2015’s Going Dark is the third and final volume in Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy.
As far as the world is concerned, James Shelly died when his space plane was blown out of the sky. But he isn’t dead; he’s just gone undercover. He’s a member of ETM Strike Squad 7 – 1, an elite strike force formed to combat existential threats.
7 – 1 is beyond covert, not listed in any official records, staffed by the officially dead, funded with a fortune stolen from a mad billionaire. Missions are selected by the enigmatic Red. In theory, all of them involve crises that could end human civilization. But there is a catch:
The Red is not infallible. It is not all powerful. It is not even human.
Following the artificial intelligence’s directives makes sense as long as Shelley can convince himself that his actions, as deplorable as they often are, are for the greater good. But the Red and Shelley have begun to hold very different opinions about what constitutes “the greater good.” In Shelley’s estimation, 7 – 1’s latest missions have been oddly anticlimactic. It is almost as though the Red were working half-blind.
As the book opens, what was supposed to have been a covert op goes extremely sour. Not only is the raided base not the bio-weapon facility 7 – 1 was expecting, the raid rattles the uneasy balance of power between powerful governments. The situation threatens to spiral into war. Rather than containing existential threats, the squad may have become one.
Exposed by a disgruntled 7 – 1 member, the unit is forcibly brought back under formal American control. Shelly’s new commanders share info that starts to make sense of what has been happening. Just as the Red works tirelessly to limit human chaos, and curtail oligarchy, someone is carrying out a campaign of murder and sabotage, a campaign that will empower a tiny minority at immense cost to the general public.
Someone? Some thing...
Shelley does not have much patience with squaddies who romanticize what 7 – 1 does. He is especially curt with Alex Tran, who insists on seeing everything in comic book terms. It may be best for Shelley’s peace of mind that he cannot see how closely his situation mirrors some classic comic book tropes.
- Like Denny Colt, Shelley is a (supposedly) dead man fighting the forces of chaos.
- Like Bruce Wayne, Doc Savage, and Richard Benson, the team exploits the awesome crime-fighting power of a vast fortune.
- Like Tony Stark, they wrap themselves in cutting-edge technology.
- Like the Secret Six, they take their orders from a mysterious mentor.
Mind you, that last point is just as true of cultists following a mad, hungry god or supervillains as it is true of costumed adventurers 1. Hint: super-hero fan Tran has a pretty good track record when it comes to guessing what trope is coming up next.
Going Dark is set in a not-too-distant future that (like our present) is a mix of familiar and strange); the future continues to be unevenly distributed. The elite squaddies are equipped with a combination of conventional gear (weapons a Vietnam War soldier would understand) and exotic tools (from dragonfly-sized drones to vast, shadowy intelligences). Nagata’s world is a similar melange of conventional SF trope and plausible extrapolation. The plutocrats of this world may have suborbital rockets and space habitats but it isn’t because the magic of THE MARKET has resulted in inexpensive space travel. It’s because billionaires are willing to drop eye-watering amounts of money on stuff they want.
Going Dark offers a rather discomforting view of the future, one in which the primary defense against scheming oligarchs are cold, inhuman intellects governed by urges humans do not understand.
Going Dark is available here.
1: Also true of Charlie’s Angels. We never see Charlie, so he could have been an AI like the Red. Or the She-Goat of a Thousand Young. The important thing is that Charlie’s cheques never bounced.