The Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron HurleyJanuary 25, 2013 at 1:51 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
Tags: Kameron Hurley
There is no better introduction to the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy than the beginning of the first novel, God’s War.
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
— God’s War
From now on, I expect that first sentence will be mentioned whenever people talk about great science fiction opening lines. But while as a sentence it’s less shocking than the one that opens Steel Beach and with its proper nouns harder to remember than that of Neuromancer, I think it’s actually better than either of them. It’s not a stunt line, or rather not just a stunt line. It shocks and it strikes a grim opening note, but it also has real symbolic significance. Just this first sentence tells us something about Nyx’s relationship to motherhood, and by extension the traditional roles of women.
The two lines that follow continue to relate events in a way that tells us more about Nyx, though there’s a clever bait-and-switch. From these lines we conclude that Nyx is desperate and reckless, but in fact she has lost that money on purpose. Nyx is a bounty hunter, and we soon see that showing up drunk at the fight and losing that money was a ploy to seduce Jaks, and that seducing Jaks was, in turn, a ploy to help locate Nyx’s real target. So far, this sort of reversal is a common technique for beginning a novel. I call it clever because Nyx really is reckless and typically more than a little desperate. Getting drunk and blowing her money gambling on a boxing match is very much in character for her, even if in this particular instance she has an ulterior motive. Although the novel doesn’t ever make this explicit, it’s reasonable to conclude that she could have secretly followed Jaks or found some other way to ingratiate herself, but she chose this method because it’s what she wanted to be doing anyway.
When the book was on the last steps of its very long road to publication, Kameron Hurley’s concise summary of what made God’s War distinctive was: “Bugs. Blood. Brutal Women.” Again, it’s hard to outdo Hurley here, but each of those three elements deserves to be unpacked from soundbyte-level brevity and examined.
“Bugs” is a reference to the setting. The planet Umayma was colonized by humans many centuries before the trilogy (“Umayma” means “Little mother” in Arabic), but before anyone could live there it had to be terraformed. This was done not with machines but with genetically engineered insects. Unfortunately, some combination of a war amongst the human colonists and the inevitable fact that things don’t go according to plan meant that although parts of Umayma became habitable, it never became a garden world. Worse, humans have lost the scientific knowledge that allowed them to cross the stars and create climate-altering insects. Worst of all, the insects themselves are still around and almost completely out of control. The fact that the small minority of humans who remain able to exert some measure of control over nearby insects are called magicians is enough to indicate that Umayma has fallen, but its fall (to borrow Gibson’s famous line) is unevenly distributed. On one hand, they retain capabilities our society can only dream of, such as regrowing lost limbs, but in other areas they have dropped to our level and even below. Complicating matters is the fact that, since colonization, a tiny minority of people have developed the ability to shapeshift into animals. Some limits are placed on this, but the process has only a distant relationship to the conservation of energy. That alone is probably enough to disqualify the trilogy for the not-really-all-that-coveted label of “hard SF”, but despite the depth of speculative thought given to the world, as a matter of orientation the Bel Dame Apocrypha isn’t hard SF anyway. That is to say, although the setting is fascinating and plenty of thought has gone into it, in the end it always remains a complement to the characters and story, not an end in and of itself. I know that’s coming perilously close to saying these books are too good to be considered hard SF, but hopefully you understand what I mean.
As an example, let’s speculate as to why the author chose insects as the almost exclusive manifestation of the world’s biotechnology. Is there some speculative reason we can derive on graph paper for why insects are a better choice for manipulating the climate than bacteria or, say, marsupials? Maybe, but it seems much more likely insects were chosen for the estranging effect they have on most readers. In the antiseptic environment of the modern first world, insects are seen as inherently dirty. If a visitor to your home sees several cockroaches crawling around your floor, they won’t be comforted if you assure them you’ve thoroughly cleaned the cockroaches. A world whose high technology is embodied by insects is one that strikes most of us as irredeemably unpleasant. As literary effects go, it feels just a little cheap because it’s something that only takes place in the reader’s mind (Nyx and her contemporaries don’t have a visceral dislike for bugs). But that doesn’t mean it’s not enormously effective.
