Review – The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata
I was recommended this from reading Charlie Stross‘s blog as the Linda Nagata is guest blogging while Charlie is down under. Military Sci-Fi is something that I tend to enjoy, so much so that I’ve written some of it and regularly wargame in that genre.
This one was a very compelling near future story, told in a first person narrative by a not entirely volunteer US Army Lieutenant. The protagonist is the leader of a ‘linked combat squad’ who are a sort of specialised infantry with an exo-skeleton controlled by an external skull cap that can read (and affect) their brain states. From what I know of current and proposed military capabilities this is an entirely believable future, just a little into future from now (perhaps a decade or two, but happily non-specific so that we don’t fall into the trap of outdating the story when the technology doesn’t go mainstream by the date given).
The premise is that there is something nudging people to make decisions, and influencing the options that they are being presented with. We first see this in the person of the protagonist, Lt Shelley, who gets premonition flashes about the presence of an enemy which allows him to react just in time. In particular one of the more overt interventions of this unexplained presence is a loss of contact from ‘guidance’ at a crucial moment.
Avoiding spoilers (below the cut), the story was very tightly written and kept me turning pages, to the extent that I stayed up late reading, got the bus from the station to the office so I could keep reading and only put it down when I got to my desk and had to start working (I read in the lift and walking along the corridor). It was told at a good pace, with a few good twists and turns to keep it interesting and having you wonder what was happening next.
Happily there is a planned sequel, which I’ll be acquiring when it comes out.
The story follows a US Army Lt who has enlisted to avoid a jail term. He’s got some physical enhancements at the start of the story, an overlay over his eyes that connects him to the cloud and also some nodes embedded in his head that help the skullcap to monitor his brainwaves and also to control his moods. The story is in three distinct episodes, which become clear towards the end of the first one when the story of his squad patrolling in Africa‘s Sahel region is released as a two hour broadcast TV programme. This is somewhat disconcerting for him as he didn’t know it was being made (it uses a combination of his overlay footage, which permanently records everything he sees and transmits it back to the Army and also the helmet cameras of him and his squad members).
The Linked Combat Squad concept is a good one, and well thought out. The premise is that all the members of the squad have a common network and head up displays inside their helmets. This is augmented with drone and weapon cameras and Guidance (a human remote controller monitoring all the feeds and making suggestions to the soldiers on the ground). In addition, a feature of the narrative (The Red of the title) is an unknown actor who is nudging the decisions of the protagonist (and others it turns out later on) to help optimise their decisions for its preferred outcomes.