Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Women writing hard SF: Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata writes:
"... After a ten-year hiatus, I finally returned to writing. I was shocked to learn that, a decade into the 21st century, women were still using pseudonymous names to sell SF. One writer related how an editor had told her bluntly that hard SF would not sell under a woman's name. And social media is full of negative statements and stories--enough to convince any sensible woman to be wary of science fiction, and of hard SF in particular. This is my field, and I was wary of it!

The climate had gotten so bad that by the time I got around to writing a new hard SF novel--more precisely, a near-future, high-tech military novel written in first person from a male point of view, because why not max out the degree of difficulty?--I had no doubt I was making an illogical choice. I knew this was not what I should be writing if the goal was to further my career and grow my audience.

I wrote the novel anyway, because I needed to write it. And then I self-published it, because I didn't want to deal with what I perceived as the negative environment of traditional publishing. Two years ago I was here on Charlie's blog with a guest post about that decision. Since then, The Red: First Light was nominated for both the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and went on to sell to Simon & Schuster's new SFF imprint, Saga Press, with the sequel, The Trials, just out. It would be easy to say my fears were baseless and it all turned out okay--but how many of you have actually heard of these books, or read them?"
I bought The Red and enjoyed it; I have ordered the sequel, The Trials. I was particularly intrigued to see how well a woman could get inside the head of an elite male special forces trooper who fights in an exoskeleton.

Here's what The Red is all about (Tor review):
"The tone of the novel is set right from the very first paragraph:

There needs to be a war going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.

The speaker is Lt. James Shelley, a highly cynical but competent officer who leads a high-tech squad of exoskeleton-enhanced, cyber-linked soldiers in the latest manufactured international incident, deep in the Sahel. (The location illustrates another one of Shelley’s axioms: “Rule One: Don’t kill off your taxpayers. War is what you inflict on other people.”)

The start of The Red: First Light is simply flawless. Shelley introduces a new member to the squad, and in just a few scenes, you know everything you need to know: the tight bond between the soldiers, their faith in the highly cynical but reliable Shelley, the Linked Combat Squad technology, the general situation. The exposition is perfectly delivered, and before you know it you’re in the thick of it.

“The thick of it” in this case means a series of intense, well-written scenes describing life and combat in a remote military outpost somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa: patrols, combat incidents, friendly interactions with the locals who are, in most cases, as war-weary as the soldiers. There’s an inexorable pull to this part of the novel: the soldiers live in a round-the-clock state of combat readiness, interrupted by brief chunks of drug-induced sleep. They’re monitored 24/7. There are no breaks. Once you’re into this book, it’s hard to put it down until you reach the shocking end of the first section.

It’s also full of examples of the plight of the common soldier, created by the faceless, immensely rich defense contractors who manipulate world politics to keep conflicts (and sales) going. High-tech combat equipment is recovered after a soldier’s death because it’s cheaper to train another grunt than build another robot. Lt. Shelley has his dad send medications for the squad’s dogs, and buys their food from the locals on his own dime. It reminded me of the saddening reality of teachers having to spend their own money on basic school supplies.

There are many more powerful illustrations of this “only a pawn in their game” theme (although a more appropriate Dylan tune to refer to here would probably be “Masters of War”). Drones relay the commands of faceless, codenamed Guidance officers down to the field. Most disturbingly, skullcaps worn by soldiers like Shelley allow their emotional and mental state to be monitored and altered as needed. Shelley is frequently aware that his true feelings are suppressed, and have been suppressed for such a long time that he’s become dependent. At one point, he notes drily:

The handbook says the brain stimulation [the skullcap] provides is non-addictive, but I think the handbook needs to be revised.

This emo-monitoring ends up highlighting the real issues: identity and awareness. Shelley occasionally has inexplicable, but always accurate premonitions. Where do they come from? Is it the voice of God, as one of his squadmates insist? Or is there something else going on? And regardless, how much of a person’s original identity remains if they are monitored and controlled 24/7?

Somewhere deep down in my mind I’m aware of a tremor of panic, but the skullnet bricks it up. I watch its glowing icon while imagining my real self down at the bottom of a black pit, trapped in a little, lightless room, and screaming like any other soul confined in Hell.

If my real self is locked away, what does that make me?

I know the answer. I’m a body-snatching emo-junkie so well-managed by my skullnet that the screams of my own damned soul are easy to ignore. But there is someone out there who can get inside my head. Am I haunted by a hacker? Or is it God?

Once the first “episode” of the novel is over, these become central questions. While that opening section is one long, intense, adrenaline-fueled rush, it focuses on what’s ultimately just a small part of the conflict. In section two, the novel takes a sharp turn when it starts exploring the broader issues. That also means things slow down considerably, for a while at least. Not that this is a bad thing—there’s a depiction of wounded soldiers’ rehabilitation that’s incredibly poignant, for one—but the change in pace is noticeably abrupt. Eventually, all of the pieces of the puzzle come together in a spectacular conflict that also sets up future installments."
The hero, Lt Shelley, is a middle-class antiwar activist who joined the US Army (as he appears to believe) to avoid a jail sentence for 'subversive' protests. In fact, he seems made for war: perhaps the covert AI which seems to be directing things behind the scenes made him that way?

Linda Nagata is a talented writer who can make the pages turn, summon up immersive scenes, write engrossing action sequences, all with an enviable turn of phrase. The Tor review I quote above goes on to highlight some weaknesses in plotting and pace: criticisms with which I agree.

I would add that I don't think she quite gets the male psychology right. Almost right, but our hero is just a tiny bit too empathic* - there's a casual psychological callousness which we expect to see in our SF (special forces!) action heroes, which we get in writers as diverse as Heinlein and Morgan, but not here.

My other criticism is her tediously Manichaean view of the world: evil defence contractors vs the ethically-righteous guardians of the common people. Post adolescence, the world is not quite like that and the best novels leverage Nagata-levels of moral indignation at more compelling and credible targets. I include both Heinlein and Morgan, by the way, as on the right side of their respective barricades on this particular issue.

Still, The Red is a more entertaining read than 90% of what's out there so give it a go.


* The dynamic of inter-personal relationships in this novel (especially with the insipid g/f Lissa) makes a lot more sense if we entertain the thought that Lt Shelley might in fact be the thinly-veiled depiction of a gay woman.