So given the use of bugs only makes the world seem unpleasant to us, we must ask: is it actually an unpleasant place to live? The answer to that question (“yes”) brings us to the second part of Hurley’s summary: blood. You might assume that means a lot of people get killed in the course of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, and you’d be right. As a bounty hunter, Nyx is sometimes tasked to bring her targets back alive, but more often she is told to just bring their heads for identification. Moreover, she operates on the Wild West fringes of her society, near borders and among criminals, places where laws are only occasionally enforced and order is kept only through the frequent application of deadly violence. And unlike some tough-protagonist books, she’s not even close to the only one spilling blood. Nyx’s enemies are even more willing to kill people who get in their way than she is, and that’s saying quite a bit. This isn’t one of those trilogies where everyone lives through to the end. Characters die. Most characters, in fact, die. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this is the sort of trilogy where the more sympathetic a character is, the more likely they are to die. Nice folks finish last, if not everywhere than certainly in the sorts of places where Nyx operates.
But the huge body count surrounding Nyx’s misadventures is only the tip of the iceberg. As God’s War opens, Nyx’s homeland of Nasheen has been at war with neighboring Chenja for centuries. Whereas the horrible wars of our twentieth century drenched the world in blood but burned themselves out after a few years, a combination of culture and technology has allowed the war between Nasheen and Chenja to sit in a nightmarish steady state. Nearly the entire male population on both sides is drafted into the war and very few return. Yet both countries manage to replenish their populations through a combination of traditional (polygamy) and technological (artificial births, surrogate mothers) measures. Farah Mendlesohn criticized continuous bloodshed on this scale as impossible, and I am sympathetic to this argument. In our world such a conflict would indeed be impossible and ordinarily I am all for nitpicking novels to death over matters of sociology (despite my own complete lack of qualifications in the field), but in this case both the technology and the social mores were so different from any Earth precedents I was willing to give it a pass. In particular, the demographic and statistical details about how both Nasheen and Chenja produced children were left vague enough that I didn’t have a problem filling in the gaps with details I considered appropriate.
The war is in part responsible for the last, and most remarked upon, piece of Hurley’s equation, brutal women. With virtually no men present in civilian life, every occupation low or high in Nasheen is filled almost exclusively by women. These circumstances have caused a reversal of some of the standard gender stereotypes. Women are considered responsible but also dangerous, prone to drinking and getting into fights. Men are seen as precious and needing protection, almost universally referred to as “boys”, and are viciously ostracized if they are believed to have shirked their social duty to go to the front. I’ve read a number of stories that reverse roles in this way, but this is the first I’ve read where I had the sense that the difference arose naturally from the circumstances and not through authorial fiat. In particular, roles are not simply mirror-reversed. Most importantly, women are still mothers in this society and that still informs their thinking, even if this is complicated by Nasheen’s assembly line approach to childbirth. The bel dames alluded to in the trilogy’s name, for example, are a group that serves a function in Nasheen for which there’s no direct equivalent in our world. Bel dames are government bounty hunters, always women, who are responsible for tracking down deserters, almost always men. They have a license to kill that puts them almost completely above the law, and over the years they’ve developed into an organization whose aims no longer always align with those of the Queen they theoretically serve. Nyx was once a bel dame, still acts like she’s above the law even though she’s not any longer, and sometimes hopes to become a bel dam again. But there’s a tension in Nyx’s feelings about bel dames, and not just because she’s made so many enemies among them. Nyx’s brothers all died in the war, and Nyx’s most important formative experience was getting blown up almost beyond the reach of her nation’s miraculous medical science while trying to protect “her boys”. For someone with Nyx’s skills and background, being a bel dame seems like the highest station she can achieve in life, yet killing “boys” for the crime of trying to stay alive gives even the confident Nyx more than a little cognitive dissonance.
