James Shelley, the main character of Linda Nagata’s Nebula-nominated novel The Red; First Light, is the high-drama leader of a Linked Combat Squad or LCS. It is Shelley’s opinion, shared at length with his squad, that “there has to be a war somewhere,” and that these wars are consciously orchestrated by the cabal of defense contractors who grow mega-rich off military contracts.
Shelley and his squad are linked to each other via communication implants; linked to remote handlers who have access to satellite data; and linked to the visual data from surveillance drones. Shelley was a spoiled rich boy who got into trouble and took the army route rather than go to prison. He has the loyalty of his squad because he is good at his job and because they know he cares about them. This squad might be a little extra loyal, though, because Shelley has something one of his soldiers calls “the King David thing;” a nagging sense when a situation’s not right, even when nothing shows up on the data that is swirling around them. He’s like the Old Testament king, following God’s commands and keeping his army safe. Privately, Shelley is worried that this intuition is really evidence that someone — or something — has hacked the military system, even though every diagnostic comes back clean. Soon, two operations go sideways, and Shelley learns that there is much more going on than he realized.
Nagata directs a lively parade of topics in The Red; First Light. Questions about military contracts, privacy and unscripted “reality” programming collide like particles at CERN. She explores the organo-cybernetic interface, artificial intelligence and the cynical calculus of the cost of war (one fully armed battle robot equals the cost of ten outfitted humans, so human soldiers are still used). The book questions marketing, demographics, brain chemistry, and exactly what the nature of free will is in a society that embraces both the aggressive data-mining of everything you do, and the use of brain implants that “adjust” neurotransmitters for you.
I had trouble keeping track of everything.
Over the course of the book, Shelley and his squad undertake three missions, if we include the stint in Africa that opens the book. These sections are suspenseful and filled with action. Most of the secondary characters, like Shelley’s titanium-tough C.O, his sergeant, his ex-girlfriend and one genius engineer, are well-drawn. There are moments of startlingly sharp dialogue. On the minus side, the villain is underdeveloped. An evil corporate Defense Contractor is not enough development, and neither is a “crazy” evil corporate Defense Contractor. Outside of military bases, cargo planes and the occasional hospital, the rest of the world is drawn in very broad strokes. I know there are cell phones and tablets; there is still “reality” programming; there is cloud computing, but I don’t quite know when we are. Two years from now? Seven? Ten? Halfway through the book something catastrophic happens in part of the US; we see little to nothing of it. Some civilians mill around in the lobby of the hospital where Shelley is staying, and soon even they are shooed away. This was disappointing mainly because the opening chapters, set in Africa, describe the desert with concrete, grounded details that make it vivid and real.
I think the idea that Shelley’s emotions are chemically moderated throughout the book also creates a problem. Shelley knows this is happening; he counts on it, as all the soldiers do. It makes it difficult to show him feeling emotions when violence reaches people he loves, and it made it difficult for me to empathize with him.
I enjoyed the book, which is clearly the first of an ongoing series, but I didn’t feel a strong sense of urgency to finish it. I think in part this was because I never bonded very well with the characters.
Nagata is taking on a lot of issues, and it is likely that the storytelling will smooth out as the series continues. In the meantime, The Red; First Light gives us interesting ideas to play with.