The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata
The Red: First Light is the first book of a trilogy set in the near future where power mongers known as “dragons” (think “the 1%”) manipulate world systems for their own profit. The dragons play the game at such a high level that even heads of state, chairs of major corporations and congressional leaders are nothing but pawns on their game board, and many of those boards are built with government dollars on the threat of war.
This is the knowledge imparted by Lieutenant James Shelley at the start of The Red: First Light: ”There needs to be a war going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without conflicts of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.”
Lt. Shelley knows his stuff. He’s the leader of an LCS – Linked Combat Squad – and the commanding officer of the US Army’s Fort Dessari in Sahel, Africa. When on patrol, his soldiers wear exoskeleton armor lovingly called “dead sisters” (because of the resemblance to human bones) and a networked skullcap over their shaved heads that allows them to interface with each other, and provides internal diagnostics and individually administered stimulants (or depressants, as the case may warrant) directly into nodes situated on their brains. As CO, Shelley is also “cyborged” with an ocular overlay from which he receives and relays data, an antenna tattooed along his jaw, and a tiny ear buds that link him to Guidance, a remote manned support structure feeding him information and orders based on the intel they receive from his implants and other surveillance systems.
But part of the strength of The Red: First Light is that despite these technological underpinnings, the story is about Lt. Shelley and his soldiers and comrades rather than as mechanically advanced weapons. After all – this is merely the state of contemporary warfare; part of the strategy is not only knowing your own capabilities, but anticipating the capabilities of your enemy.
Still, Shelley seems to know more than is strictly natural. He has an uncanny ability – premonition is all he can think to call it, a feeling, a hunch – to know when something dangerous is ahead: hidden combatants, impending conflict, ambushes. In his time as commander, he hasn’t lost a single soldier often due to his bringing them to alert status before the threat even develops. One of his soldiers quips “Saul don’t dare touch a hair of the man’s head and Goliath can’t get his bullets to fly straight when the lieutenant’s around, because James Shelley is beloved of God.”
When inkling of what might be behind his premonitions begins to coalesce, however, the outlook is not encouraging. What has been dubbed “the Red” (from a statement one of the dragons made about “…the red stain that bleeds through all the affairs of men”) seems to be some sort of hack that can utilize any technology, any platform, to nudge actions and affairs of seemingly disparate individuals into a particular direction, affecting not only their own paths, but rippling out to affect larger affairs. But who created the hack, who is using it – what is using it – and to what end, is a complete mystery. Even its very existence is nebulous, uncertain, not acknowledged.
And the Red, whatever it is, has made Lt. James Shelley a hero. Well, it and a sensationalistic media element, much to his chagrin and frustration. It has also caused him great pain, and frustration. When you can’t trust that the little voice in your head telling you what choices to make, when you can’t be sure if it’s a part of your own experience or is the reverberation of some unknown catalyst, how long will it be before you start doubting your decisions, your judgments, your very autonomy? That’s not a very stable footing for anyone to have, let alone a soldier.
Author Linda Nagata skillfully takes these ethical, technological, theoretical and martial considerations, and infuses them into a story that is strongly built on relationships at its core. Despite the physical enhancements of Lt. Shelley, despite the moralistic drive to right the wrongs, despite his internal ruminations on the Red and how it may or may not be impacting his life, what keeps him centered and focused is his relationship with his squad, with his ex-lover, his father, his activist friend. Even his antagonistic relationships – with the doctors and technicians who treat him, with the dragon who appears to be pulling all the puppet strings regardless of loss of life and livelihood – it is this interaction, played off against his strong internal dialog, that allows this story to shine.
Not only do we get to know James Shelley, but we actually feel like a part of his unit. Their danger is our fear. Their triumph is our relief. Their loss is our grief and their training and discipline is that which gives us hope. But for them, it’s simply the way things are. There are no cheap, melodramatic kills, no poignant deathbed confessions, no clichéd bittersweet moments. This story feels more real than that, not gritty and dirty, but instead soldiers doing what has to be done; not machismo’ed with rippling musculature and blazing guns, but courageous and disciplined because that’s what the task demands, and that’s what all the training has been for (and kudos to Ms. Nagata for having men and women working side by side in all aspects and levels of her novel without there even being a hint that this might be unexpected).
As the narrative progresses and the stakes become higher, we are already so invested in the characters that we can effortlessly follow along with them. Lt. Shelley, sure, but also his commanders and those who serve under him or alongside him. We have, in effect, become one of the company. As a reader, that’s a pretty darned good place to be, as it allows the story – both internal and external – to unfold with a sense of immediacy and consequence unhindered by clever twists, skillfully deployed red herrings or convenient cavalries saving the day. This one feels genuine, folks.