NOTE: This review, by necessity, contains spoilers for the first book in the series, The Red: First Light.
The Trials is the second book of Linda Nagata’s marvelous military sci-fi series, “The Red Trilogy”. It picks up about five months after The Red: First Light, as Lieutenant James Shelley and the six remaining members of his LCS (Linked Combat Squad) unit are awaiting court-martial and criminal sentencing for their role in the rogue First Light mission. In that mission, Shelley and his team, under command of the now deceased Colonel Steven Kendrick, apprehend US citizen Thelma Sheridan (a rich and powerful “dragon” of the upper 1% echelon) and “escort” her to the African city of Niamey where she will stand trial for crimes against humanity.
As much as the soldiers dread what is to come – judgment for a guilty verdict could include the death penalty, and there is little doubt as to their guilt, since almost every action they undertook was captured by their skullnets – they are determined that the trial take place publically. Their testimony will further shed light on not only the manipulation of world economics and politics by global defense mega-contractors – specifically in bringing about the events of Coma Day, when nuclear terrorism killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and threatened untold millions more – but also force exposure of those complicit with those efforts which could include individuals at the highest levels of industry, the military, and the government – perhaps even as high as the White House itself.
Recent events have been especially difficult for Lt. Shelley. Not only did he suffer huge personal losses in the First Light mission, but he bears heavy responsibility for what went down, and for his combat unit – those who were killed and those who survive and now stand accused with him. But he also seems to have been forsaken by “the Red”, a mysterious, anonymous and until recently, unknown artificial intelligence that exists in the Cloud (those networked datacenters that are connected to the Internet and store/process vast amounts of digital information). It is becoming obvious that certain events – often personal, individual events – are created and/or manipulated by the Red in order to influence specific outcomes, sometimes rippling out on a global scale. For Shelley, the Red had manifested itself as an innate kind of sixth sense that alerted him to danger, keeping him and his team out of harm’s way and earning him the nickname of “King David” in that he seemed to be beloved of God. But now, that little voice in his head is gone, and he wiles away his hours of incarceration wondering just how much of what has happened was of his own volition, and how much was influenced by the Red.
But the military trial is not the only “trial” that Lt. Shelley must face. Already embraced by the public as a bona fide hero due to a reality television show detailing the exploits of his company both on Coma Day and during the First Light mission (using footage from the troopers’ own linked skullcaps), he no longer is merely a soldier doing his job: he is the poster child for the struggle of the masses. This rankles, especially as he questions the role of the Red in his decision making – a rabbit hole he desperately does not want to go down and yet can’t help but be drawn into. Even without the Red in his head, his is a meta story. But why? What is the expected outcome? Where is this all leading?
These are unanswerable questions as of yet. Some people believe that the Red has no endpoint, that it exists not to pursue a peaceful world but to exploit possibilities, even when they are at cross purposes.
A lot of people are like you. They want a chance to be a hero. To save others. To make a difference. The Red allows it. Let the world get rocked, destabilized. That opens up opportunities for social experiments and adventure games played on the edge of chaos. Real-life games, where real lives are risked and often lost.
But it’s managed chaos, meaning the game is moderated, the scope of any conflict limited, and no one gets to destroy the world…
But Shelley is a patriot, first and foremost, so when another nuclear threat is uncovered, it’s not a question of who’s pulling the puppet strings, it’s a question of doing the right thing. Or is it just the Red setting up the playing field yet again?
The Trials aptly continues the terse and involving story begun in The Red: First Light. The action of The Trials is more closely contained than in the previous book; the focus is set more directly on Lt. Shelley and the affects of the Red in his life rather than on sweeping missions run by a larger military. But the stakes are just as high.
Like the best middle installments of trilogies, The Trials moves us deeper into the psyches and lives of the characters we have met, while still broadening the threat to the world and setting up a huge payoff. Gone is any naiveté that may have existed before. Conspiracy is assured, but the scope and reach is yet to be uncovered. As rumors of the nebulous Red grow, those who wish to control it for their own means grow as well, assuring that multiple agendas sprout up, none of which are proven. Trust, always important, now becomes paramount, and precious. We as readers feel caught in the same sphere of doubt and conviction as the characters in the book seem to be.
We still don’t know exactly what the Red is, where it came from, who (if anyone) is behind it, whether or not it can be predicted or controlled, but we do know that it is a larger force than even those who first noticed its anomalies suspected. We don’t know how long ago it started to spread its influence, or how many others it has affected. But as the story grows, so does our involvement in it. We care about the effects of the Red mainly because we care so deeply about James Shelley; he is no longer merely a character, he has become real.
And as much as I enjoyed The Trials, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
The concluding book of The Red Trilogy, Going Dark, releases on November 3, 2015.
~ Sharon Browning