Linda Nagata’s 2017 The Last Good Man is a standalone milSF novel.
Four months after Fatima Atwan was kidnapped by El-Hashem’s Al-Furat Coalition, the US State Department has done nothing to rescue her. Fatima’s desperate father turns to military contractor Requisite Operations to do what the State Department either can not or will not do: save the young woman.
By law, Requisite Operations (RO) cannot deliver a ransom. What the law will let them do is attempt a foray into the chaos left after Daesh’s collapse, a foray to retrieve Fatima. Hussam El-Hashem1 may be a mere bandit using religion as justification for robbery and slavery, but he’s no idiot. Not only is his location secret, it changes on a weekly basis.
It would take extraordinary resources to find him. Luckily for Fatima, RO has those resources.
El-Hashem has his own unexpected hi-tech resources. The future may be unevenly distributed, but the distribution is less uneven than it was fifty years ago. Luckily for the RO mercenaries, their hi-hi-tech lets them circumvent their target’s hi-tech. One thrilling smash and grab by True Brighton and her team later, Fatima and a handful of hostages lucky enough to be in the same compound are safe. Or in the case of El-Hashem, bagged and ready to be handed over to the US.
For a man on his way to a black site, El-Hashem is remarkably confident he will have his revenge. There are two reasons for this.
A) His brother Rihab is still alive and in charge of Al-Furat. While Rihab has little love for Hussam, the nineteen-year-old won’t let his brother’s capture go unpunished.
B) Hussam’s hi-tech gear was supplied by Variant Forces, a force led by the mysterious Jon Helm. Little is known about Helm and his group. What is known suggests that Helm has the resources to challenge RO. RO operates out of the US, which is usually beyond the reach of their opponents. That will not deter Jon Helm.
True and RO discover that Helm is spying on them with drones. The drone surveillance escalates to attacks on RO property. Property only. Helm seems oddly reluctant to kill RO staff.
Research into the man calling himself Jon Helm uncovers a mystery. Helm is someone whom True had thought dead, a soldier who served with her son Diego. Official reports claimed that Helm was incinerated soon after her son’s brutal murder. Helm’s existence is strong evidence that the official version is wrong. That raises questions about what actually happened to Diego.
And if Helm insists on an arm’s length truce, that just means that True will have to find the unfindable man.
It seems Americans are doomed to rediscover time and time again that their borders are permeable to sufficiently motivated people bent on violence2. I don’t know why this is such a surprise. You can build walls on borders, but walls won’t keep Scots from raiding south or steppe nomads from occupying Beijing.
Like her recent Red series, The Last Good Man is set in a world where advances in artificial intelligence are transforming the world. The Red was arguably intelligent while the AIs in The Last Good Man do not seem to be. Still, what they do, they do far better than any human. By the time of the novel, the human role is to choose goals and serve as targets. Carrying out battlefield orders is increasingly the job of machines.
An interesting side-effect Nagata lampshades is the potential globalization of violence. Anyone with the money can purchase military drones for use in any battlefield they choose. Presumably there were laws in place to keep people like El-Hashem from getting their hands on drones. Doesn’t stop him, or anyone else. All one has to do is find a middleman authorized to purchase the technology. The original idea might have been to use them to enforce foreign policy in far-off lands about which Americans and other First Worlders know little, but there’s nothing about the technology that prevents some irritated beneficiary of First World foreign policy (as carried out by drones and killer robots) from returning the favour in London, Toronto, or New York (or for that matter, San Louis Obispo, Yellowknife, or Berwick-upon-Tweed). As the price of AI and drones comes down, the more affordable this option will be.
Much of the book is a detective story: True’s quest to find out what really happened to her son and why. The answer turns out to be a “for very human reasons” or at least familiar capitalist ones. True may live in a science fiction future where humans are (rather as they are in her Red series) increasingly irrelevant to decision trees. However, they still retain the capacity to be enormous dickheads to each other for reasons familiar to any accountant.
I started reading this at 9 PM, planning to read a few chapters. I ended up staying up until 1 AM, having binge-read the whole book.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: The Hebrew word “Ha-shem” literally means “the name”; it is used to refer to God, whose name is too holy to pronounce carelessly. The stress is on the last syllable. The Arabic name “Hashem” or “Hashim” means “breaker”. The stress is on the first syllable.
2: Generally the people exploiting holes in US defences discover that the US is remarkably humourless about such incursions … even if the only casualties are inflicted in a state that the US values so little that they use it to test nuclear weapons. Just FYI: the US is extremely consistent on this point, although they also combine this particular tic with a comparative disinterest in making sure the people they punish are the guilty parties.