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The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata
Review by Ernest Lilley
Saga Press Mass Market Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1481440934
Date: 30 June 2015 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Interview: Linda Nagata / Read an excerpt / Show Official Info /

LT James Shelly claims he doesn't much like being a soldier, that he was dragooned into the US forces stationed around the world keeping the peace, watched over by drones and angels back stateside weaving a picture of the scene from all the many threads of data. Shelly was a privileged kid in NYC that got caught up in an anti-war rally and made the mistake of posting videos of cops being cops, and a judge gave him the classic choice. James is a cynical as Haldeman's William Mandella, the central character in The Forever War, also a conscript with attitude. Unlike Mandella though, Shelly's kidding himself.

The Red: First Light opens with some terrific scenes and a stunning sense of place. Shelly is posted at a forward base in sub-Saharan Africa keeping opposition forces from sneaking through by running patrols through the scrub. It's told in the sort of detail and realism that makes you think of Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts, about what it's like for today's Marines far from the land of porcelain toilets. The tight-knit squad and the locals they deal with are fully realized and the future warrior technology that comes with it is just far enough into the future to make it interesting, without making us believe in too many impossible things before chow call.

The LT has a gift that his troops have come to appreciate very much. Though he has no idea how he knows things, when he gets a feeling about a situation he's come to realize that it's a feeling you pay attention to. His troops liken it to King David, into whose ears God whispered. The climax of the section echoes an earlier tale, Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, which you may have seen as a film (The Eagle [2011]).

The story moves stateside where the LT is sent to recover from his wounds. More tech ensues, and again, it's interesting stuff. Shelly probably costs more than Steve Austin by the time he's back on his feet, even if less of him is bionic.

The overarching story is about the thing that's been whispering in our boy's ear, an emergent AI that's been dubbed "The Red" by a mil/industrialist/fanatic opposing it. Shelly's part prototype and part special forces team leader, and just about the time he's finished integrating his new parts and training up with a new SOF team, nuclear terrorism breaks out across the country and itís up to his team to shut it down.

I'm not going to try to explain all that and spoil the fun, so just go for it.

The writing isn't as even as I'd like, though the crispness of the first section would be hard to maintain, and once back in the United States the plot begins to overreach itself. Still, there are a lot of good points made here, primarily about the tension between governments and the military-industrial complex. Or, in this case, make that the military-industrial-entertainment complex, because (and this is the only part my eyes actually rolled at) the military has been feeding edited versions of the LT's squad to the public as a reality show...and they didn't know it. Clever enough idea, but more distracting than useful.

Linda Nagata hadn't written any SF for a decade when she decided she needed to get back to it. We're lucky she did, because what she came up with is one of the best pieces of near future Mil-SF ever written. What's so good about it? The action rocks and the characters are engaging as hell. But this isn't just adventure fiction, it's Mil-SF and the very well done, straight out of DARPA's dreambook, not somebody's fantasy. The author moves the ball far enough down the road to satisfy hard core SF readers, but sticks to plausible ideas, at least for the most part.

Though this book has just come out from Saga, Simon and Schuster's SF imprint, this is actually its second life. Originally self-published in 2013, it made a pretty big slpash, garnering nominations for both Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the first time a self-published novel had gotten anything like that sort of attention, and probably paving the way for everyone else that's come along since.

Somehow though, it didn't make it onto my radar, or that of enough others that Saga saw the potential of a new release, with grittier cover art and a three book deal. The second book The Trials was mostly already written when that happened, and comes out this month. The final book, Going Dark, comes out in November.

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