Book Review: The Red: First Light

I read a lot of books, and most don’t get reviewed here on the blog. The ones I spend the time to review are ones I find significant (or wacky) in some way. I don’t need to say Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light is an excellent Sci-Fi novel, as it’s been reviewed many times and nearly captured a brace of prestigious awards. It’s cracking good adventure, has excellent character depth, a delightfully high stakes Alistair MacLean plot and even a believable and heartbreaking love story woven in–the latter not something usually found done well in a Sci-Fi book. I’m not the first to say it’s a worthy carrier of Haldeman’s The Forever War torch in theme, character and tone (yes, many f-bombs).

The book has great bones and Nagata writes well. She handles description with grace and balance: “The sun has set, but a long blue twilight is lingering. Somewhere far off a coyote howls. As the sound fades, I hear the faint thrum of a distant engine.” A paragraph later, Nagata addresses the base and explicit themes of Forever War-like military culture with a soldier’s heartfelt directness: “Lust is brain chemistry, but so is the way you feel about your sisters and brothers. You might love them, you might die for them, but unless you’re a twisted fuck, the last thing you want to do is have sex with your siblings.” There, within a single page, she has hit two entirely different ends of the literary spectrum and it flows perfectly. Turn of phrase? Check: “I’m given a pill that neatly snips the night right out of the flow of time.” Really good craft.

Nagata’s eye for detail is something an impatient reader might miss but I appreciate her detail and delivery. Here, passage of time after an internal monologue is implied: “There’s a blue stain in my palm when I finally put the pill under my tongue.” Her ability to connote inner horror is a strength in this book which has mind control as a main theme: “God must have forgotten to whisper a warning to me that Satan was about to drag me to the edge of the black abyss.” Finally, her delivery of the story’s beats are done with dispatch and impact: “But when her head turns, when I see her staring at my legs, I get scared–more scared than I have ever been before. ‘Tell me,’ I whisper. ‘Both gone,’ she says, ‘just above the knees.'”

On the whole, her dialogue in on point, though there are a few passages where I think the diction was too formal. Having been in the military and hung out with everyone from privates to generals, I’m aware that the American military is verbally informal. Also, you don’t salute indoors except in very specific instances. Minor nit.

Going beyond just a book review, an author review

So why bother with another review? Because this is a ‘near future’ themed novel, published almost eight years ago (hence conceived even earlier, around 2012), there is an opportunity to examine how well Nagata anticipated the speed and breadth of technology’s growth and its influence on society. Let’s take a look at 2012 and some key techs that are covered in the novel: Exoskeletons and robotics; biomechanical interfaces; AI/machine learning; and most of all, media and its social-fracturing influence.

Some level-sets: Nagata’s idea of autonomous, AI-powered devices like her angel drone and powered armor was far ahead of tech at that time. In 2012, the iPhone 5’s CPU, a good example of a CPU that could conceivably be deployed in a powered suit or drone, was rocking 6.5 GB/sec memory speed and 12 GFLOPS in the GPU (throughput is important for AI). Like other mobile CPUs, it was a 32-bit design and too power hungry for small gear (the Apple watch was not yet introduced). As for AI, it was being investigated, some large companies were building infrastructure around it (I know, my firm was helping many of them), but AI was still held back by CPU bottlenecks, lack of software building blocks, and data transfer speeds. In 2011, GPUs were just getting started with AI and those needed more power than you could deploy in a small battery-operated device.

Technology’s pace is intense, but Nagata caught the wave

Exoskeletons and robotics. In December 2013, after Nagata’s book was published, Google bought Boston Scientific, which had, at that time, a few clunky robots that could barely turn and had trouble with stairs. But under Google they have made literal leaps and strides. Remember when Google’s motto was “do no evil”? Yeah. By 2019, Boston Sci’s dogs weren’t funny any more, they were frightening and capable of astonishing agility. This video gives a good idea of where BoSci as then and where it’s come. By 2019, police departments were already using those dogs.

Human exoskeletons, initially investigated in the early 2000s,  were similarly clunky as late as 2014, as we did not have compact power sources or enough efficient processing power to solve multidimensional degrees of freedom and balance, let alone fine-tuned biofeedback. The Sarcos Guardian XO, a pioneering exoskeleton, wasn’t available until 2019, and their remote-control DX robot is just now in 2020 getting defense contracts.

Nagata mainstreamed both exoskeletons and robotics into her story with the ‘dead sister’ exoskeletons used by the Linked Combat Squad (LCS) soldiers and the scary robotic wolf her heroes struggle against. She did a good job eyeballing the speed of tech development and how robotic development would go hand in hand with improvements in power delivery, AI processing and control. All in all, she was on target for her near-future concept coming to pass in the 2020s.

