2015’s near-future MilSF novel The Trials, the second volume in Linda Nagata’s The Red trilogy, picks up where First Light left off.
SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t read the first book yet, this review may reveal too much. You may want to minimize this browser window, buy and read the first book, and then return to the review. Just saying.
In First Light, James Shelley’s Apocalypse Squad, a unit of elite, enhanced soldiers, acted resolutely to punish the highly connected billionaire who orchestrated Coma Day, a series of tactical nuclear strikes on the US. Heroes all! It’s kind of a shame that soldiers taking it on themselves to kidnap an American and transport her to a foreign court so that she can be tried for crimes against humanity is what the army calls “highly illegal,” The surviving members of the LCS are be rewarded with what the army calls “a court martial.”
And the penalty for conviction is death.
There is an easy out for the remaining members of the Squad—blame everything on their late commander Kendrick, who being dead is not in a position to protect his own good name—but that would allow the establishment’s attempt at cover-up to succeed. It is highly embarrassing that one of the 1% should be accused of murdering tens of thousands of collateral-damage-Americans. The Squad insists on a court martial; they will make no plea bargains and accept the outcome, whatever it is.
The Apocalypse Squad is not completely doomed; they do have some powerful allies. One is publicity: what they did and the trial they now face are not secret at all. Even as the trial begins, many Americans, oddly unaccepting of a billionaire’s right to incinerate a hundred thousand Americans in pursuit of a private vendetta, are rallying in support of the Squad. Technically, what the Squad did was illegal; politically, executing them might destabilize the government.
Even if the Squad walks away from their trial as free people, their problems are nowhere near over. Coma Day was aimed at the Red, an artificial intelligence living somewhere in the Cloud; the tactical nukes targeted the servers on which the Cloud lives. The Red is largely incomprehensible, follows a moral code it has not shared with humans and is very, very powerful. The Red has taken a particular interest in Shelly and not just because Shelley’s cybernetic enhancements make him a particularly accessible puppet for the Red.
As alien as it is, the Red is still dependent on the human civilization that created and maintains the complex communications infrastructure in which it lives. It’s probably not going to wipe out civilization. Intentionally. Arrayed against it are the plutocrats with their private nuclear arsenals. Getting rid of just one rogue billionaire does not end the danger. The Red may be a vast, inhuman intellect, but it seems to be the lesser of two evils.
And Shelley is the Red’s chosen hero….
This installment seemed a little rougher than the first volume, although I did enjoy it. Shelley’s period of mourning for his late girlfriend, killed at the end of the previous book, doesn’t seem to last all that long. Soon he hooks up with a new lover. The plot structure is a bit more episodic; it felt more like a group of closely linked novellas than a proper novel.
Shelley’s mental processes, as he comes to terms with his link to the Red, remind me of another Nagata novel, Limit of Vision. That book also featured people whose decision-making processes might or might not have been subverted by technological entities. As any person who lives with cats (thus exposed to behavior-altering T. gondii) can attest, it can be really really hard to tell from the inside whether or not one’s cognitive processes have been hijacked. All Shelley can do is try to act so that his actions provide the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people. [Editor’s note: he’s a closet utilitarian.]
Other knowing servants of the Red do not seem as conflicted as Shelley; they have embraced a close to religious belief in the benignity and power of the Red. It will be interesting to see how all this develops in the next volume.
As the middle volume of a trilogy of closely linked books, The Trials is somewhat handicapped from beginning. The first volume of a trilogy gets the rewarding task of establishing the setting and the general parameters of the conflict. The third book gets to resolve everything. The second book is denied both roles, and often becomes a plot slog that gets the reader from Book One to Book Three, without offering any satisfying resolution.
Nagata manages to evade the usual pitfalls of Middle Book syndrome, in part because the gross illegality of the Squad’s very public actions and the subsequent trial force Shelley and his fellow soldiers to make fateful choices and personal transformations.
This book is a fine example of Bujold’s comment that SF embraces “fantasies of political agency.” In the real world, if a well-connected 1%er killed a hundred thousand people in pursuit of a personal goal, no do-gooder heroes would drag them off for a well deserved trial. Just ask the bloated plutocrats behind the US’ invasion of Iraq; a million people may have died, millions more forced to flee. The entire region has been destabilized. But of course none of the upper level people involved will ever see the inside of a court room. The system works!
In The Red, that is no longer true; there is a new power on the Earth, one that can bring down Presidents and dispatch its chosen champions to ensure that wealthy criminals do not escape justice. This appears to be an entity that wants to reshape the world so that many people have the chance to excel. The only catch is that this power is not human, does not think like a human, and has goals about which humans can only speculate. But what possible downside could there be to trusting in such a being?
The Red: The Trials is available from Saga.