There’s a story behind every story, but few are as interesting as the one behind Linda Nagata’s The Red trilogy. Nagata, an experienced author with multiple traditionally published books to her name, elected to self-publish the first installment, The Red: First Light, and went on to earn a Nebula Award nomination for her efforts—the first time a self-published novel ever earned the honor. Shortly thereafter, the book was picked up by Saga Press and expanded into a trilogy.
Recently, we spoke with Nagata about self-publishing, military slang,and how the trilogy came together.
The Red: First Light is a near-ish future military SF thriller—can you introduce the world and outline how you came up with it?
I think of The Red: First Light as day-after-tomorrow fiction. In the story world, America is involved in perpetual, low-level warfare, with a government controlled by the extremely wealthy—among them, defense contractors whose business model relies on war. The story centers on US Army Lieutenant James Shelley, a boots-on-the-ground infantry officer who, like most soldiers, is trying to do the best he can in a bad situation.
Shelley is part of a cutting edge, very high-tech unit, but as with most cutting edge developments, there are unanticipated vulnerabilities.
This is high-tech, “hard” science fiction. Most of the technology in the novel is extrapolated from real-world research.
What drew you to writing a military novel? What types of research did you do to get the feel of the military hardware and language correct?
In a sense, it was almost a fluke that I wound up writing a trilogy of military novels. I had developed the character of James Shelley in a short story, called “Through Your Eyes,” but though the story was done, the character wasn’t ready to walk off stage. I found myself wondering, “what happens after?” And I found the answer in a background element of that original story: Shelley was going to wind up in the US Army. The moment I realized that, I knew I had a novel. And what I found along the way is that military fiction allows me to explore the themes that have always drawn me to fiction: honor, duty, action, physical challenges, moral questions, technology, and a means to examine real-world policies and politics.
I didn’t do a lot of initial research. Instead, I just sketched a few general ideas and started writing. My plan was to note in the manuscript where I had questions, so that I could come back later and figure out what I needed. So during the first draft, I did just enough research to keep moving forward. And later I checked and rewrote, and rechecked and rewrote, with most of that follow-on research done online. I could not have written this novel without the internet.
As for the language of the military…well, military slang is, of course, diverse and abundant, and much of it is ever-changing. In The Red: First Light I decided to use a few made-up terms, some well-known acronyms, and some basic profanity, to suggest the setting while keeping it comprehensible to readers.
This was a novel that you’ve written after taking a break from writing novels: what lessons did you learn in the meantime that helped you write this book?
I actually returned to long-form fiction with a pair of fantasy novels—The Dread Hammer and Hepen the Watcher—and moved on to The Red: First Light after that. If I learned anything from the time away, it was a sterner determination. With The Red: First Light, I knew I wanted to write a military story. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and I wasn’t at all confident I could sell it if I did, but I was determined to try—and I’m glad I did.
One thing that struck me was the amount of religious language that you use throughout this novel. Do you feel that people will come to view AI systems as a sort of deity?
Some might. Who knows? But I wanted to acknowledge the presence of religion in American society. Shelley grew up in an agnostic home. He’s never taken religious belief seriously, but in the army he encounters others who do. Throughout the story he’s faced with life and death situations, moral questions, questions of duty, and of fate—and in his own cynical way, he’s looking for answers.
I had to laugh while reading: you really don’t like Texas much, do you?
You’re trying to get me in trouble, aren’t you? I’ll just say that the Texans I know who’ve read it seem entertained.
Your book was the first self-published novel to earn a Nebula nomination. What was that like?
It was gratifying and affirming. It’s fair to say I had a chip on my shoulder in regard to traditional publishing, so much so that I didn’t even try to sell the book to a traditional publisher. I just didn’t have the patience for it. So it was a sort of validation, an affirmation that I really could play this game by my own rules. And of course that only happened because members of SFWA (who nominate and vote for the Nebula awards) overlooked the lack of a stamp of approval from a traditional publisher, and willingly considered the book on its own merits—and I’m very grateful for that.
You first self-published the book, but your entire trilogy is now coming out from Saga Press. How did that come to transpire?
It was thanks to my long-time agent. When I decided to self-publish the book, I let him know what I was up to and he was okay with it. But after the Nebula nomination we got to talking. He really loved the book and convinced me to take a shot at a traditional contract—and since then the agency has done a great job with the rights.