Biomechanical Interfaces. Nerve control of prostheses, a key theme in the Red trilogy, was primitive in the mid 2010s. In addition to the difficult job of sensing nerve impulses, we did not have either the AI designs or computational tech to do a decent job translating from bio to mechanical. It was not until 2020 (“the physics is just terrible“) that both AI / machine learning and medicine came together to make this a viable technology. Nagata blended these concepts with anticipated advances in robotics, control and power efficiency to bring her LCS soldiers’ bio interfaces to life. All in all, the Red tech converged pretty much as the Real World is here in the early 2020s. The biggest stretch from current tech is the mind-reading and mind-influencing skullcaps worn by LCS soldiers, and we’ve already seen in 2019 tech that can read your thoughts: “For a soldier, that might mean the chance to damp down fear in the face of an enemy, or patch-in a remote team to help out in the field.” Scary.

AI/machine learning. AI of course plays a big role in many aspects of Nagata’s universe. In the last 10 years, miniaturization of CPU/GPUs have enabled appliances to run AI algorithms which are vastly increased in complexity–and on low power. Current 64-bit CPUs have 5 times the throughput and up to a 100 times the GFLOPs of 2012 models. Transistor counts have gone from hundreds of millions to over 11 billion, all while using less energy. You could conceive now of a net of these in an exo-skel, processing a set of combat-assist AI models like the targeting system used by the LCS troopers. Cellular networks like 5G promise to pull together vast amounts of data for AI to mine. That brings us to the core of the novel–‘the Red,’ a semi-sentient algorithm manipulating humans to suit its own purposes. In a cheeky, jaded serving of dark humor, we learn the genesis of The Red is…wait for it…a marketing program gone rogue. So 21st century, as we are tracked today from device to device with cookies and other tracking tech to expose our thoughts, interests, and appetites.

Which leaves one more thing…how would society be affected by tech’s advances?

Social impact of media. Given the insane world of Trumpian America, this is the part of Nagata’s story that really made me sit up and take notice. Sure I appreciated all the dovetailing of tech discussed above, but Nagata’s description of American social breakdown is disturbingly close to the Trump era of Orwellian reality distortion and social polarization. In today’s America, where reality is what the ‘influencers’ say it is, we have hundreds of millions of people believing stuff that has no basis in reality. Facts are discarded for “beliefs” and armed mobs erupt at events once thought mundane (like elections).

Let’s take leaders and how they influence. In The Red: First Light, Nagata introduces Thelma Sheridan, a billionaire-type who co-leads a defense contracting firm (DC). The DC companies are the tails that wag the dog, making sure there’s always a war to sell into. Nagata’s characters reflect on the influencers: “You almost have to be crazy–obsessive, driven, usefully delusional–to come out on top in a world this big. Sane people just can’t keep up.” (My emphasis.) When I read that it kicked me right in the gut. It’s how I feel after the 4-year mind-warp of the Trump administration. That line could be describing Trump or someone like Elon Musk. Thelma’s raving intensity when she attempts to subvert the squad of LCS commandos reminds me of Fox news personalities and several press secretaries that have served the white house.

About the media…this plays a part in The Red, primarily through a thread where the front-line soldier’s very experiences, sights and thoughts (as translated by their AI into communications) are captured and produced as a reality-TV show. Reporters are used as pawns in the propaganda war that rages alongside the shooting war. Again, very jaded on Nagata’s part, but can we be shocked at the concept, given how much privacy we’ve abdicated to Google and Facebook, given the ubiquity (and baseness) of reality TV?

Then there is the fracturing and polarization of society. In The Red, things get so nuts that we essentially have a second American revolution. Nagata channels the Proud Boys (founded 2016) and similar groups for her revolutionaries, the TIA: “…men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying automatic weapons. Most look to be in their thirties, and most look out of shape and overweight.” Dead on, for any of the fake ‘militias‘ that have plagued the US in 2020. Nagata’s Colonel Kendrick grouses about “a front of Bible-jerking jack-offs…calling themselves the Texas Independence Army.” Sure, there were militias when Nagata wrote the book. What’s eerie is that you can imagine that readers back in 2014, when this book came out, may have thought the author’s depictions of American social fracturing over the top. Actually, Nagata barely got the novel out before the world got to that level of crazy. How far off from 2020s America is Nagata’s Red? All in all, not far.

In the end, I think the pulling together of technical trends was superb, but you could argue that’s a Sci-Fi author’s stock in trade. A pro like Linda Nagata should get that right, and she did. But foreseeing the social diffraction, intensity and even insanity of 2020s America was a step beyond. Recently, Nagata’s book was included in a ‘most influential‘ list, and Linda wrote in her blog: “This list is, of course, just one man’s opinion….I can’t help but observe that the Red trilogy is rather obscure…”

Well, hell, it shouldn’t be obscure and Linda Nagata should not be surprised the book was included. I can just imagine others reading The Red: First Light thinking they had read a great science fiction novel, then in a moment of reflection realized “wait a minute…that’s my country!”

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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