God's War by Kameron Hurley
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
01 August 2011
Anyone with an interest in the online critical discussion surrounding science fiction (and this is a quite separate hobby to reading and actually enjoying the texts in question) will not have failed to notice the current, justified, anxiety about women writers in the genre. Why, in the UK particularly, are there so few women with ongoing professional publishing contracts? What barriers to their equal success in the field exist, and what might be done about that? From Nicola Griffiths's Russ Pledge to Ian Sales's SF Mistressworks project, there has been an attempt to reassess and reorient the genre's approach to gender. For every Lauren Beukes, whose timely win of the Arthur C. Clarke award was welcomed even by those who might secretly or not-so-secretly have championed another book, there is a Steph Swainston, who finds the pressures of writing within SF&F too much.
Kameron Hurley's God's War arrives into this melee like a live grenade, lobbed with abandon and not a little mischief. It is a book in which the lead character sells her womb in the very first line, before proceeding to shoot, swear, and shag with little attention to or respect for what might be imagined as the traditional shape of the action adventure heroine. Hurley’s protagonist, Nyx, is a bounty hunter first sanctioned by the state and then forced to hand in her badge in the time-honored fashion of the maverick. Her sexual conquests—they are never amorous encounters—encompass both sexes and (one presumes) every conceivable position; her aim is true and her insides gutsy. She has, in a word I am sure Hurley wills us to employ, balls.
Not only that, but the world of God's War, as much as our guide through it, hits us between the eyes. In an indeterminately far-flung future, a vaguely large number of planets have been colonized by a series of human civilizations. Those we encounter in this novel, and as its title may suggest, are all in some way religiously motivated: Nyx’s own world, Umayma, is home to a handful of nations proceeding out of an Islamic tradition; elsewhere we glimpse hints of other peoples of the Book—particularly Christian. Hurley steers a coy course here, careful not to identify the scriptures of the planet as the Qur'an, or to namecheck Muhammad (though both mosques and muezzins are present). Quite aside from its wisdom of restraint, this tact also opens up interesting questions about how religions and cultures might develop at a distance from their origins. Outside Frank Herbert's Dune novels (which are a clear influence here), this sort of future is under-represented in science fiction of this kind; Hurley’s quite certain grasp of her chosen milieu adds real warp and weft to her environments. More to the point, this sort of future provides a richly equivocal backdrop on which to project issues of gender: the harem and the sultana, the niqab and the nikah, are all present and correct.
Hurley does not stand still with her worldbuilding, however: not content with a purely Islamicised future, she adds organic technology and genetic diversification. Already termed "bugpunk," the driving science of God's War is an insect-based system which seems to use pheromones and other stimulants to control a variety of creatures large and small responsible for powering and effecting a series of high- and low-tech devices: from Star Trek-style medicine (Nyx's loss of her womb does not need to be permanent) to rather ramshackle vehicles resembling our own motor cars. This world's electricians are individuals with a Force-like ability to master the invisible signals and smells which command the bugs, and they are known as magicians. Their own otherness from what we might recognize as human is trumped only by the "shifters," individuals with the power to—rather messily—metamorphose into one kind of animal or another.
It is this last, and most mysterious, of Hurley's creations which is most closely related to the McGuffin which drives the novel's plot. But the reader comes only slowly to realize this, since one of the oddest aspects of this otherwise explosive novel is how paradoxically slowly its story moves. In part, this is a function of the great weight of backstory Umayma possesses: it is the theater for a centuries-long holy war, the cause of which no one can remember (or cares to recall), but which has come to define the cultures of the planet, particularly those of arch-rivals Nasheen and Chenja. These two power blocs, around which some more minor powers revolve, have distinctly separate cultures (one thinks of the separation between Islam in the Arabian peninsula and in the Maghreb, perhaps) but both approach their war with the same total purpose: enlistment is de rigueur, and politics and economics are shaped around the conflict; in Nasheen, men depart for the front in their teens and are allowed to return only if they remain alive at the age of forty. The number who make it are few.
This, then, leaves open the space for women to wield political power whilst males fight and die. As that characterization might imply, one of the several intriguing aspects of Hurley's gynecocracy is its imperfection, its frank and graphic corruption. God's War is no argument for the greater qualifications of the feminine to rule: Nasheen's queen is as calculating and perfidious as any man, her legion of bel dames, government assassins who track down deserting males bringing home toxins from the front, as corrupt as the worst all-male mafia. "Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs," we are told at one point (p. 19).
This approach is fitting. In an interview earlier this year at suvudu.com, Hurley revealed that Michael Moorcock's Wizadry and Wild Romance (1987) inspired her to answer the author’s question about the absence in the field of a female Conan: "Why aren't our "bad ass heroines" actually scary?" she asked. "I wanted Nyx to have that same bloody mindedness that the best of our epic male bad asses have, without losing her complexity or her humanity." It's not just Nyx she uses to do this: in particular, the bel dame Rasheeda is a hideous, perverted character with a taste for torture and gore. "The cunt is not the heart," Nyx snarls, "though a lot of people get the two confused" (p. 260).
