Reality TV and advanced technology make for high drama in this political thriller that combines the military action of Zero Dark Thirty with the classic science fiction of The Forever War. Lieutenant James Shelley, who has an uncanny knack for premeditating danger, leads a squad of advanced US Army military tasked with enforcing the peace around a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The squad members are linked wirelessly 24/7 to themselves and a central intelligence that guides them via drone relay - and unbeknownst to Shelley and his team, they are being recorded for a reality TV show. When an airstrike almost destroys their outpost, a plot begins to unravel that's worthy of Crichton and Clancy's best. The conflict soon involves rogue defense contractors, corrupt US politicians, and homegrown terrorists who possess nuclear bombs. Soon Shelley must accept that the helpful warnings in his head could be AI. But what is the cost of serving its agenda?
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Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light is a superb military sci-fi thriller, and, for the most part, the narration from Kevin T. Collins does a darn fine job pulling the listener into the story and alongside Lieutenant James Shelley.
Right from the get-go, listeners are put into the elite armored squadron commanded by Shelley as they prepare to suit up in their mechanized uniforms, the squad connected via cerebral implants referred to as the overlay. Shelley and his team are in the African Sahel to maintain the peace as a secularist reformer rises to power. When their base comes under aerial assault, though, they realize — too late — that their peacekeeping efforts are for naught. Shelley, however, has a sort of sixth sense that has earned him the nickname King David from his comrades, who joke that he is able to receive the word of God. The truth, though, is a different story entirely and one that is both consistently captivating and increasingly frightening the more we learn about it.
Over the course of more than thirteen hours of audio, we join Shelley for a series of missions and a harrowing period of recovery after being severely injured early in the narrative. What follows, then, is a search for the truth behind his King David messages and his team’s efforts to halts homegrown terrorists working to incite revolution and tear Texas away from the Union.
The Red is a seriously dark bit of work, and more than a few scenes caught me off guard. Nagata’s first-person narrative manages to shock with sudden flashes of violence and terrific insights into the her characters. Shelley himself is a bit of conundrum – formerly an anti-war protester, he now serves the military to avoid jail time for past crimes, only to find himself increasingly loyal to the military and those who serve beneath him. The large question that looms is whether or not this is a natural growth for his character, or the result of whatever may be messing with his brain and repeatedly warning him of danger. How much of his decision and actions are truly his own? And how long can he rely on the King David insights to keep him and his soldiers safe?
I refuse to give away much more than this, but please be aware that we’re only scratching the surface of the book’s plotting. There’s a great sense of breadth to the events here, and plenty of fantastic military action sequences. The upgrades these soldiers sport is really fantastic, and the augmentations provided by the military make sense in a beautifully cynical and bureaucratic way. Operating at the behest of mega-rich defense contractors, and beneath their constant and subtle warnings of reprisal if ignored, Nagata’s story brings to the forefront Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex and their threat to democracy. This aspect makes her story feel all the more timely rather than a far-flung future scenario.
As narrator, Collins handles the material suitably well. Any criticisms I have toward his work here are very, very small, but I will say that it took me a little bit of time to adjust to his inflections and airy tones when narrating dialogue from the female characters. I also didn’t really care for his use of “spoken” shouts during some of the more-intense action scenes that requires characters to be yelling back and forth or attempting to command attention. I would have preferred to just have an actual shout with some pure energy and raw acting talent behind it. But again, these are rather mild complaints and did not take away from the overall listening experience. Throughout it all, the audio quality maintains a level consistency and solid production values, with the narration coming through crisp, clear, and well delivered.
Bottom line: Linda Nagata just earned herself a new fan with this book! I loved it and am now eagerly anticipating the chance to either read or listen to the next two books in this trilogy.
Audiobook purchased for review by ABR.
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Attempted to be exciting without success
This is mostly a military sci-fi book, and the various combat descriptions are ok. The skullcaps, the overlay, and so on were pretty cool. The reader was not the best choice for a military book, since his attempts at yelling are so pathetic that it jars you out of the story almost every time. But my main problem with the book is I didn't care at all what happened to any of the characters - a fatal flaw for any fiction. In addition, the born-again woman who was supposedly the villainous witch running the defense contractor was silly and distracting. Any finally, two major facets of the book, the prosthetic limbs and the Red (a rogue AI) were undeveloped. For example, after countless descriptions of how awesome the legs are, he never really uses the unique features besides their ability to survive a bullet hit. As the book continues on, it seems to get worse. The final mission is supposed to be planned by these elite, experienced officers, but it seemed like the worst plan ever. Finally, I felt the political bias was unnecessary and out of place in a book like this. There was a bit of an elitist attitude, where Texas as a state should be laughed at, while NYC (where the main character was arrested for over-enthusiastic activist activities) is considered superior. In conclusion, it was good enough to keep going to the end, but I don't recommend it for anybody.