Thursday, July 31, 2014

A woman's world, but faute de mieux: God's War by Kameron Hurley

God's War is one of those debut novels with enough novelty that it can't fail to entertain you. The corollary of this, however, is that not all of the new ideas find room to breathe, and that the one serious misstep undercuts what is otherwise a highly promising piece of work.

Taxonomically speaking, God's War is a grimdark twist on that old recurring sub-genre: desert planetary romance

On the distant, isolated desert colony of Umayma, war rages between nations controlled by different spin-offs from the Abrahamic religions. Its inhabitants are cynical, ruthless and prone to betrayal, murder and torture. Our POV character, bounty-hunter Nyx, exemplifies most of these traits, as she and her band track down a lucrative target. She isn't likeable, but she is compelling; it's her forward momentum that drives God's War onwards.

Umayma's technology is mainly biological, based on the adaptation of insects into organic machinery. Cars, radios, recorders, limb replacements, security cameras - all powered by bugs manipulated by pheromone-slinging 'magicians'.This is a great idea, executed in an eye-catching if rather hand-wavy fashion, but has at least one tentative foot in science fact, like the remote control beetles of today's labs.

In God's War Hurley also presents a convincing model of an authoritarian, religious but matriarchal society. With men from Nasheen, one of the warring states, sent to the front to die in early adulthood, women like Nyx have a near-monopoly of other roles - administrators, rulers, merchants, scientists and generals as well as mothers. It's a woman's world, but one faute de mieux, not a utopia.

Throw in on top of all this world-building a dollop of political intrigue, off-world diplomats, fringe sects, shape-shifting and gladiatorial boxing matches - and you can see that the novel has a lot to offer. But it's also no wonder it sometimes strains under all it has to carry, especially as the main plot doesn't kick in until a third of the way in. Consequenty, while I could overlook the occasional overly convenient plot twist, there were enough of them that I noticed. 

Yet my main reservation about God's War is that it has a lot to say about war, but virtually nothing about God. It lacks a convincing portrayal of beliefs with psychological depth and subjective meaning that could account for the centuries-long conflict of the title. This reader (a Unitarian) has no problem with a critique of organised religion as a social control mechanism. But whether intentionally or not Hurley's portrayal of faith in this novel veers towards the one-dimensional, which effects both the critique and the world-building.

In turn, this plays into Adam Roberts' comment - in an otherwise very complimentary review - of the inherent problems of presenting a pseudo-Middle Eastern future lost in religious obscurantism and ultra-violence. This is not to traduce Hurley's own political convictions, merely to point out that even a liberal or a feminist can find themselves inadvertently conjuring orientalist stereotypes when writing the future. Especially when there's so much going on in one book. 

These issues aside, God's War is still a highly enjoyable read, with ideas, momentum, and an exhilarating disdain for genre convention. It comfortably passes the 'will I read the sequel?' test, and along with Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice and China Mieville's Embassytown forms part of a series of books reconciling me to far future SF again.

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