Russell Letson reviews Linda Nagata

The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Saga 978-1-4814-4657-0, $27.99, 405pp, hc) June 2015. Cover by Larry Rostant.

The Trials, Linda Nagata (Saga 978-1-4814-4658-7, $27.99, 447pp, hc) August 2015. Cover by Larry Rostant.

Going Dark, Linda Nagata (Saga 978-1-4814-4659-4, $27.99, 454 pp, pb) November 2015. Cover by Larry Rostant.

Linda Nagata science fiction book reviewAs I was saying last month, all kinds of in­teresting variations are coming out of the rather fuzzily delimited area labeled ‘‘military SF’’ – ‘‘fuzzily’’ because I suspect that the ‘‘military’’ part raises a wide range of expectations in the different audience segments attracted to books so tagged. In a podcast posted while I was writing this piece, Linda Nagata notes that the readership for her recent The Red trilogy seems to include both those who generally like military SF and those who generally don’t – that they might be ‘‘military novels for people who don’t like mili­tary novels.’’ (That was the Coode Street Podcast, Episode 255, wherein Nagata and Eleanor Arnason have a number of interesting things to say about writing to/for audiences, women and space opera and hard and/or military SF, and a number of other career-shaping issues. Full disclosure: these conversations are conducted by my Locus colleagues Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe.)

I’m not sure that I quite belong to that con­flicted group (for reasons also outlined last month), but I do recognize that my interest is caught when a science-fictional ‘‘war story’’ goes for more than guts-and-glory formulas, better ways to Blow Stuff Up, and exotic locales in which to do it. I find myself especially taken by attention to what might be called the soldier’s dilemma – the tensions generated when duty and honor and competence must be exercised in the service of an unworthy, corrupt, incompetent, or illegitimate leadership.

That is what has led me to sort recent books by Nagata, Greg Bear, and Zachary Brown into the bin where I keep The Forever War: the story of the grunt on the ground who fights in the service of forces or interests that are at best only loosely coupled to his own or those of his community. In Bear’s War Dogs and Killing Titan and Brown’s Darkside War, the wars are literally alien conflicts into which humanity is drafted, with no say in how they are conducted and little or no understanding of the issues at stake. In Nagata’s Red Trilogy, there are two alienating (but not alien) forces: the ‘‘dragons’’ – major international defense contractors and arms dealers – and the Red, an emergent AI that has infiltrated itself nearly everywhere. The opening volume, The Red: First Light (reviewed in its initial, self-published incarnation in August 2013), outlines how the dragons’ wars are fought by the likes of Lieutenant James Shelley’s Linked Combat Squad, using all manner of nifty future-war technology: mood-controlling neurological and computational implants (the skullnet), dead sisters (powered exoskeletons), angels (aerial drones), smart firearms, battle AIs, satellite-linked comm systems, and remote hu­man handlers. It also elaborates on how Shelley is being watched over not only by his handler, Delphi, but by the Red, which seems to have singled him out for life-saving warnings and nudges via his implants.

The Red’s program might prove beneficial to humans, but its motivational or value system is on the inhuman side, a kind of big-picture cost-benefit view that aims to maximize whole-system economic stability and performance but can overlook damage to individuals. Thus Shelley eventually loses his legs and what little was left of his innocence. After receiving a pair of experimental prosthetic legs, he winds up part of an off-the-books army-within-an-army that is aimed (thanks to more of the Red’s agenda-set­ting) at countering the corrupting and destructive activities of the dragons. The book’s climactic operation removes one particularly ruthless and pathological dragon, at considerable cost, and Shelley’s ‘‘Apocalypse Squad’’ and its leaders become scapegoats, held for court-martial.

The second novel, The Trials, begins as a courtroom drama (punctuated by gunfire, at­tempted assassination, and some conspiracy-the­orizing), but that gives way to more metaphorical trials of resolve, of relationships, of loyalties and unit cohesion. After an unexpected finish to the court-martial, the novel follows the pattern established by the first volume: novelette-length episodes detailing combat operations, with in­terludes for training and recovery, or kidnap and escape, or sitting-around-figuring-things-out.

While the novels are Shelley’s first-person account of events, there is another account (which we hear about but do not see directly) that parallels his version, provides a context, and hints at the Red’s purposes. In First Light, the reality video series Linked Combat Squad (gleaned in part from the squad’s own helmet cameras) documents events and helps to shape public opinion about the dragons and the actions of the squad. In The Trials, a second reality se­ries titled Against the Beast frames the LCS and particularly Shelley as heroes in the struggle with the dragons, but after the court-martial verdict they seem to be moved out of the central story line. That does not mean that they get to retire to the quiet life. Out of the service and back in New York, Shelley does not feel at all at home:

I hate everything about being out on the street. I hate… the absurd lightness of my clothes which offer no protection against anything except sunburn; I hate that I don’t have the assistance of the squad drone and that I can’t tap into its angel vision to look around corners and assess hazards in the surrounding terrain. I hate it that I have to turn around to know what’s behind me.