Indeed, all the book's empathy and even conscience is placed in the character of a man: Rhys, a self-selected volunteer from Nasheen's great rival, is a second-rate magician whose pacificism led him to flee his patriotic father only to find a very cold welcome in the prejudiced Nasheenian cities. Caught between the criminal underworld inhabited by the increasingly amoral Nyx, and shadowy benefactors amongst the circles of high-powered magicians, he has a natural but under-powered talent for controlling bugs. He brings male Chenjan mores with him to Nasheen—"Women, real women," he was taught as a child, "were not stirred to sin at the sight of men" (p. 21)—but Hurley makes his story one of broadening, though not flattening, horizons: Rhys learns to respect Nyx (indeed, what little romance exists in the novel, and it is unfortunately rather tritely handled, exists between Rhys and Nyx) whilst also rejecting her violent nihilism. This is, of course, a conspicuously deliberate inversion of the usual gender relations in a thriller of this sort.
So God's War has a lot to get through before it can truly begin—a holy war, complex geopolitical arrangements, cultural and religious tensions, and two main characters with quite separate backgrounds. This makes it a little lumpy in structure at times: we begin in media res with Nyx as a bel dame, trailing a boxer (a woman, of course) in order to gain access to her deserting brother, and with Rhys, fleeing across the border and finding himself in the not-so-tender care of a group of mysterious magicians. Before we're entirely comfortable, those strands are cut short when a team with whom Nyx clearly has a past track her down and imprison her for "gene piracy," whilst Rhys undergoes some considerable months of travel and degradation in a single, short chapter. Before the reader is entirely rebalanced, Nyx is a criminal bounty hunter with a plucky team of ne'er-do-wells—including Rhys and a member of the team which attacked her a couple of pages ago. This new group's adventures then stumble through character exposition and a bit more backstory towards a plot noir-like in the complexity of its moral bankruptcy. Hurley's is not always an elegant novel, and these jerks leave the reader almost nostalgic for the similar movements—far less rich, but decidedly smoother—of, for example, Chris Wooding's Retribution Falls (2009).
That's precisely the sort of book, of course, which Hurley seeks, with some justification, to put out of joint. It might be argued that the angular structure helps keep the reader confused, or keen to catch up; certainly once the novel finally reaches its own plot—involving an off-world geneticist, the uniqueness of shifters, and a plot at last to end the war—it requires a little effort to keep track of the variety of gun-toting women on the bel dame council, or indeed of Nyx's team, who only truly come into their own in the final third of the book. In particular, Nyx's shifter Khos—on one hand as without allegiance as Nyx herself, on the other retaining a forlorn hope for something better—proves pivotal. That he has been so flat beforehand lessens the impact of those pages only slightly; likewise, the slightly depicted pregnant sister of another of Nyx's sidekicks is nevertheless used to fashion a female voice opposed to her excesses and those of her kind, accusing Nyx of being "an ungodly, sex-crazed woman" (p. 220). This countervailing voice, however, is depicted as blinkered and extremist: "If you were truly following God's desire," she adds, "you would repress your own desires and marry. Marry a man." God's War offers no correcting perspective, only a series of competing, and varyingly flawed, iterations. No character fully escapes the shadow of the religious mania of Umayma; but each interpret it, or disregard it, differently.
These questions of "rightness" are central to the book. When shifters shape-change, Rhys must look away: he can "feel the wrongness in the air, the bending of matter in ways it should not bend" (p. 146). Male homosexuality, meanwhile, "was illegal in Ras Tieg, Chenja, and Nasheen, for no good reason except that it scared the shit out of people" (p. 198). The war itself, so demonstrably destructive in a landscape pitted with dead townships and polluted woodland, is a focus for warring concepts of truth. But any attempt to monopolize truth is seen as false, and in a telling line Nyx reflects that, "Theology looked a lot better the more questions you started to pile up. Saying it was all just God's plan gave you neat answers for everything" (p. 96). There's a question to be asked of a novel which relies so heavily on the trappings of religion whilst at the same time dismissing it in this way, but by the same token the sincerity and intensity of the beliefs of its characters have such an effect on their actions and motivations—"You must have had a powerful belief once," Rhys challenges Nyx about her involvement in the war, "to take you out there" (p. 79)—and are depicted with such rigor and sympathy that questions of faith seem sufficiently addressed. God's war is far broader than Umayma's.
This sort of review is in danger of suggesting that God's War is a thoughtful examination of the powerful drives and desires which carry a person through life's tribulations, and if so I won't disabuse you of the notion. But primarily this is a novel with explosions and bullets: in another interview, Hurley reveals that its first draft "was mostly dialogue and fight scenes"; despite the revisions which added detail and ballast (and given that odd structure, possibly at times did so with too much vigor), occasionally the reader can perceive this origin. God's War is a book in which boxing, battles, and beatings feature very heavily, and it spares few blushes in that regard: one character is found dead and blinded in a bath swimming with blood; another loses fingers during a torture session; yet another ends as a trophy head in a box. At times the book lurches from unpleasant scene to unpleasant scene, painting a world so gruesomely unrelenting that one wonders how any of the characters, whatever faith they may have, can find it in themselves to carry on.
Yet how many novels with a predominantly female cast can a reviewer say that about? If its story is rather less interesting than its ideas, God's War at least has very good ones. Here is a novel simultaneously feminine and empowered—Nyx doesn’t "bend her knee to God," let alone anyone else (p. 278)—which unlike many a lesser attempt to achieve the same effect strikes imbalances in an odd kind of equipoise. Will any other novel this year address issues of faith and gender quite so squarely, quite so entertainingly, and with such heft? The promised sequels may even iron out the first installment's creases, caused almost entirely by the weight of background lain upon the structure and the story. Most pertinently, Hurley indeed creates in her lead character a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that's wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan's ass. In her own words, "Women can fight as well as fuck, you know" (p. 64). Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx's retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel's grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered.