The Red: First Light

Linda Nagata
The Red: First Light Cover

Blockbuster action


Possibly not part of The Most Famous Military SF canon just yet, but like any standard Military SF hero, this book just will not die. Self-pubbed in 2013 and picked up by Saga Press in 2015, it keeps popping up in my periphery, getting rave reviews from new and old SF fans alike, and is no stranger to the occasional SF shortlist. I was looking for an excuse to check it out, but it's actually the only recent Military SF novel to stand out in my mind.

Nagata, clearly aware of the canon preceding her, includes her own extrapolative twists to signature tropes: the armor is psychologically addictive, inter-platoon sexual relations are prevented by chemically-induced sibling sentiment, military campaigns doubly serve as reality TV, and conflicts are Earth-based, because, hello, we're well into the new millennium and we're still not in space. Though most of the above novels include some surprising amount of ethnic diversity for their eras, The Red is the only novel of this group to cast a non-white protagonist and a sizable non-white supporting cast. Seat-gripping tension, compelling intrigue, and likeable characters not only drive the sinuous plot forward, but come alive in the mind like an explosive Hollywood blockbuster movie. Hollywood should be calling soon--Nagata deserves no less.

Not without its flaws, though that's part of what lends that blockbuster flavor. Characters of all races tend to verge toward the stereotypical; the thin, sexy, computer-nerd, supportive Asian girlfriend being perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the bunch. The hero of the tale, despite his non-white status, doesn't divert much from other cocky SF heroes, coming from a background of wealth, privilege, and entitlement. And, like Ender's Game, The Redconstantly oscillates between criticism and respect for military service, aiming for balance, but becomes alarming when the lead characters form their own vigilante militarist group. This development should invite much good analysis.

As a sidenote, skepticism of Nagata's portrayal of redneck Texans getting all secessionist and evil and trying to murder the world for profit will evaporate when you find yourself driving behind a truck with a huge "Don't Tread On Me" flag flying off the tailgate. Twice. In one month. Different trucks.

Overall, I always feel a little bit manipulated and bothered after I finish reading blockbuster-feeling novels. Although I greatly enjoyed The Red in the moment, the tang of canned aftertaste arrived soon after, a mainstream symptom that's usually a good sign that most people will adore this book and, given my track record on mainstream tang/film contract correlates, an indicator that Hollywood really will be calling soon. Sure to be a classic.