The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata
Published: Mythic Island Press (2013), Saga Press (2015)
Series: Book 1 of The Red
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Campbell Awards
“There always needs to be a war going on somewhere--or at least that is the opinion of extremely wealthy defense contractors who manufacture them for profit. The situation looks quite different on the ground, where Lieutenant James Shelley desperately attempts to keep himself and his team alive.
Shelley never intended to be a soldier, but one unlucky choice in anti-war activism led to him being forced into the role. He chooses not to cope with his depression and guilt through heavy use of a piece of standardized gear that regulates his emotions. However, it looks like that may not be all it does. Shelley’s team has nicknamed him “King David”, because it sometimes seems like God is whispering into his mind to keep him from danger. But if his hunches are not from God, then who are they really from? They may be protecting him for now, but what is their true goal?” ~Allie
I’m not usually into military science fiction, but I decided to try The Red: First Light after I enjoyed reading a short story by Linda Nagata. I really liked her writing style.
Though I’m not very well read in the military science fiction subgenre, The Red: First Light delivered what I would have expected. The protagonist and most other characters are soldiers, and they use high tech weaponry and armor that is carefully described. A fair amount of the plot takes place in military training and various combat operations, which sometimes felt a bit like being in a co-op video game. However, I appreciated that the combat was generally not about heroics, and the characters didn’t seem to lose sight of the fact that the people on both sides of the engagement were human beings. Nagata’s skill at portraying authentic-seeming characters made me feel more connected to Shelley and his comrades, and it also made the violence feel more immediate and stressful. This is not the kind of novel where all of your favorite characters will make it to the final curtain call.
In addition to having a lot of action, the story covers some very interesting social and technological ideas. The social and political side is very relevant for current affairs. I think most people would agree that war for profit and governmental corruption are wrong, though no one seems to be able to do anything about either. On the social side, we have a world moving toward perpetual connectivity and questions that arise about rights to privacy. In this world, civilians have privacy rights, but as a soldier and a man convicted of a crime, Shelley does not. He no longer even owns his experience of his own life, since 24/7 footage taken by his embedded computer system is provided to his superiors. He might not feel the burden while at war, but it takes a toll when he has to consider who is watching him interact with his sort-of-ex-girlfriend or his civilian activist friend. And, of course, he has no power over what others will choose to do with the recording of his life. As we move into a future with more and more surveillance, we will have to consider how much of a right to privacy people can or should expect.
On the technological side, the main points of interest for me are prosthetics and AIs. Even today, prosthetics have advanced to the point where soldiers who have lost limbs can sometimes return to active duty. The advanced prosthetics in The Red: First Light are a prototype designed to enhance Shelley’s effectiveness in combat beyond what he could have done with his natural limbs. All the same, the prosthetic limbs are certainly not a magic fix (or anything one would want to sacrifice limbs to acquire), and I was interested to see the details and difficulties of incorporating this kind of technology into one’s life. Ideas about the development of AI are kind of in the background, though they do drive much of the plot. I don’t want to give this part of the story away, but it was a very original take on the origin of an artificial intelligence and its relationship with humanity.
Altogether, The Red: First Light is an action-packed military SF story that raises a lot of questions about society and where we’re going next. What can we do about a world perpetually at war and governments that are blatantly corrupt? Under what conditions should a person lose their right to privacy? In addition, the novel’s ideas about enhanced military prosthetics and the possible development of artificial intelligence extrapolates from current technologies in an interesting direction. I am really curious to see how this will develop in the rest of the trilogy.