In this area and in many others, the trilogy presents a dissonance that it doesn’t resolve. Or, alternatively, it presents a dissonance but then leaves the resolution for it up to the reader. Are we to see the bel dames as strong women who don’t let anyone push them around, as monsters created but only barely controlled by their government, as victims of a system that denies poor young women a better life than hunting the system’s other victims in the desert, or some combination of all those? As an intelligent and thoughtful, yet also hands-off, piece of fiction, the Bel Dame Apocrypha can support many different kinds of readings. The choice is up to the reader, but I think it’s an illuminating exercise to consider how well the trilogy stands up to these different perspectives.
The most obvious is the surface reading, the gritty, action-packed adventure story. As an adventure–actually I should say three adventures, because although the books share most of their characters and should definitely be read in order, each tells a self-contained story. As three adventures, then, the books are good but not great, full of tense action and vivid characters who I’m going to barely mention in this review despite its length…but also some weaknesses. God’s War has an peculiarly disjointed narrative, with a strange time jump near the beginning and a plot that has a few too many reverses for its own good. Infidel is the strongest of the three, presenting a more cohesive story and sending its characters in new and interesting directions, but it’s not as effective as it could be because Nyx’s core motive is hidden from the reader until the end, a dangerous tactic that here undermines the reading experience because Nyx’s actions feel arbitrary (even though they’re not). Rapture seen on its own is probably the weakest story, ornamenting its desert travelogue with two new characters that don’t seem to go anywhere (Kage and Ahmed) and coming to a conclusion that doesn’t feel all that conclusive. Yet in terms of developing the trilogy’s setting, ideas, and themes Rapture is essential to the whole. It’s that whole that interests me, which is why I’m reviewing the trilogy together and not as the three separate books the way approaching them as merely adventures would have demanded.
Many would say that the books should be read as a character study of their protagonist, Nyx. I think I got halfway through God’s War before I really started to enjoy it, and that was mainly because it took me that long to really get my head around Nyx as a character. Where typical protagonists are distinguished by their ability to either fight or think their way out of virtually any problem (or both, which almost always makes for a dull story), Nyx surmounts most obstacles through endurance. Don’t get me wrong, she tries to fight her way out of problems, but she’s a bad shot in a world where many people have guns, she has no facility with her world’s Clarke’s law magic, she’s got emotional scars that prevent her from having (or at least keeping) any close friends, despite sometimes scoring big bounties she doesn’t manage her finances well enough to keep any of it, she often walks into traps, frequently gets captured, and the list goes on. This is all very interesting, I said to myself as I read, but how am I supposed to sympathize with a character who has low aspirations she’s barely able to accomplish? But Nyx won me over with her grim determination, her toughness, her desire to free herself from the scars of her past and her inability to actually manage it.
Until I really understood her, though, Rhys was the character who kept me interested. Whereas Nyx is brutal but strong, Rhys (at least in the first book) is good but weak. He takes up with Nyx because she can protect him from the rest of Nasheen, but there’s no one who can protect him from Nyx. Although he’s too meek to hold his own with Nyx in a conversation, he nevertheless represents a way of life she’s lost forever, if she ever had it: education, piety, morality, and idealism are all things Nyx has sacrificed to survive the war. They are as fascinating a pair as any characters I can recall not because they are opposites but because everything each of them does reminds the other of what they can’t ever become.
Initially, the most notable thing about Rhys is his religion, and from the titles of the individual books you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a trilogy that was somehow about religion, but…this trilogy is not really about religion. The setting is thousands of years in our future, and while religions are the one sort of human institution that can actually last millennia, they don’t do so without changing. Nasheen and Chenja practice something that has evolved out of Islam while other cultures on Umayma follow the descendants of other faiths, but nothing is quite like we know it today. I was very interested in this idea when I first started reading God’s War, but religion is left largely out of focus and in the background.
“Tell me,” Solome said, leaning in slightly now, suddenly a bit more animated. “This sixth prayer of yours, what is its purpose? No other followers of your book have a midnight prayer.”
“The midnight prayer–” Rhys began, but Nyx had had enough talk of religion.
“Tell me more about Nikoderm and her love of violence,” Nyx said.
