a theory put forth in Barbara Ehrenreich’s novel Blood Rites that war stories began to glorify the sacrifice of those who would stay behind a small group of humans to distract a predator – often ending in the person’s death. More often than not, a group’s preference for who was “expendable” would be a young male member of a group. Sure, possibly older folks, but a young person could run faster…

As human society got more complicated, so did conflict. Now you weren’t just sacrificing yourself for one predator, you were often fighting wars of attrition against other groups of people, for politics, power, resources, whatever. As our conflicts became more complicated, so did our stories, and how we framed sacrifice. My grandparents were in France for much of World War II, so I understand that there are absolutely some necessary conflicts worth fighting. But more often than not, we are pushed and pulled by richer and more powerful interests into sacrificing ourselves for their personal good, not the good of the group. This is a very different kind of sacrifice, and one that we sour on as we are thrust into these sorts of conflicts decade after decade.

The Light Brigade started life as a short story published by Lightspeed Magazine. At a suggestion from your agent, you expanded it into a novel. Can you tell me about that process?

We did a two-book deal with Saga Press a few years back. The first book was The Stars are Legion, but the second book was unspecified. My agent really loved the voice in the short story, and the time travel conceit. I had been eager to write a military science fiction novel, as well, considering my academic background and interests in war and resistance. I’ve spent twenty years researching war and combat. It was time.

How did the story change in its transition from short story to novel?

What my agent loved about the story was the voice. Funny enough, one of the things that changed the most was the voice! The version of Dietz that I wrote in the story was much more battle-weary, less hopeful, less starry-eyed at the beginning. What I wanted to do with the book is show more of the process of how Dietz is broken down from a starry-eyed new recruit into the person who ultimately has to make the choices she does at the end. Getting to know the character more is just a natural process of extending a piece of short fiction like this. I also knew that spending the entirety of the novel on the battlefield would both grow wearying and – again – fail to show that process of how recruits are broken down and remade. I wanted to ensure we got a good handle on that part of the book before we jumped into the time travel, whereas the story needed to jump into that aspect right away.

Even moreso than your other novels, The Light Brigade feels very personal, more autobiographical—like I can see the Kameron Hurley I know from Twitter in Dietz’s shoes, carving her own way through a dark situation. What does The Light Brigade mean to you personally?

After the election here in the US and writing three books in one year, I spent a great deal of time trying not to feel anything. I was burned out on writing and holding down a day job and churning out a ton of material that was selling all right, but certainly not enough to support me. I was burned out on politics. Burned out on hope. Burned out on life. I drank too much and just sort of drifted for a while.

I wrote 90,000 words of a novel that I eventually had to throw out because nothing happened in it. The people were moving, talking, but there was no emotion behind it, nothing driving them. By not allowing myself to feel anything, I wasn’t putting anything of myself into my writing. I was just going through the motions. And it showed.

My agent convinced me to put that book aside and start on The Light Brigade instead. There’s a scene where Dietz is running back to base, exhausted and stumbling, and remembers a time when she found an injured bird on the beach and her mother cooked it and ate it. The character came alive for me in that scene, because I put myself back into it. I felt it. That story about the bird is actually one my grandmother shared about my grandfather. During the Depression, he had found an injured pigeon or seagull on the beach, and his family took it home and ate it. I was fascinated and horrified by that story as a kid. It reminded me that though I was in a working class family that eventually became middle class, we weren’t so far removed from the poor immigrant lives that our grandparents and great-grandparents endured in order to get us to this place.

That scene really opened up the novel for me. I understood Dietz in that moment, and started to put a lot more of myself into the emotions she undergoes throughout the war, and in her life before it. I pulled on my own experiences with panic attacks, medical-related PTSD, relationships, and many, many stories from friends and family who had served in both World War II and more recent wars in the Middle East.

Writing is a difficult thing because to do it really well – for me, anyway – requires putting a lot of oneself onto the page. Drawing on emotions can be both invigorating and cathartic, and also terrifying, especially in this day and age when you’ve got instant feedback from readers.

The Light Brigade is a grim, relentless novel. Dietz experiences a lot of loss and personal suffering, but the end is also hopeful. What is hope’s role in the book?

I’ve found that as the world gets darker, I’m more interested in exploring hope. Nihilism is an incredibly comforting disease; it requires nothing from us emotionally, physically, spiritually. You just exist while the world falls apart or doesn’t. Nihilism isn’t even leaping into the void as much as lying down while the void devours you. You risk nothing. You gain nothing.

There’s been a profound shift in how people see empathy, hope and compassion. Having any emotion but disregard these days is seen as weakness; I think a lot of this comes from online gamer culture. If you can incite someone to anger or rage, even, that’s considered a win for you and a loss for them. Caring about anything too much makes you weak, so the thinking goes.

