“My Life for a Thousand” – Bounty Hunters in Space

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I binge-watched the first season of Killjoys concurrently with reading Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. The latter sat at the top of my metaphorical TBR pile for years, after having received multiple enthusiastic recommendations. I started reading it and was quickly sucked in, although at intervals there were lulls in my reading. Not surprising, given the pervasive violence of the narrative, that now and then I needed a short breather.

Killjoys suffered somewhat in comparison… at first. At one point early in the first episode, I was very close to dropping the show and going back to my book. I figured if I wanted a story about a badass, no-holds-barred, mercenary-minded bounty hunter in space, I had one on hand that had already proven its merit. As others have said, Killjoys gets off to a shaky start, and I wouldn’t say that I was hooked until episode four (“Vessel”, not coincidentally the first appearance of Delle Seyah Kendry).

These two stories contrast well. On one level, there are superficial similarities in subject matter, both dealing with a formal bounty-hunting organization with institutional reach of authority. Both the killjoys and the bel dames set themselves up as keepers of peace and social order, to some extent or another, and both are pervaded with manipulation and power-play, often at the expense of the individual agent. Their machinations, in both cases, exist on a genocidal, planet-level scale. Of course, with similarities like these, there’s an immediate need to scrutinize the differences that distinguish them.

God’s War is a darker work, psychologically speaking. Dark in a deeper sense than the type of “grimdark” fiction I’m used to seeing in both novels and television, tangling its narrative hopelessly in fatal flaws and moral dilemmas that are not readily unknotted. Nyx, the protagonist, stretches what it means to be an anti-hero, especially for a female character. More on that later. The casual brutality of Nyx’s existence is handled so precisely as to be almost unnoticeable.

Killjoys is less subtle. A television series by necessity has different rules of pacing to a novel, and this series like many others before it makes the most of that. As such, the early episodes feel more like a pulp adventure or a space procedural, while in the background each episode sets aside the building blocks of the meta-narrative. For the diligent viewer, pushing through the less interesting early episodes pays off with a juicy conspiracy plot that culminates in a painful cliffhanger.

Beneath the superficial similarity, and the more analytical distinction, there is a contrast of theme that runs more interesting than discussion of plot. After all, the attraction of the badass anti-heroine can be traced back to a single trait, the same trait that has made similarly structured male characters staples of the action genre. The characters in these stories are survivors. This is especially true of Nyx and Dutch, but here also the distinctions are just as important as the similarities.

Nyx, an unemployable ex-soldier who’s had her entire physiology reconstructed so often she has none of her original organs left. Dutch, a woman from nowhere with no family and no people, a child raised for murder by a paternal shadow assassin. Patriotism and family loyalty, an impetus or an imperative to kill. Nyx’s nightmares drive her back to her military days and fuel her continuing attachment to the bel dame motto: “my life for a thousand”. Whereas Dutch does everything in her power to leave her past behind, but adopts another absolute motto: “the warrant is all”.

Arguably, the two mottoes are more similar than they initially appear. Arguably, the bel dame council works harder to present itself as a patriotic institution working to protect their nation. Meanwhile, the killjoys live in a planetary system dominated by the plutocratic, encroaching and ominously nameless “Company”. Maybe this is what makes them more inclined to broadcast their tolerance for ends justifying means. Which organization is more cynical in its presentation?

Planetary peace-keeping militias aside, there is another important difference between the two protagonists. Rather, between the two teams. Nyx builds around herself a team of competent expatriates and assorted other losers. Contrary to genre convention, they can’t really be described as a rag-tag bunch of misfits. The team members’ ambivalence is a thread constantly visible in the book, circumstantial loyalty always promising to give way to betrayal. Or rather, the each-for-themselves attitude that found family narratives exist to unwrite.

The process of leaving behind adverse circumstances and overcoming trauma is central to Dutch’s story, as well as her co-protagonists. Forming that very same found family is a critical aspect of this process. Dutch, Johnny and D’avin are all, for lack of a better term, fucked up. They make poor decisions, hurt each other, and spend a lot of time dangling psychologically by a thread — but climbing ever upward.

Two stories of survival from two complement perspectives. The story of Dutch and her compatriots, about the adversity of climbing your way out of trauma in a hostile world, identifying your people and building support structure. By contrast, Nyx’s story is fundamentally about a downwards spiral, the story of a woman who has driven away every friend and ally and support system she ever had. What makes Nyx so dreadful is her dedication to self-destruction, not by means of drinking or gambling or a thousand other vices, but by the process of willful estrangement.

As much as Nyx’s downwards spiral is the story of an inveterate survival refusing to give up, the central Killjoys character arc is an upwards spiral, centered around people building up their lives. The characters or Killjoys are notable not only for their pervasive mental trauma, but for their variety of coping mechanisms, positive and negative.

On a personal note: after ten-plus years of major depression, it’s gratifying to be able to tell the difference.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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One thought on ““My Life for a Thousand” – Bounty Hunters in Space

    2015 Hugos Eligibility Post « Hazel Gold said:
    February 29, 2016 at 10:08 am

    […] Bounty Hunters in Space, a review of SyFy’s Killjoys and Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (November). […]

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