At first glance, The Red: First Light, the first book of The Red Trilogy by Linda Nagata (@LindaNagata), seems like a fairly straightforward entry in the military/sci-fi genre. There are exciting and well-written action scenes, some very cool weapons and gear for the near-future soldiers to use, and an over-arching plotline involving a rogue artificial intelligence that may or may not be messing with the world at large.
But like the (very cool) titanium exoskeletons worn by soldiers in the US Army’s elite Linked Combat Squads (LCS), the popcorn-movie action is just the surface — there are deeper issues at play here for the reader interested in seeing them. Issues as old as President Eisenhower’s famous speech in 1961 warning about the Military-Industrial Complex becoming too powerful.
“THERE NEEDS TO BE A WAR going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.”
— Nagata, Linda (2015-06-30). The Red: First Light (The Red Trilogy Book 1) (Kindle Locations 21-23). Saga Press. Kindle Edition.
The speaker of these lines, which open the book, is narrator Lieutenant James Shelley. Shelley and his handful of LCS soldiers are deployed to Africa, running patrols and combat ops out of a pre-fab fort. The “L” in LCS stands for linked and these soldiers are: to each other and through the Cloud back to an oversight and coordination group called Guidance. They wear skullcaps that facilitate this connection as well as monitoring and when necessary modifying their emotional states. Shelley and the other LCS soldiers have become “emo junkies,” relying on the skullcaps to keep their emotions in check; so much so that he dreads the minute and a half in the shower when he has to remove it to wash his scalp.
Shelley’s deployment to Africa has been successful — over nine months, no deaths in his LCS squad — in no small part to the hunches he keeps getting warning him of danger. His soldiers call him “King David,” suggesting God whispers in his ear, but soon enough we learn there is a more scientific and frightening explanation: a rogue AI hiding within the Cloud. Is The Red, as Shelley takes to calling it, good or bad? Who created it, and why? Can it be destroyed or controlled? The answer to this last question is worrisome: what would happen if one or more of the mostly untouchable Defense Contractors controlled The Red?
And what’s the story on the reality TV show produced from the audio and video automatically recorded by Shelley and his LCS during their African deployment? Is that The Red’s work as well, or just Army propaganda?
The Red: First Light is the opener for a planned trilogy, so of course answers are scarce, and those nuggets that are unearthed only serve to create more questions. As mentioned above, the action set pieces, including assaults on a fortified bunker and wilderness fortress, are razor sharp. I strongly suggest future readers ensure they have enough time to get all the way through those scenes as they’ll be hard-pressed to set the book aside (this advice based on my own experience reading into the early hours). Between these action scenes the deeper themes are developed, and I enjoyed these quieter moments almost as much as the battles. Shelley makes a fine narrator, providing a somewhat reluctant warrior’s viewpoint to the proceedings. He picked the Army as the better option over prison, but to his surprise found a place where he fits in and can thrive — an uncomfortable realization (and, if you substitute ‘unemployment line” for prison, one made by me as well as several others I served with).
Although not every aspect of the story worked for me — I’m not much for grand conspiracy theories, generally, and the reality TV show seemed one apple too many for the basket — I enjoyed The Red: First Light a whole lot and plan on continuing Shelley’s search for answers with the next book.