I understand that knee-jerk reaction because that’s what I thought growing up, too. I internalized a lot of toxic masculine ideas about not caring too much about anything. But it turns out that the most badass thing you can do is actually give a shit about something, someone, anything. Because if you give a shit, yeah, you open yourself up to getting hurt. That’s brave! You let yourself feel things. And feeling things is really hard. The world is disappointing, all the time. What keeps us going, what creates a future that comes after us, is always hope. Always has been.

One of The Light Brigade‘s major themes is the accumulation of power and authority by corporations. Do you see the future in The Light Brigade as a likely one for us if we don’t make changes?

The funny thing about so much science fiction is that it’s not a comment on the future as much as it is on the present. The policies of capitalist countries are driven by corporate interests and lobbyists instead of by the public good. This has become transparently obvious around the globe. There are literally dozens of companies now with more power, money and influence than the governments of most countries.

One of your most famous works is your Hugo-winning essay, “We Have Always Fought,” which challenges the erasure of women throughout military history, particularly in combat roles. Dietz’s gender isn’t confirmed until the final pages of The Light Brigade. What does this say about your thoughts on gender in the military and combat?

One of the enduring truths of military training is that it seeks to break you down until you are no longer an individual. You lose your first name; on top of that, you often get a nickname or call sign, further distancing you from the person you used to be. In this future, bodies are bodies; and the bodies of non-citizens like Dietz are useful to corporations only as cannon fodder and exploited labor. So, it just… kept not coming up as I was writing it.

That said, of course I wanted to write about a woman going through the military machine, as that’s what I’ve been studying for twenty years! I always knew who I was writing about, but I know that a lot of readers still default to thinking “male” when they read a first-person military science fiction novel, so I knew that I would make it clear at some point for anyone who assumed that.

I worked very hard to create a military training experience for the soldiers here that wasn’t sexist or racist. If you’ve heard much from those who go through it, the stuff that’s shouted at you and done to you is wildly sexist and often racist. That was probably the biggest liberty I took in the book (besides the time travel!). I deal with that world all day. I don’t want to subject my characters to all that in my writing on top of the other shit I’ve got going for them. A lot of what I try and model in my fiction is a world that’s different. If we can’t imagine a world that’s different from our own, we’re never going to create it.

In the acknowledgements you cite Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time as providing the theory for time travel in the book. Given its importance not only to the book’s themes, but also its plot and structure, what does Rovelli’s book tell us about The Light Brigade?

This is difficult to get into in brief because the ideas he discusses are fairly complex; it’s general relativity but set down in a way that – for me – was much easier to understand. He does an outstanding job of discussing the relative nature of time, how time is a force, how space-time itself is a tangible thing, capable of being warped by the gravity of celestial bodies.

Did you know that if you set a pocket watch on a plane and one on the ground that when the plane lands, the time piece that it was carrying will show that slightly more time has passed? Time passes more quickly at higher elevations. How wild is that? Gravity itself alters how time passes. The higher in elevation you are, the faster you age.

There’s all sorts of fun stuff like that in there. His book, Reality is Not What it Seems is also fantastic for getting you to view the world in new ways. There are a number of theories and such that I can recite back to you, but it turns out I never really practically understood them. Rovelli enabled me to not only fully grasp these ideas, but to use them to extrapolate on how the time travel mechanics might work in The Light Brigade. What might happen, if we move people at the speed of light? How would they experience time? Could they break space-time?

The Light Brigade is a structurally ambitious and complex novel. How’d you get it right?

I had a lot of help! My agent, Hannah Bowman, worked with me on the structure of the novel, and then connected me with Dr. Joshua Bowman, a mathematician who created the complex graph that I ran all of the characters through. I had several different ideas for what I wanted to do with Dietz, and we had to eliminate a big one – having Deitz bring a squad through during a time jump – because it wouldn’t work when we ran it through the graph. My agent is really invaluable when it comes to novel structure and pacing.

That said, there were also an incredible number of little details in this book that needed to work as well. I think it ended up being copyedited like four or five times, and I know there are still a few issues here and there. My agent probably went over it four times, my editor three times, and me three times, plus all the copyedits.

With time travel novels, you have to ensure all the little details are right, because these novels are pretty much guaranteed to have multiple re-reads. The time travel itself can be confusing enough – you absolutely don’t want unintentional errors to make it worse. This was easily the most intensive and detailed writing process I’ve done. Though it was also one of the most enjoyable!

Now that The Light Brigade is out—what’s next?

I’ve just inked a contract on another standalone novel, a science fiction thriller this time. Can’t reveal all the details yet, but looking forward to the announcement!

The Light Brigade is available now from Saga Press and Angry Robot Books.Read my full review of The Light Brigade on Tor.com.