Linda Nagata is a science fiction and fantasy author living in paradise in Hawaii. The Red: First Light, a self published Mil-SF novel that was nominated for the Nebula award, has been acquired and republished by Saga Press. In addition, two sequels, The Trials and Going Dark are coming out this year.
Linda answered my questions about The Red series, and more.
Paul Weimer: For those unfamiliar with you and your work, who is Linda Nagata?
Linda Nagata: I’m still trying to figure that out! From an SFF perspective though, I’m mostly a science fiction writer operating in the hard/high-tech SF end of the field, though I’ve made occasional forays into fantasy.
I started my career at Analog, and then moved from short stories to novels. Between 1995 and 2003 I had six hard SF novels published by either Bantam Spectra or Tor, with good reviews but poor sales. So I wandered off and did other things for several years, until I realized self-publishing was a thing. I had a background in programming and web development, so it was fairly simple for me to work out how to republish my backlist. After that, I went on to write a couple of original fantasy novels—the Puzzle Land books—which I self-published, and I also returned to writing short fiction.
The trajectory of my career changed again when I wrote and self-published my first science fiction novel in ten years, The Red: First Light, a near-future military thriller. It did far better than I’d hoped. It was a finalist for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and last year sold to Saga Press along with two sequels. The Saga Press edition has been retitled The Red and is available now. The sequel The Trials will publish in August, and the third book, Going Dark, will be out in November of this year.
PW: After writing the Nanotech Succession novels, you seemingly left the field for a good long while before returning with a pair of fantasy novels (THE DREAD HAMMER and HEPEN THE WATCHER) and now THE RED. What drew you to tell stories very different than the earlier work in your career?
LN: Well, actually… I did not leave the field after writing the four Nanotech Succession novels. I left Bantam and went over to Tor and wrote two more science fiction novels: Limit of Vision and Memory. You can safely surmise they were not well known, though Memory was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial award—something I found out literally years after the fact.
But that wasn’t the question! The question was, what drew me to tell such different stories? Well, I’d worked very hard at writing for many years, been praised for it, and still managed to fail. It was hard to escape the negative thoughts—that all the effort that goes into writing a novel would lead nowhere, produce nothing, so why bother? The path I found around that block was to write something completely different from anything I’d done before—the fantasy novels—and to go about it in a different way. My science fiction novels had all been written slowly and meticulously, so that by the time the last chapter was done, the manuscript was close to a final draft. When I started writing again, I changed that and wrote much more quickly, which meant leaving myself a lot more work for the second draft—but I had a lot of fun writing those two books. The Puzzle Land novels are short, violent, and darkly humorous—and they turned out to be just what I needed to get myself writing again. I decided to self-publish them because I wanted to move quickly and get something new on the market before I was entirely forgotten.
The Red came next, and that was another shift in direction for me, back to near-future, high-tech realism, which I’d done before, but this time with two new twists: I was writing in present tense and doing a military novel. Both were firsts for me. Try new things has been my mantra. After all, science fiction is supposed to be about the edgy, the new, and both the wondrous and the dreadful things we could encounter.
PW: Like an AI’s message into a certain Lieutenant’s comm system, THE RED came out of nowhere and in a striking way, a novel you originally self published. You also earned a Nebula nomination for it! What were your inspirations in coming up with its story? Why Military thriller SF?
LN: In the spring of 2012 I wrote a near-future short story called “Through Your Eyes” which featured a character named James Shelley. The story went off to market, but Shelley was still in my head, insisting he wasn’t done yet. I considered different paths for his continuing story—and then I remembered a background detail from the short story—almost a throwaway detail. In the story, military service is mentioned, but as something that neither Shelley nor his friends would ever willingly consider. With that in mind, it was suddenly obvious to me that military service was exactly the direction his story needed to go.
So that one line from a short story is what got me started writing military science fiction. And I had it in mind to write something that could crossover into mainstream thriller territory.
At the time, I didn’t know if I could write a military story, but I knew I needed to try. None of this makes any sense from a career-planning perspective, but I’m really glad I didn’t shy away from it. I’m really glad I tried.
PW: Happily, THE RED not only drew attention and praise, but your deal with Saga Press for THE RED and its two sequels. How different is THE RED, in its Saga Press-edited form, from your original vision? How has the vision of the entire trilogy changed under their editorial guidance and editing?
LN: I went through a multi-step editorial process with editor Joe Monti, with the goal of enhancing the existing story, not rewriting it. Joe suggested many small changes—bits of dialog that seemed out of character, different word usages here and there, an enhancement of the roles of specific characters—but this was detail work. The new edition has the same structure as the original, the plot remains the same, and no new characters were added.
So…how has the vision of the entire trilogy changed? Er, well, “vision” might be overstating things, as it implies there was some sort of advance plan or a discussion of where all this was going. No. By this point I’d already written book 2, but book 3 was just a paragraph summary describing only one specific incident in the last part of the trilogy—and as it turns out, I didn’t include that incident when I sat down to write. I basically invented book 3 on the fly and then sent it in with my fingers crossed. Joe titled it Going Dark which is vastly better than the working title I’d been using. I think Going Dark successfully winds up the series, though probably not in an expected way.
PW: Artificial intelligence and high technology are something you’ve thought and written about since the beginning of your career. How has your thinking on AIs changed since then? How did this influence THE RED and its forthcoming sequels?
LN: The problem with the term “artificial intelligence” is that it means different things in different contexts, and to different people. In science fiction the standard trope is a complex computer program that becomes self-aware and begins to act like a human, and thereby becomes a pain in the ass—which isn’t a very useful transformation, from a practical perspective. That’s why, in the Nanotech Succession books, there are DIs instead of AIs. Dull Intelligences. A DI is analogous to what is called “narrow” or “weak” AI today—programs that are not self-aware but that are supremely suited for performing a specific complex and variable task.
The technology in The Red relies on a lot of narrow AI—and if I say more than that it will be a spoiler, so I’ll abstain.
PW: Lt. Shelley and his team continue their story in the aforementioned sequels THE TRIALS and GOING DARK, both coming out this year on the heels of the re-release of THE RED. What else can you tell readers about Shelley’s story and journey?
LN: War is hell, and all actions have consequences. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but The Trials deals directly with the fallout of actions undertaken in The Red, continuing the political conflict, even as the characters take on new roles.
The Red has been described as cynical military science fiction, but I see it as a cynical shell around an idealistic core. Shelley is concerned with doing the right thing, with not being the bad guy, and like most of us he wants to believe that what he does can and will make the world a better place, but he is also a ruthless pragmatist, determined to successfully complete the missions assigned to him, all too aware of the disastrous consequences of failure. It’s a burden of responsibility that builds through all three books.
PW: With the trilogy coming out in a short few months this year, what horizons are you turning your pen toward, next?
LN: I thought it would be logical, presuming any sort of success with this series, to try another military novel, although not one in the same story world. So I’m around ten percent into what I expect to be a stand-alone, near-future military thriller. I’ve even got a solid outline for it, so there is hope. After that, if I follow my usual pattern, I’ll probably take off in an entirely different direction. Time-traveling zombies, maybe? Bet you never expected that.
PW: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
LN: I live online at MythicIsland.com, where you can find out more than you ever wanted to know about my work. You can also sign up for my very occasional newsletter to be notified when I have something new coming out. Look for me on Twitter as well, where I spend far too much time: @LindaNagata.