Did you have to re-edit or make any changes to The Red: First Light when you sold it to Saga?
Changes were minimal, essentially just polishing here and there. That was something we’d agreed on before the contract was signed. The book had already been out in the world for a year, it had been nominated for two awards, so it didn’t make sense to me to undertake extensive revisions and Joe Monti, my editor at Saga Press, agreed. So, while a few details and some terminology has changed, the Saga Press edition is essentially the same as the original Mythic Island Press LLC version.
The Trials takes place shortly after The Red: First Light, with Shelley and the rest of his squad on trial for their actions. How did you approach keeping interest up through a courtroom drama, rather than a military one?
I like to think that a courtroom drama is inherently interesting. After all, it’s a storyline that’s powered many very popular legal thrillers. And in The Trials, the courtroom sequence involves security issues, political maneuvering, and ultimately, life and death deliberations. But the court martial is only the beginning of a story that quickly expands into wider horizons. I think that fans of military action will find a lot to like in this volume as Shelley and company are faced with new and unexpected challenges.
What types of research did you have to do to get the court stuff right?
I admit it was intimidating to contemplate writing a court martial proceeding. I’d never approached anything like it before—but the research proved fascinating. I used as many references as I could find to try to get the procedure and dialect right, but I had two primary sources. One was the United States government’s Manual for Courts-Martial, which contained a wealth of information on process, and the details of charges that could be brought. The transcripts of the Bradley Manning court martial were my other primary source. The Manning court martial was taking place as I was writing the opening section of The Trials. The nonprofit group, Freedom of the Press Foundation, used crowd-funded donations to hire a stenographer to record the proceedings, and then made the transcripts available online to the public. The Manning court martial was very different from what I had in mind for The Trials, but as an example of courtroom procedure and dialect it was extremely helpful.
When you finished First Light, did you have a longer narrative in mind, or did this story come after?
When I started First Light I was contemplating a stand-alone novel, but as it neared completion the debate became: one more book, or two? Of course in the end I settled on a trilogy: The Red: First Light, The Trials, and Going Dark.
In the third, Going Dark, Shelley has been recruited by a black-ops outfit with a unique chain-of-command—how did this story come together?
With great difficulty! Of the three books, I found Going Dark to be the most challenging to write because it needed to continue the story, and, in the end, to wrap things up in some meaningful way, but it had to do this without feeling repetitive of events in the earlier books—and without going off the rails. There’s a temptation in science fiction to push events far past plausibility, to reach out for an alternate, essentially spiritual dimension. I did not want to do that. I wanted this story to be grounded in the reality of war, and of combat, and of a soldier’s experience, and the cost of that experience. And at the same time I needed to follow the implications of the technology I’ve used in this story world. At times it felt like a tangle, and I was constantly re-plotting the story as I wrote it, but I’m satisfied with the way it evolved in the end.
Something I’ve been reminded of as I read these books is the television show Person of Interest, about a computer intelligence that emerges out of various programs. There’s some other books that have tackled this subject as well. Why do you think AI is so popular now?
I think AI has been a popular element of science fiction at least since the ’80s, and probably before that. It’s long odds that we’ll ever encounter intelligent aliens, but the classic science fiction AI would be a home-grown nonhuman intelligence, so of course that’s fascinating. But is it plausible? Different people mean different things when they talk about artificial intelligence. “Strong” AI is the classic, conscious entity, and that still looks to be as far away as ever. But we’re living in a world where we’ve begun to frequently encounter artificial intelligence systems—not conscious, but still very clever—so naturally a lot of story tellers want to look at the implications of that, and ask the classic question, what happens if this goes on?
You published a couple of short stories set in the same world as The Red: First Light. Do you have plans to write any more?
No, the publication of Going Dark closes out my plans for the story world of The Red. “Never say never,” but for now it feels like it’s time to move on.
What’s next for you?
As the saying goes, we live in a science fiction world, and what I’m most interested in right now is that intersection between the amazing technologies we already have, and those that might become possible in just a few years—in other words, the territory of the techno-thriller. At the same time, it seemed logical for me to try at least one more military novel, so that’s what I’m working on right now—another near-future military thriller, but set in a different story world. I’m planning for this one to be a stand-alone. We’ll see how that goes.