The Red: First Light

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“Welcome to version two point oh of yourself, Lieutenant. The technician I brought with me will swap out the limbs for you.”

In The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata, the upgrade and replacement cycle is making its way into the U.S. military’s elite forces. But it’s not the hardware that is the real story. As with most technology, it’s the software that matters most.

Enter Lieutenant James Shelley. Lt. Shelley leads an LCS, or Linked Combat Squad, equipped with an array of next-generation military technology, from exo-skeleton combat suits referred to as “dead sisters” to self-targeting rifle rounds to “linked” neural-level communications and connectivity. While the story starts with Shelley’s squad at a remote outpost in Africa’s Sahel and offers geopolitical cues familiar to today’s military watchers, it quickly moves on as the stakes rise for Shelley and the United States.

This is what makes The Red: First Light, the first in a trilogy, such a valuable read: it is both operational and strategic in its themes. The accolades it has received, including the prestigious Nebula Award nomination, underscore its value.

Through Shelley, Nagata is committed to showing an authentic and often disquieting vision of fighting and living in combat zones with the intimacy of such close connectivity. The LCS squads wear skullcaps allowing them to communicate and fight through a neural network. The skullcaps stay on around the clock, which has as many benefits as drawbacks. During their operations, a stateside handler watches over them, monitoring their physical and psychological state – and adjusting it from afar. In Nagata’s world, following orders takes on a new meaning.

The Red Cover - BigAs for Shelley, he is anything but a recruiter’s dream – and that is what makes him a great character to follow. Shelley is a privileged young man who chose military service over jail time, and through his service discovers he is a far better warrior than he expected because he develops a special “gift” of foresight. The source of this foresight is a crucial question for Shelley, and the reader, with stakes far beyond his LCS. Nagata renders him as a complex hero, far richer in his inner turmoil and insight than he might otherwise be, but not too tortured that it’s easy to lose interest in him. Shelley is broken down and built back up, literally, and this offers an unflinching look at how the military and society may treat wounded soldiers when they return from combat in the future.

Through Shelley’s “gift,” the book explores the almost mystical aspects of technology; a fitting thread in the story given the existential questions that the next-generation of cloud computing and artificial intelligence are already raising. The book is also unafraid to ask fundamental, age-old questions on warfare: Are warriors and killers born or made? How fine is the line between patriot and traitor?

As the writing adage goes, any story’s hero is only as good as the villain. Shelley is up against Thelma Sheridan, the CEO of defense contractor Vanda-Sheridan, who at times seems to exist to justify his antipathy toward “DCs” that in Nagata’s future drive the ebb and flow of global conflict for profit. Sheridan herself is a dangerously powerful and nearly messianic force in this future world, a world that Nagata will hopefully will unveil in the next books in the series. The sequel will be released August 18 and the third volume in the trilogy will be available in November.

Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light is a gripping exploration of the human and technological aspects of next-generation of warfare. What sets the story apart is its ability to address the human level of what it is like for soldiers to live with the next generation of battlefield technology and to place it within an action-driven story that rests upon complex political and ethical questions prescient for contemporary debates on the nature of warfare.