Book Review: The Trials
by Linda Nagata
Saga Press/Simon and Schuster, 2015
The events that climaxed The Red: First Light, the first volume in Linda Nagata’s “Red” trilogy, were so blisteringly tense and knock-em-down that they seemed at first to allow for very little in the way of a sequel, and yet here the sequel is, The Trials, appearing so soon after the first that they can keep each other company on the Barnes & Noble New Release tables.
The heroes of The Red: First Light are an embattled LCS (Linked Combat Squad) lead by Lieutenant James Shelley, and at the culmination of that book the narrative has sustained to huge haymakers: First Light, in which our LCS team, on the orders of their superior and the nearly-omniscient, vaguely menacing AI program nicknamed “Red,” render a US citizen for trial in a foreign court, and “Coma Day,” on which a series of crudely improvised nuclear devices were detonated at key points around the United States, crashing the Cloud and crippling interstate communications. The ominous link between the two calamities strongly looks to be Red itself, the dark center of all these novels and, as Lieutenant Shelley reflects, the dark center of his life as well:
Out in the Cloud, running on a million servers but for the most part unseen and undetectable, is a rogue AI that I’ve come to call the Red. No one really knows where the Red came from. Speculation says it began as a marketing AI, maybe one equipped with an all-access backdoor pass stealth-developed by an American defense contractor because, given time, the Red can get anywhere, access anything linked to the Cloud. It hacked into my head – and rewrote the plotline of my life. That’s why I’m here.
The background unease prompted by the existence of forces like the LCS, whose members wear powered exoskeletons and electronic skullcaps linking them to each other and the Red, blossoms to full fury in the US government once our heroes make it back home, and The Trials begins with the protracted dramatics of the their court martial, in which the soldiers are expecting that they’ll be left out to dry by their vengeful superiors. They also expect that both their own legal counsel and the prosecution lawyers will attempt to divide them – a tough enough tactic with any combat unit, but impossible in characters so closely and literally linked as Lt. Shelley and his comrades:
The standard way for a story like this to unfold is for at least one, maybe even two, of my soldiers to prove treacherous, cutting a secret deal with trial counsel that will betray the rest of us, while saving our own asses – but Colonel Kendrick preempted that tired plot device when he hand-selected everyone in the squad for a spectrum of personality traits that includes a compelling sense of justice and a group loyalty strong enough to keep us together through two harrowing missions. As I look around the table, I know that everyone remains loyal to this, our current mission.
Nagata is here delivering smart and first rate military science fiction in a series that’s getting better as it goes along, and it’s a testament to her dramatic abilities that with all the high-velocity action sequences she crafts in both books so far, the most gripping pages are the the courtroom scenes of the court martial that opens The Trials. Though not from want of trying: the protracted climax of this second book is very nearly as gripping and page-turning as the climax of the previous book. If the concluding volume, the forthcoming Going Dark, manages to carry its weight, the “Red” trilogy will be a minor classic of the genre.