I’ve been a fan of Linda Nagata’s work for quite a while. A whole swathe of her novels came out in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s and I devoured them all eagerly. The relentlessly strange first half of Vast (1998), the culmination of the loose tetralogy that had begun with The Bohr Maker (1995) is still one of the best things I’ve ever read. Of course a new writer always has missteps – I found Deception Well (1997), the third of the tetralogy, to be an incoherent slog, redeemed only by the magnificent abseil down the skyhook and the second half of Vast, once the protagonists arrive, is a bit of a let-down after the thrill of the journey. But there was always enough great stuff in her books to keep me interested.
So far as I could tell though, Nagata dropped off the map after about 2003, the year Memory came out, or at least my map, until I found a copy of The Red: First Light, the first book of an eponymous trilogy, earlier this year. The blurb to that filled in the gaps – that she had gone big into self-publishing/e-publishing in the meantime. No surprise then, that to an old-fashioned die hard like me, who still gauges a writer’s activity by what is in paper, on shelves, she should seem to have vanished. [UPDATE August 8th.: Via Twitter, Linda has told me that she did in fact give up writing for about ten years and having used self-publishing as a route back in, is gravitating back towards traditional publishing.]
The world of The Red: First Light, The Trials and Going Dark is a near future of technologically enhanced soldiers – Linked Combat Squads – operating in small, self-contained wars, where the battle lines between nation states, ‘dragons’ (oligarchs) and corporations, with their ‘mercs’ have become blurred. Into this, emerges ‘The Red,’ a rogue AI which can manipulate situations, even to the point of hacking into some of these soldiers and using them for its own ends.
The focal point of the story is one such soldier, James Shelley whose journey goes from regular US army grunt, to quasi-secret agent for The Red, neutralising ‘existential threats’ with his squad. Nagata’s great coup is to give The Red a consumerist corporate origin, implying that the primary goal of neutralising these threats is to benefit ‘the market’ and that saving the world for humanity at the same time is just happenstance.
The plot arc of the first two books focusses on tracking down rogue nuclear weapons, some of which are successfully used by a dragon to obliterate a lot of the Internet (through EMP) in an attempt to destroy The Red. These are the two best books. I found the third, Going Dark, weaker, possibly because with its by-line of ‘No real allies, no fixed enemies, no certain battlefields,‘ the reader is no longer certain of who or what they’re rooting for. Of course this is a perfectly logical development of Nagata’s initial premise but it makes it harder for the reader to stay engaged. And of course as a European, I might baulk at the ‘happy ending’ of Shelley’s last mission failing, thereby handing the means to control The Red to the US govt.
Nagata’s writing style has improved immeasurably since her early novels. What is really striking about the trilogy is the way the tautly wrought, narrow and rigorous world of military tech in which most of the story is set, is realised. This is deeply impressive. In fact it’s done so well that the parts set in the ‘real’ world with Shelley’s father and girlfriend Lissa are quite jarring; so much so that I cheered when Lissa became collateral damage at the end of book one. Probably the author did not intend this!
If the trilogy has one drawback, it is that it’s full of coincidences. These are explained away logically enough as the behind the scenes manipulations of The Red. Nevertheless a few do seem over the top. I particularly disliked the way that Delphi and Vasquez are dragged back into the narrative in book three through a totally random encounter in the Arctic, having been given an out with the heist at the end of book two. Even once you concede that they’re part of the bigger story, Vasquez’s decision to return to military action seems unconvincing.
Overall though, these are small gripes in what is a superb story. One hopes someone like HBO will snap it up and bring it to our screens.