Thursday, March 01, 2012

Godless Warriors

My daughter told me her friend’s wife had written this book and hands me a paperback entitled “God’s War,” by Kameron Hurley. For some reason I didn’t get around to reading until recently. Perhaps the thought of yet another war story turned me off. Perhaps the kinda-sorta Arab setting bothered me. I don’t know.

But I did finally read it, and it kicks ass! Nyxnissa, a reconstituted soldier who hunts down deserters for a living, gets in trouble while doing some side jobs. She is working on putting her life back together after getting out of jail when the queen sends her a Red Letter. Like all opportunities in her life, this one brings with it the threat of death to her and everyone associated with her, but Nyx is not the kind of woman who shrinks back from a challenge.

Hurley has accomplished a couple of notable things with this story

First is the matter of the setting. There are stories that take place in what seems to be somewhere interesting, but as I read along I find myself unable to believe the strangeness the author describes. It’s kind of like having someone describe a place that you know well, and adding, “but everyone has wings and the sidewalks are... green. And it rains soup.” It’s got all the believability of a spook alley or a Star Trek (original series) stage set.

While Hurley’s world has familiar components - desert, people, bugs - they are combined in new and interesting ways. She doesn’t spend a great deal of effort on explaining things. This is a world that just is, and her readers need to be on their toes to keep up. Nyx experiences it with an immediacy that is contagious. My yardstick for this kind of thing is: did it make me miss my stop while reading on the train? It did, more than once.

The other thing is religion. The story takes place during a religious war, and the religion is very much modeled after Islam, complete with religiously pursued sexism (not just misogynism) and five or six times a day prayer calls. It would have been easy to write a caricature of Islam, but Hurley manages to treat (her story's version of) Islam and religion in general with respect. Bad things happen, sure, but they happen because of people, not because of religion. Her story includes devout men and women, like Rhys the magician who confronts his devotion to his faith in light of his unwillingness to fight and die for it.

This story is groundbreaking enough that it seems some people have coined the term "bugpunk" to describe its gritty, crawly, slimy mix of biotech that makes things go. Some reviewers say that bugpunk is a subgenre of cyberpunk, but I think nothing could be further from the truth. Cyberpunk is a fantasy making a partial capitulation to the blandishments of technology, without conceding the human rationality that must go with that. Hurley if anything goes the other direction. Technology, take it or leave it, but human rationality remains standing.

Nominated for the Nebula. Give it a read!