— God’s War
I suspect that Kameron Hurley expected Nyx would be speaking on behalf of the reader when she cuts off Rhys and steers the conversation away from religion and toward matters directly relevant to the plot, but at this point a third of the way into God’s War I was much more interested in hearing about the religion. For the rest of the book I waited to hear more about the sixth prayer, but it was not to be. Rhys is an impressive portrait of one sort of religious experience, and in Infidel there is a moment that provides one the most devastating dramatizations of the problem of evil I’ve ever encountered and worth reading for that alone (and worth avoiding, too, if you dislike watching very bad things happening to a likable character), but the trilogy is content to present these things without comment. There’s a huge difference between this and The Sparrow or Flowers for Algernon, where questions of faith are central concerns of the story. The one point the trilogy makes about religion, a point that is implied in the worldbuilding but never stated directly, is that religion is an outgrowth of culture and not vice versa. To restate that with specifics, Nasheen isn’t run by women because there are few male priests in its religion. Instead, there are few male priests in its religion because Nasheen is run by women. Some people have claimed that God’s War endorses the idea that violence is inherent to Islam, but not only does the setting imply this is impossible for any religion, the story really doesn’t have enough religious characters to make any claims about Islam in particular or religion in general. Of the main cast, only Rhys is truly devout, and he is, of course, a pacifist. Well, all right, he’s someone who wishes he was a pacifist…that’s almost the same thing! A few other characters are reflexively religious, but really, if there is a criticism to be made it’s that given how religious their societies are it’s a little odd that so few of the characters seem to care about it at all. Having Rhys as the sole window into religious life on Umayma means that as an exploration of religion the trilogy is interesting but very much incomplete.
Perhaps the most common way to read the Bel Dame Apocrypha is as feminist science fiction. The trilogy has gotten a lot of attention for this, and God’s War was even shortlisted for the Tiptree award. I had read a lot of these reactions before I starting reading and that may have been why it took me so long to become comfortable with Nyx as a protagonist. She’s anything but a perfect role model and Nasheen is anything but the perfect society. In his original review of God’s War, Niall Harrison said the novel was “in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing”. I suppose he had in mind Nasheen as a sort of reaction to stories like Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, since in Nasheen rule by women has resulted in just as screwed up a state as when men are in charge. The feminist reading is valid and the trilogy does construct its world based on modern feminist conclusions about gender essentialism (that is to say, the lack thereof), but there’s also an aspect that distances it further from utopian fiction: we never get the sense that Nasheen was planned with feminist ideas in mind. The relevant history is left vague, but the impression I got was that there was a scramble for power after which successive queens slowly made Nasheen into a matriarchy to shore up their own positions. The traditional utopia, feminist or otherwise, is planned according to allegedly enlightened principles, and therefore implies that if we readers would just become a little more enlightened ourselves, we too could have a perfect society. The world of Umayma, on the other hand, is the ruins of planned society, and not only is it a pretty miserable place, it’s been getting steadily worse since it was founded. In this sort of setting, a literally conservative worldview makes sense, and indeed Nyx doesn’t fight to change the world for the better, she fights to stop people who she assumes would make it worse.
The fight to make a better world, even the dream that such a thing is possible, is relegated to Inaya and the shifters. This is at least as problematic as the X-men movies deploying a heavy-handed homosexuality metaphor where it doesn’t really work. Homosexuals can’t kill people with lasers from their eyes, and if they could then it would be much more reasonable to be afraid of them. In the case of shifters, the persecuted minorities in our world can’t turn into animals with militarily valuable abilities. What makes it even more annoying is that the presence of shifters creates a tidy, unambiguous social justice problem off on the margins of a world with enormous challenges in gender relations that no one (except Raine, whose motives are suspect) seems to be trying to do anything much about. It’s a shame, because other than this and the unnecessary deployment of metaphysical novelty in Rapture‘s conclusion to her story, Inaya travels what for me is without question the trilogy’s most interesting character arc, moving from a denial of her nature to an unwavering crusade to liberate others like her. She also makes a conscious choice to put her cause over her family, presenting an interesting contrast to the other characters: Nyx more or less involuntarily gives up any hope of having a family, Anneke manages to go off and live the life of a stay-at-home mother, and, most tragically, Rhys defines himself by his family only to have it abandon him. Once again, the trilogy lets us draw our own conclusions about their choices.