His uneasiness is justified when a very an­noyed dragon sends mercenaries after him and spreads destruction across Manhattan – so Shelley and his squadmates do the reasonable thing and get out of town, which gives them and us a look at the aftermath of the events of the first book’s near-apocalyptic Coma Day. They wind up once again acting in an unofficial capacity for semi-official masters, chasing down stolen nuclear weapons, and in the final section Shelley is detached from his unit (but with an unlikely ally) to complete a final harrowing mission.

The operational sections – vivid, procedurally detailed, and propulsive – constitute the action-adventure backbone of the series. But there is another through-line: the trajectory of Shelley’s relationship to the Red and to increasingly unof­ficial military organizations. At the beginning of First Light, the Red is a kind of military-urban legend, a way of accounting for Shelley’s uncanny luck. By the time of The Trials, the Red is publicly recognized as a real force in the world, with factions organized for or against it, and Shelley is increasingly troubled by what its attention means for his effectiveness and his autonomy. Nor is he the only one – in fact, his sergeant, Jaynie Vasquez, is hostile to the Red’s interference. But the efforts of even the most determined (to the point of nuclear craziness) opponents fail. What that means for Shelley and the world at large is hinted at in this volume and developed in the next.

Going Dark, as the title suggests, takes Shelley even farther down the rabbit hole of off-the-books black-ops and deniable work, and deeper into murky questions about where the actions of the Red are taking the world. Eighteen months after the events of The Trials, Shelley is a captain in charge of an Existential Threat Management (ETM) squad, part of a ghost army (its members all declared killed or missing in action) moving in and through the infrastructure of the official armed forces, guided by the Red, which (they assume) is using them to head off catastrophic events. The book’s exemplary initial mission in the arctic mixes necessary exposition and back-story with a densely procedural series of engagements that outline the squad’s gear and abilities, as well as what is at stake when an under-the-radar opera­tion goes wrong.

This section also echoes and extends Shelley’s opening thematic speech in the first chapter of First Light when he explains that his unit is fight­ing a ‘‘nonlinear war’’ with ‘‘no ‘sides.’ No real al­lies, no fixed enemies, no certain battlefield.’’ And this time he needs to add a warning for his newest squaddie: that, despite being backed by the Red, they are not ‘‘operating within comic book rules.’’ Not only is the AI not infallible, but ‘‘[i]ts concern for our welfare is limited…and it is not on the side of the angels which means that neither are we…. We are not superheroes…. We are just soldiers.’’

After the arctic operation, Shelley’s role – and the book’s genre center – shifts for a while toward something like a James-Bondian spy thriller when he is detached from his role as combat soldier and given an undercover identity as an arms dealer in order to neutralize some excessively lethal missiles before a terrorist leader can use them. This mission offers a closer look at that kind of enemy (half geopolitical bandit-zealot, half bragging wannabe celebrity) and adds a suitably ambiguous ally in the shape of Leonid Segun, AKA ‘‘Papa,’’ semi-reformed but still-well-connected arms broker, criminal organizer, and serio-comic commentator on all things crazily dangerous. It also seriously complicates Shelley’s connection to the Red when the mission takes an unexpected and even more lethal turn. The final section offers another kind of soldier’s dilemma in the shape of a combat situation uncomfortably close to recent history: an urban-warfare dash through neighborhoods filled with civilians who are organized enough to shoot back at armed intruders. Even boatloads of tech can’t eliminate the fog of war – and again Shelley has reason to wonder about his autonomy and his personal cost-benefit calculations.

The structural and fictional-formulaic heart of these novels is the on-the-ground experience of combat, enhanced by a set of plausible science-fictional technological advances that nevertheless do not separate the soldier from the hard and dangerous business of staying alive while killing opponents, of placing the achieving of objectives above personal safety, of taking risks to protect comrades, of taking responsibility for failure as well as for success; in short, following orders, doing one’s duty, and paying whatever the price turns out to be.

But around that center remain questions about what is served by all that duty and obedience and sacrifice, along with familiar questions about what one becomes when one accepts the role of instru­ment, no matter who or what is calling the shots. And long before the last episode I was wondering how much of this future and the relationship of the ETM soldiers to the Red is an encoding (not quite a metaphor) of the forces at play in our moment of history – especially the description of the Red as having enormous computational power and data-sources but a fairly simple (and quantitative) value structure. In The Trials, one character says that the Red is

in any practical sense, beyond our ability to eradicate, supposing we should want to do so…. No one truly understands its intentions. We do not know that is has intentions in the aggregate beyond this one: to maintain a thriv­ing marketplace….

The tragedy of the human race is that we need this thing, that we are not brave enough or wise enough to live to our potentials on our own.

There’s dark, and then there’s dark.

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