The Red: First Light Is a Scarily Plausible Military SF Thriller

theredLinda Nagata is best known for her loosely interwoven series The Nanotech Succession, considered by those in the know to be one of the defining works of the nanopunk sub-genre. In 2013, she shifted her gears of war, self-publishing the military future-tech thriller The Red: First Light, which went on to become the first self-published novel ever nominated for a Nebula Award (alongside books by Neil Gaiman, Ann Leckie, and Nicola Griffith, no less).

The first entry in The Red trilogy, First Light, is now getting a well-deserved paperback re-release from Saga Press (with the sequels, The Trials and Going Dark, following later this year), giving readers another opportunity to discover the cinematic flow of Nagata’s not-so-distant-future warfare technology mashup, where Tom Clancy meets Robocop, with a dash of Mission: Impossible and a smidgen of Stark Industries.

Lieutenant James Shelley is the young commander of a tough-as-nails, tech-swathed “Linked Combat Squad,” or LCS—official motto: “Innovation. Coordination. Inspiration.” It’s fitting: all soldiers in an LCS are “linked” via a fancy skullcap that connects them during combat missions, with troop movements, vitals, and enemy info relayed on full-face visors (though some, like the cyborg Shelley, require no visor thanks to “ocular overlays”). The skullcaps also work with specialized brain implants, helping each soldier regulate and maintain their emotions and mental balance, like an ever-present digital Zoloft drip. The LCS squads are also connected by Guidance, an omnipresent off-site human help desk that provides mission critical data, as well as a dedicated, all-seeing Angel drone feeding them real-time overhead imagery.

Tech-wise, it’s a pretty slick setup, and we first meet Shelley’s team from their base in the steamy African Sahel, where they are part of a theoretical peacekeeping unit, helping the locals fend off a deadly warlord. Their time is spent picking off small pockets of insurgents, but the encounters are typically pretty one-sided, given that each LCS soldier is equipped with really big guns and a robotic combat exoskeleton—lovingly nicknamed a “dead sister” because of its framework resemblance to human bones. As Shelley coldly intones, “Subtlety is not our talent.”

A bunch of lopsided battles don’t make for terribly compelling reading over the long haul, and Nagata punches up the drama when things unexpectedly go very badly for Shelley’s LCS during a routine attack. This leads not only to the introduction of more fantastic man/machine modifications, but lays the foundation for the uncovering of a massive, deadly conspiracy that fuels the balance of the narrative. Further muddying the mix: it seems that Shelley’s implants have been receiving mysterious, precognitive notifications moments before danger strikes, and they’re either coming from an undetectable system hack on the supposedly impenetrable system or, as some suspect, from an otherworldly higher power.

Manic military action is in ample supply, and Nagata presents it all with a breathless visual flair that made me long for a big-screen adaptation—if The Red series hasn’t been optioned for movie rights, it needs to happen as soon as humanly possible. Do the right thing, Hollywood! A thrilling segment involving an explosive U.S. bunker raid that involves the unleashing of tactical nukes is a mere tease for the climactic encounter in the big bad’s snowy mountain fortress, where robotic wolves are the least of Team Shelley’s problems. When the incendiary action takes to the skies, things get downright apocalyptic.

All the super-advanced tech aside, this is a story that feels like it could be taking place a few years from now, or perhaps even today, considering how little most of us know about what’s actually going on with top secret military weapons research. It is one thing for a sci-fi writer to create a future world populated with far-out firepower light-years beyond anything we have today. Nagata’s modern-day-or-not-far-from-it creations seem both plausible and fantastic. That air of plausibility is essential for a genre-straddler like this; there is a believably organic texture to the various hardware, software, and weapons. The meshing of humans with technology—leading, inevitably, to dangerous co-dependence—is seamlessly presented. And man oh man, it is exciting.

The Red: First Light is available June 30. Sequel The Trials hits August 18.

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