But there is still another reading of these books, one which seems less remarked upon than it deserves, and that is to view the trilogy as an examination of the effects of war. The war is the source of every problem, in the background of each character, and central to each novel’s plot. We may not see the full spectrum of religious engagement, nor even a complete examination of gender relations (this would have demanded more time be spent in male-dominated societies and, especially, the divided Mhoria, not to mention a clearer discussion of how Nasheen came to be the way it is), but we do get a comprehensive look at the war from every conceivable viewpoint. Characters run the gamut from veterans to deserters, pacifists to mercenaries, government agents to rebels, plus those whose family members were all those things. We see how the war has affected not just Nasheen but also Chenja and even neutral Tirhan and Ras Tieg.
Yet, and take a moment to consider just how incredible this is, over three books we never see the war. The closest we come to seeing any fighting are nearby biological weapon detonations, and though at one point Nyx finds herself in the middle of a raid, she and her team stay inside and keep their heads down. The war is not shown, and yet the characters we meet, the events that happen to them, and the societies they live in are all the creation of the war. The war is like a black hole, invisible but made obvious by its effects on everything around it.
”Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended…The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” — Francis Swofford, Jarhead, as quoted in the New York Times
I don’t think Swofford is right that it’s impossible to depict war without glorifying it, but it’s definitely the case that the pleasing emotions of war (the excitement of battle, the feeling of power, the exultation of victory) are easy to convey in fiction while the negative emotions (pain, grief, despair) are considerably more challenging. Perversely, it’s those negative emotions (along with boredom) that dominate war as it is actually experienced. The Bel Dame Apocrypha could be said to accidentally glorify Nyx’s bounty hunting this way, but its all-consuming yet always off-stage approach to war helps convey war as it truly is: a vast engine of human misery that no one remembers how to turn off. In both God’s War and Rapture, Nyx stops elements that want to use what are essentially weapons of mass destruction to upset the balance of power, even though it’s that same balance of power that is prolonging the war. In God’s War, she justifies it by saying that peace through the obliteration of Chenja isn’t a peace worth having. It’s not at all clear that, seen from a utilitarian perspective, she’s right about this. In Infidel the thinking seems to be that adding a stronger weapon will just escalate the carnage further without solving the conflict, but really the carnage seems surely to be near the limits of what is possible for the societies involved to bear already. But Nyx is a bounty hunter, not a deep thinker. No matter what sort of ethics one favors, it’s hard to see any logical argument for continuing the war. Yet continue it does, in defiance of reason, senselessly continuing for centuries the way World War I continued for years. It might seem as though I’m wrong to praise the trilogy for this when earlier I answered the charge that the war was implausible by saying the details are vague, but this is why I depicts the effects of war, not war itself.
By Rapture, for reasons that are (to repeat myself) left somewhat vague, the incentives have finally shifted to the point where a truce has become possible. Here again we don’t learn anything about peace or how it can be accomplished. Instead, through the war’s absence (this time its true absence), we see what the war has done, for without the war Nasheen’s social order almost immediately falls apart. What will a whole generation worth of men do in a society that sees them as good for only fighting? And if their focus turns inward instead of outward, can anything prevent them from throwing down Nasheen’s oppressive matriarchy and replacing it with a government that swings, like those of Nasheen’s neighbors, too far in the other direction?
As always, the trilogy doesn’t present answers to these questions. But if the questions were easily answered, they wouldn’t be interesting or thought-provoking. It’s a big genre, and there are plenty of novels out there that claim to have all the answers. Those stories, though, are the opposite of thought-provoking. Thought-revoking, perhaps. Whatever you think, this is the real answer, they say, so stop thinking. Or, worse, what you already believe is absolutely right, they say, and people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re villains. Too often science fiction is portrayed as the genre that presents answers when it is most effective as the genre that asks questions. What truly distinguishes the Bel Dame Apocrypha is that it asks excellent questions.