The beauty of a good read. The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata–review and interview!
The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata, is a fast-paced, gritty, near-future militaristic sci-fi tale that combines all of my favorite things: a broken hero, hopeless love, a multi-layered plot with scary-real possibilities, and f*cking saving the world. This book played before my eyes like an action flick night after night, keeping me up too late and making me wonder and ponder through the day.
That's the beauty of a good read. It grabs you, and colors your vision (just like our hero's ocular overlay) and won't let you go 'til the end.
James Shelley is a hero we can truly root for. Part robo-cop, part romantic, and 100% physically brave, he is far from a cardboard cut-out as we learn the sorry tale of his indentured servitude for civil disobedience into an elite Linked Combat Squad. The soldiers are literally wired together via brain-chemical enhancing skullcaps and communicate through the Cloud online. They use body armor and mechanical structures that enhance their strength “dead sisters.” Artifical intelligence communication and drones “angels” are used for ongoing strategy and information gathering. This modern unit is all too plausible, because wars are orchestrated by private contractors to enhance the world economy, and James says, “there needs to be a war going on somewhere.”
Welcome to the near-future world–and if that weren't bad enough, there's the Red. What exactly is it, and is it a force for good or evil?
The Red: First Light will leave you wondering about the future of humanity, the Cloud and where we are all heading–and throw in a few Texas crazies, too, and the world is truly in peril.
I know Linda personally, and she agreed to answer a few questions on the blog. Linda, this book is so dynamic with so many layers to it. What was your inspiration?
The book started with the protagonist, James Shelley, who’d come to life in a short story I’d just written (“Through Your Eyes” Asimov’s Science Fiction April/May issue). I’d intended the story as a stand-alone, but Shelley wasn’t ready to leave the stage and I wasn’t ready to let him go, so I started thinking about consequences and where he might wind up as a result of his actions in the short story. Everything took off from there.
When I write a novel I collect ideas that interest me and use them to build the story world. Some of the themes in The Red: First Light are the apparent determination of the American government to be forever at war, the massive amount of government money transferred to private companies to support these wars, the influence of the wealthy and connected, and the soldiers themselves, left to do the best they can with what they’re given. Throw in a lot of just-around-the-corner technology. Shake well.
I loved how you spent time exploring the world of engineering, reconstructive medicine and artificial limbs. What gave you the idea to have James go through what he does in the book?
You know, you’re the only one who calls him James. 😉
(that's cause I'm a little bit in love with this dude.)
Anyway, a lot of my prior novels have dealt with biological enhancements and the directed evolution of humans. With this one, given its very near future setting, I wanted to go in a different direction so I took a more mechanical approach.
One interesting aspect of natural human physiology is the diversity of movement we’re capable of. There is an old riddle in biology that goes “Name an animal that can swim a mile, run five miles, and then climb a tree.” Recent years have seen amazing improvements in artificial limbs, but I wanted to go a step farther and combine the biological with the mechanical to try to encompass the full range of human motion—and then some.
You explore the world of private contract warfare and the Cloud. I think the book does a great job of raising issues without being preachy. What are your concerns as a citizen as we move toward a more “linked in” world?
The background of the story, generally offstage but always there, involves the corruption of representative democracy, in which influence peddling leads to policies benefitting the powerful while most of us remain pawns. Sound familiar? One common theme in science fiction is pursuing the idea of “If this goes on…”
Somewhere during the revision of this novel I read a nonfiction book called Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig which was a fascinating dissection of power and influence in American government that seemed to back up some of the extrapolations in The Red: First Light.
As for being “linked in,” it’s neither good nor bad in itself. As with most technology, the value comes in how we use it, or how we allow other people to use it to influence us.
The subplot of the love story was especially well done–as a hopeless romantic myself, I appreciated it, and I see you're already working on a new book. What's ahead for James' bumpy love life?
Answering that would involve spoilers, wouldn’t it? I’ll say only that there are more adventures on the way and that Shelley doesn’t get to take it easy quite yet.
Knowing you personally, I noticed how cagey you were about this book. Tell me about your process and how you stay true to your vision for a story?
I’ve always worked on my own, without feedback, to produce a first draft of a novel. For most of my writing career I was not involved in a writers group, so there was no pressure or reason to share parts of an early draft of a novel. I toyed with the strategy of early critique in recent years by bringing opening chapters of novels to our writers group, but honestly, the group experience only convinced me that “workshopping” a novel chapter-by-chapter is a bad idea. Not that anything bad resulted or was intended! But a novel-in-progress is a complex idea that is constantly evolving in the writer’s head. It’s an immature idea, surrounded by doubts and dreams and hard-to-enunciate expectations, any of which can be torpedoed by criticism, however well intended. Far better to get the whole thing down and then get it revised—bring it to the stage of being a sturdy adolescent—before introducing it to beta readers. And even then it’s best if early readers are sympathetic: the sort of readers you’ve written the book for.
We don’t like to admit it, but it’s a fact that a lot of readers are not going to like any given book. We’ve all encountered hugely popular novels that have left us scratching our heads, wondering what the appeal was, and conversely, we’ve all read stories we loved that other readers loathed. Suppose you encounter the wrong reader early in the writing process? The discouragement might be enough to derail your ideas, change the direction of the story, or even cause you to stop writing that story altogether. That’s why, in my opinion, first drafts are not for editorial eyes.
In the case of The Red: First Light I wanted to produce something that would please my science fiction audience, but would also have crossover appeal to fans of techno-thrillers, military, and adventure fiction. Only time will tell if I’ve succeeded!
Well I for one think you have! Thanks so much!
Linda Nagata is the author of multiple novels and short stories including The Bohr Maker, winner of the Locus Award for best first novel, and the novella “Goddesses,” the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands. Linda lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui. The Red: First Light is her newest novel.
Oooh, sounds like a fabulous book! Definitely need to check it out.
Thanks for sharing your writing process, Linda. Good interview, both of you. Mahalo!