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The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata


There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere

Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
The Red: First Light is military science fiction that sits somewhere between post-9/11 and post-Eisenhower antiwar politics; clear as to who to target – the Military-Industrial Complex, here described as defence contractors or DCs – but mistaking the reality of modern war, wherein contractors increasingly do the work on the ground, not the government-run military forces. Not that Nagata doesn’t acknowledge private security forces and independent military contractors, who are given a significant role in especially the non-“formal war” conflicts in the novel, but that they are sidelined away from things like anti-insurgency operations, something anyone familiar with the way we are currently at war in the Middle East will recognise as strange. It’s also a book whose politics are worn on its sleeve; Shelley is very outspoken and blunt in his anti-MIC rants which, while not being simply voice of the author, are clearly rewarded by Nagata.

It doesn’t help that the military itself does not reflect the real world military or the direction in which that is going; The Red: First Light has a military full of middle-class people from middle class backgrounds, on the whole, with good educations and alternative prospects. Unfortunately, this is not what the military of Western nations look like any more, increasingly drawing on the working classes and those with no chance for good education or good jobs, offering employment where otherwise there might be none; this failure to engage with the exploitative nature of the military-industrial complex makes it seem like the problem is only in the way it creates wars in foreign countries, not in the global wealth politics involved, a curious if telling omission.

The Red: First Light is not, however, simply a political manifesto against the financially-required wars or the eternal economic need for conflict. It is also a military science fiction novel in its own right, and this is where Nagata works some real narrative magic. The action inherent to a military science fiction novel can often feel forced, and the suspense unreal, but when our protagonist loses his legs early on it is clear the stakes are actually real, and that risk exists for all the characters; this early establishment of the stakes works very well when Nagata relies on it later on to question how real the stakes are. The action is the standard fast-paced violent material, but with a moral element not always found in milSF; The Red: First Light does deal with the issues of the morality of war and of following orders in battle while also maintaining the tension necessary to this kind of novel.

Character is a weaker area, as again is perhaps common to the genre. Shelley is the rebel who fits into the system, fighting against it while also reliant on it; the rest of the cast are really just ciphers against whose backdrop Shelley acts on the world, and who exist only for their emotional impact on Shelley. Nagata even manages, towards the end of the novel, to fundamentally fridge a character, who serves little narrative purpose before that except to be an emotional tie for Shelley; The Red: First Light really doesn’t ascribe much interest or humanity to any of the rest of its cast, and that has a sadly flattening on its emotional beats. The reality of the novel is that its first-person viewpoint just doesn’t care about other people, and while that could be used interestingly, it results instead in an awful lot of telling us about character rather than showing it – the cast being either indistinguishable or, in the case of a few characters like Ransom, distinct only because of their broad brushstrokes of personality.

The Red: First Light has one other plot element so far not mentioned, and that is the Red itself, the strange unknown force in the electronic Cloud that seems to be keeping Shelley alive. The problem here is again one of patchiness; not so much that its attention comes and goes – which allows for interesting dynamics in the story, including Shelley’s reliance on it and others’ faith in him based on it – but the attention that characters pay to it. Sometimes they are paranoid about its impact, other times blasé about its existence, and sometimes acting and thinking as if it didn’t exist; it feels almost as if Nagata sometimes just could not be bothered to factor it in to her characters’ reactions, and didn’t do a consistency-edit on that at any point.

In the end, The Red: First Light is a very exciting and fastpaced military science fiction novel, but Nagata disappoints on the character front and the attempts to engage with serious real-world issues of politics fall singularly flat.

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