The novel “The Red: First Light” by Linda Nagata was published for the first time in 2013. It’s the first book of The Red trilogy.
Lieutenant James Shelley is in command of an American army team serving in the African Sahel. There he works as a patrol to protect local civilians from insurgents in a local civil war in which the US intervened. To achieve the objectives, the soldiers are equipped with very sophisticated tools, not only weapons and protections but also systems that keep them connected among them and with their superiors to coordinate at best and always be updated on possible dangers.
No technology, no matter how sophisticated, can make sure that a soldier will not be killed during a fight so James Shelley always keeps his attention to the maximum levels to try to keep himself and his team members alive. To assist him there’s a sixth sense that seems to inform him of the dangers more efficiently than any instrument to the point that his superiors start paying attention to it to figure out if there’s someone behind it.
Considered an exponent of the nanopunk movement, which tells stories in which nanotechnology and connections between computer and human mind are a central theme, in The Red trilogy Linda Nagata develops a military science fiction story set in the near future. The themes of the nanopunk subgenre are present with the inclusion of neural interfaces but the crucial theme is that of war in the near future and the reasons why wars still exist.
The beginning of “The Red: First Light” immediately shows a brutally cynical vision with James Shelley explaining to Sergeant Vasquez that somewhere there needs to be a war and if there’s none looming the international defense industries meet and they invent one. In short, in the coming decades the local tensions will still be fed by someone and someone will be found ready to provide false information to a nation to give it the excuse to invade another one. All this to fuel the arm market and contracts for private military services.
James Shelley’s cynicism is well motivated as he was arrested for participating in a non-violent protest rally and a judge forced him to choose between going to jail or joining the army. In essence, at that point in the US there’s only a facade of democracy with politicians who simply obey the various lobbies, starting with that of arm producers. These elements make this military science fiction novel of the type written by Joe Haldeman or Lucius Shepard.
For the soldiers of the future, communications are a key factor that can make the difference between life and death but James Shelley seems to have something more from this point of view. Initially, he thinks that these are feelings but they have the curious tendency to be confirmed by facts. Someone in his team starts comparing him to the biblical King David but are his foreboding coming from divine suggestions or someone hacked into the military communication system and is providing Shelley with suggestions based on information not available to him?
The mystery of the Red, as the source of the suggestions given to James Shelley is dubbed, quickly becomes a central element. This mystery is used by Linda Nagata to tell the story of a near future tending to dystopia in which wars are useful only to allow some corporation to make money even by offering it as a form of entertainment.
The ethical and moral issues related to politics and war economy are crucial in “The Red: First Light”, all the more because the future told in the novel is a direct evolution – but perhaps it would be more correct to speak of involution – of the present. James Shelley is at the center of events beyond his control that see huge interests involved and this leads him to think a lot about his situation.
Despite the importance of these themes, the pace of the narrative tends to be fast thanks to the presence of a lot of action. The second part is a little slower and more about the technologies developed in that future and James Shelley’s personal story but the events follow one another even outside the battlefields.
“The Red: First Light” is told in the first person by James Shelley, who is by far the most developed character. His reflections show his personality but his motivations are not always clear, also because even he sometimes doesn’t seem to have clear ideas about what he wants and about the reasons why he wants it.
The novel has an end but is rather open with parts of the plot to be continued in its sequels. In my opinion the various themes of “The Red: First Light” are well developed and offer a lot of food for thought so if you find them interesting I recommend reading it.