The military is currently an unpopular topic in fiction. Usually, members of armed forces are the bad guys whenever they pop up. Not in Linda Nagata’s The Red trilogy. But does it make for good and engaging books? Find out!
James Shelley is an idealistic man. He’s a protester against cruelty and against injustice. The government is not very impressed. James Shelley gets arrested and, in the world of the military industrial complex where there – according to Shelley – always needs to be a war. He’s given two options.
- Go to prison for a very long time
- Go fight in the war for a short time
At Fort Dassari, Lieutenant James Shelley has a reputation as the leader of a Linked Combat Squad. Sure, he has drone support, his helmet analyses all kinds of environmental data, he can link into satellite surveillance footage, local CCTV cameras and the footage of the camera attached to his gun called a HITR and his handler Delphi’s analysis, but that’s not what he is known for. Shelley is known for his King David moments, moments where he knows that something’s going to happen despite the fact that none of the advanced technology of the very near future indicates that anything’s wrong. He has saved the other members of his squad countless times but can’t explain how he knows what’s going on.
Hard, Military World
The explanation for this is fairly easy, in the context of the world Shelley’s story is set in. Today, in our reality, we battle with soldiers having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the fact that in a war zone, they’re prone to making errors and they lose their cool. In the trilogy’s first book, First Light, establishes that the book is set in a world that is basically a few years ahead of ours. It’s not set in the far future, and no world-destroying apocalypse has happened. It’s just iPhone and Google plus a few years. Technology has become more integrated with our lives and our bodies.
Members of the Linked Combat Squads around the planet wear a kind of exoskeleton called a Dead Sister, because the skeleton can return to base even if its wearer is dead and still strapped inside. They also have a thing called a system in place that alters their mood using microbeads implanted in the brain and using external stimuli, the brain can be made to sleep or suppress emotion. So no PTSD ever, soldiers are awake whenever needed, they don’t tire, they don’t question.
As it turns out, the premonitions Shelley has, are not premonitions at all, they’re system compromises. This program is dubbed The Red. This artificial intelligence has entered the mood-altering Skullnet system and alters Shelley’s emotions to the point where he acts upon those impulses.
Naturally, politicians and other powerbrokers such as weapons manufacturers are very interested in The Red and control over it.
In this brief overview, it becomes apparent that author Linda Nagata has a very firm grip on not only the mechanics of the military in the close future that she has chosen as her setting, but also the politics and inner workings of the world. It feels very coherent and thought-through, down to the language the soldiers use to describe certain things.
The Good Military
In today’s fiction, representatives of established forces such as a big company, the government or the army are usually the bad guy. Usually, it’s up to the ragtag band of rebels to make something happen and stick it to The Man. In this book, readers are supposed to care for said The Man who has full and absolute control over our main hero James Shelley whose first person narration allows for a lot of insight into his emotional lives. While he might disagree with many of the decisions made by his superiors, he does comply willingly and ends up being their instrument of war.
It is later revealed that he could have gone Absent Without Leave (AWOL) at any moment, because he does just that. He even gets arrested on the basis of treason and tried before being recruited into a unit that is so far off the books that not even people in charge of the black budget know about them.
It is commendable that Nagata does not pass commentary on the military, leaving readers alone with their emotions and thoughts about the good and bad of the situation. In order for that to work, though, a story needs compelling and relatable characters, such as James Shelley and his posse, made up of his handler Karin Larsen aka. Delphi, his father, a reporter friend, and the soldiers in his squad, most prominently Jaynie Vasquez. All of these characters are fleshed out and disagree with each other on ideological and practical levels frequently. This especially shines through in the second book of the series, The Trials, where Shelley and his squad, dubbed the Apocalypse Squad by the media, are on trial for treason.
All in all, Linda Nagata’s recently concluded trilogy is a very complex ordeal with many parties in this irregular war that she describes, constantly shifting alliances and opinions as well as a main character who is sometimes in charge and sometimes just isn’t.
The trilogy, concluded by Going Dark in late 2015, is an engaging, fast-paced read that has a unique setting, unique characters and shies away from a political message while being highly political in nature.
And while she’s at it, Linda Nagata also proves a few things that is of increasing importance in literature these days that have no bearing on the story or anything else.
- James Shelley is African American and many of the other characters of the book are also ethnic minorities
- Linda Nagata herself is a woman and is as such one of the Women authors that are in high demand
So yeah, this is a good trilogy to read. I was very impressed and you should read it.