“The Devil has given you his protection, Lieutenant, but it will not always be so. Confess what you know, forswear his gifts, cut yourself off from the Cloud that is his home, and stand up in defense of this world God has given us. For the Devil is everywhere. He is the red stain bleeding through into all the affairs of men, and the army can’t protect you.”
Lieutenant James Shelley is not your average soldier. For one, he only enlisted when faced with a threat—after participating in an anti-war protest (and his footage of the subsequent brutality leaked online), he was given the choice to either go to prison for a year, or work off his time in the U.S. Armed Forces. For another, Shelley’s career as a soldier is exceptional—even if he doesn’t admit he likes it—as he skillfully rises through the grunt ranks and is given command of his own unit and posted wherever the fighting goes. And one more thing: Shelley hears the voice of God.
Well, maybe it’s not “God,” but it’s the best analogy he (and those in his command) come up with. Shelley gets these feelings; an intuition when something is about to go down, a voice whispering in his deepest consciousness warning him of danger, telling him things he could never have predicted on his own. It’s the “King David thing” (in the words of Ransom, one of Shelley’s soldiers), and everyone that has served with him learns to trust the LT’s hunches without question.
But what happens when that feeling is actually manufactured by someone or something with unknowable goals? What happens when an entire global economy, and masses of thousands and millions of people are wired to follow these suggestions and nudges—suggestions that come from what Shelley and others start to call “The Red”? What happens to a mere Lieutenant who is caught in the middle, a pawn being manipulated and sacrificed by the Army and the Red?
Originally published independently by Linda Nagata’s own Mythic Island Press in 2013, First Light amassed a fan following and was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Awards. In 2015, Saga Press (a speculative fiction–focused new imprint of Simon & Schuster) re-published First Light, as well as two new books in The Red trilogy. Positioned as perfect for fans of the action of the film Zero Dark Thirty and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (with a dash of reality television and robo-suit-soldier action of All You Need Is Kill/The Edge of Tomorrow thrown in the mix), First Light first crossed my radar at the end of last year when the title and trilogy started to pop up on a number of best of the year lists for SF/F fans. Naturally, I had to give it a read, and I’m so very glad I did. While the book does embody several of the prelisted comps—it does have the action and intensity of Zero Dark Thirty, The Forever War, The Edge of Tomorrow, etc.—these comparisons also somehow sell First Light short. Because this isn’t just a military science-fiction novel with cyborg soldiers and a constant-war agenda; First Light is also a careful, exploratory novel about the economics and socio-politics of war, the costs (human and monetary) of prolonged fighting, the price of constant interconnectivity, and, surprisingly (at least to me) a deep meditation on questions of fate/destiny/divine intervention. It’s also, again surprisingly, a powerful reflection on soldiers, trauma, and rehabilitation—and the physical and mental toll of war on its ground fighters.
In other words: First Light is one hell of a book.
The most immediately striking thing about First Light is the novel’s protagonist, Lieutenant James Shelley. When the story opens, Lt. Shelley and his squad are in the African Sahel at Fort Dassari, engaged in a ground war started by defense contractors (DCs) to keep the powerful global economic war machine grinding. Shelley is already a jaded and cynical soldier (at least, he thinks that he is jaded and cynical), and his narrative, unfolding in the first person gives readers a direct line to his thoughts, questions, insecurities, fears. As a protagonist, James Shelley is top shelf—young but always questioning, dedicated to keeping himself (and those on his team) alive. He’s also working with limited and imperfect information, and his frustration at being at the mercy of The Red, the Army, various DCs is palpable throughout. When James, early on in the book, decides to go against the voice of God and return to save a fellow soldier, he is injured gravely—both of his legs are severed above the knee. But because of his abilities as a leader (and his popularity due to a reality TV show, aired by the Army without James’ knowledge or consent), the Army decides to outfit the Lieutenant with new robotic legs—it’s a new scheme to create more effective, cheaper soldiers. The book effectively pivots from skirmishes and standard military SF action in its first third, to a story about a soldier with PTSD, addiction, and physical rehabilitation in its next section, and closing with the highest of stakes of war and larger implications for this world in its final act.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Using the lens of a single, sympathetic soldier caught up in a mess much larger than just himself (or just his unit—what remains of it), First Light asks the big questions about war, how it powers the global economy, how conflicts are manufactured to grease the gears of commerce, and the lives that are affected in constant, never-ending-armed conflict’s wake.
I am hesitant to say more, just because there are so many discoveries in First Light that need to be made by the reader. There are layers, upon layers, upon layers of meaning to James Shelley’s story.
All I will say is this: The Red: First Light is one fantastic speculative fiction novel, from a plotting, characterization, military sci-fi, and thematic standpoint. And I plan on reading and reviewing the next two books in The Red series immediately.
In Book Smugglerish: 8 neurochemical manipulating skullcaps out of 10.