I am very happy to see a new SF novel from Linda Nagata after much too long – and given the nanotech-space-opera-far-futuristics of Deception Well, Vast, and Memory, I am a bit surprised to find that it qualifies as (among other things) ‘‘military SF’’ and can be located smack in the middle of a long tradition of making-of-a-warrior narratives, right next to, say, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which means that it also is kin to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Dogs and cats, living together! Well, maybe it’s not all that apocalyptic a grouping, since the novel’s vision of the military – or at least of the soldier and his or her most immediate context of competence, loyalty, dedication, and courage – is anything but disrespectful or dismissive. The setting in which these virtues are employed, tested, and sometimes betrayed, however, is something else again.
But to begin at the beginning: sometime in the not-too-distant future, Lt. James Shelley is running a Linked Combat Squad in the African boondocks, fighting one of the endless small-scale wars that seem to be the common currency of global political-economic life. The ‘‘linked’’ part of his squad’s designation indicates the way each soldier is connected to squadmates and to a command-and-control superstructure of satellite links, sensors, surveillance drones (‘‘angels’’), and such. The effectiveness of the LCS soldier is further leveraged by powered, armored exoskeletons, smart weapons, and neurological skullcaps that boost or soothe as required. And Shelley has something extra: a hunch, a feeling, a whisper in his ear that gives him an edge by offering hints that something bad might be coming his way. One of his squaddies calls him ‘‘King David’’ because God talks to him.
The political-economic situation that generates the kind of war that Shelley and his troops are fighting is outlined by the lieutenant himself in the book’s opening speech: ‘‘There needs to be a war going on somewhere…. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business.’’ This proves to be more than soldierly cynicism or grousing, and points to one of the story’s driving forces. An introductory section outlines the working life of an LCS trooper and climaxes with an action that goes wrong badly enough to cost Shelley two of his squadmates and both of his legs. The rest of the novel pursues Shelley’s rehabilitation, especially his experience as a test bed for cyborgian replacement legs (and eventually other enhancements), and offers insights into what this upper-class kid is doing in the army in the first place, and why he will stay.
There is also further development of the political-economic influence of the defense industry’s power-brokering ‘‘dragons’’ in general, and the notably crazy and poisonous Thelma Sheridan in particular. This dovetails with the matter of exactly who or what has been sending premonitions, hints, and nudges Shelley’s way. It is not, despite his squadmate’s characterization, the voice of God, but something quite material, an entity or force or system that they call ‘‘the Red’’, and as helpful as it has been to Shelley, it is outside the control of the military, the politicians, and (worst of all) the dragons. The attempts of various legitimate and covert powers to counter or eliminate the Red lead to increasingly dire events, with Shelley and his squadmates right in the thick of it. Accordingly, the last half of the book is taken up with a series of operations, described in enough detail to satisfy any mil-SF enthusiast, and with a sour enough attitude towards official and actual power structures to keep old lefties from feeling too guilty about enjoying the action.
It makes for an interestingly divided book: on the one hand, Shelley and his squad and their immediate superiors are decent, highly competent, dedicated, and self-sacrificing; on the other, the political and economic order they serve seems hardly worthy of their virtues. This is pretty much the same post-Vietnam sense of discontinuity that separates The Forever War from Starship Troopers, updated for the post-9/11 world. And then there is the Red, which must remain behind the Spoiler Curtain, but which I will venture to say is a literalized metaphor that cuts across this tension, with effects that would seem to require further volumes to unfold.