Review: The Red, First Light – Linda Nagata

Two articles in the Honolulu paper (around the end of 2013) caught my eye.  The first was about child prostitutes in Indonesia, managed by madams who are themselves still children.  In and of itself this topic is one which I have little natural interest in – bad stuff happens – take note, move on – except, the setting was a disquieting real world hologram of Linda Nagata’s novell, The Bohr Maker,  my first LN novel going back a some years.  The second article was about American defense contractors who were in the beginning phases of development of the next generation of military body armor, and whose design borrowed heavily from the “Iron Man” movies, and perhaps, indirectly,  from the original Iron Man comic books.  This article drew a double take because I had a few weeks previous, downloaded “The Red, First Light” from Amazon, and which was sitting, briefly scanned but unread in my Kindle.  I knew however from my seconds long  scan of the book that body armor figured into this latest Nagata.  At this time,   The Red, First Light was holding on a re-read of “Moby Dick”, the part where Melville expends chapter after chapter on whales and whaling, maddening reading I’d expect to the modern day cetologist, and frankly, starting to get on my nerves.  Thus it happened  The Red, First Light  displaced Moby Dick.

Nagata’s science fiction always serves up intriguing ideas and elements.  In the nano-tech series led off by the The Bohr Maker , there are makers, virus-like designer molecular automatons capable of re-engineering the human body, agents of physical transformation and  profound evolutionary redirection.   Also introduced into the Nanotech universe was a mechanism to store ones entire persona  in bio/physical networks, in a sense foreshadowing what is now “the cloud”.  Our current real world cloud is vastly  more primitive than the circumstances of Nagata’s  nanotech universe where one could “ghost” in the “atrium” (a nanotech brain organ or something like that) of another person, a virtual visit,  or  download ones full consciousness from one’s true body to a remote ghola (thanks Frank)… goes on and on.  So, when Linda Nagata comes up with something new, I generally perk up and pay attention, whether I  am nominally interested in the apparent subject matter, or not.

The Red is set in a future world where a combat platoon is manned by cyborg soldiers, hooked up to a combat grid by skullcaps and some additional hardware to provide hands free C2 (command and control) communications,  private radio-like communication links, phone service, inter-net-like network access, and pharmaceutical services.   The last item provides one of more troubling techno developments in this alternate future – the extension of  C2 into manipulation the emotional state of the soldier.  This last is accomplished via neuro-stimulation, a drug-free manipulation of brain chemistry.   Manhandling brain chemistry is in fact an everyday kind of thing for us, but this is currently something we do to ourselves in our private mental processes along lines prescribed by evolutionary means,  for example, the thinking process (by no means the only thing going on the brain)  or administered through psychological manipulation , e.g. by someone talking.   In the Red, the modern soldier is subject to remote control of her brain chemistry by means of  a wired up yarmakah, the skullcap hooked into a bio-feedback controling computer which somehow knows what you need.

On a larger scale the global context of The Red is a world in which defense contractors (DCs) are no longer a business response to matters of national security and defense, but the principals behind global and regional conflict.   LN goes out on a limb here in her portrayal of the war contracting business.  Fortunately in the present day, DC’s plotting out and executing bush wars in Africa or the Mid-east is far-fetched and paranoid sounding;  we all know the guys doing the plotting and executing in distant lands are not American DCs, right?

On another level, The Red takes its title from a nameless shapeless entity inhabiting the cyberverser.

Lurking in the background of The Red’s  intraverse of  DC funded militarism and Medical Tech gone Wild,  is a cybernetic phenomenon that may or may not share some kinship to a state of cyber-interconnectity proposed by Ray Kurtzweil and his merry band of futurists.  These folks adhere to the proposition that at some  critical mass of networked computing, sentience will arise spontaneously,  the so called Singularity, an artificial entity of super-human intellect capable of participating in its own evolution.  While I am skeptical about the possibility of  cyber networks achieving a state of mind,  “The Red” is an enormously appealing exploration of the edges of  consciousness. Bravo Linda!


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