RogerBW's Blog

The Last Good Man, Linda Nagata 14 February 2019

2017 military SF. In the near future, pilots have been made obsolete by a wide variety of drones, but there's still plenty of employment for soldiers as private military companies fill the gaps left by failing states. Former pilot True Brighton works for one of the "good" PMCs, but information picked up on a mission suggests that there's more to the death of her son than she'd thought…

This is an odd book. Nagata herself says that publishers weren't readily able to categorise it, and attributes this to the protagonist being a middle-aged woman; but I'm not sure that that's the whole answer.

It's an interesting technical setup, where drones have replaced crewed air vehicles and everyone realises it's only a matter of time before they replace foot soldiers too. (There are some moves towards autonomy too, for faster reaction times, but nobody ever jams or hijacks a drone communications link in this book, or even hints that such things might be possible.) The action scenes are solid and effective. But there are hints at really big ideas, and those hints are never really carried through; in the end, the big change that everyone is trying not to think about turns out to be that same obsolescence of foot soldiers that they were talking about at the beginning, only now they can't deny that it's happening.

True scowls at the ARV, watching as it folds up again into an innocuous gray lozenge. Roach worked well. That should be a cause for celebration, but still, it's annoying to be so easily beaten by a machine. "If I had a grenade launcher, the result would have been different."

"If you had a grenade launcher, you would have blown up your buddies in the compound, which, aside from the theoretical civilian losses, would have been an acceptable result too."

And what are the consequences? That if you can send your teletroopers out anonymously and avoid people coming home in body bags, there's no longer any restraint on war-making beyond the economic? Barely mentioned in the book.

Yes, True's relationship with her husband is potentially interesting, though a bit one-dimensional: he's unhappy that she's still going on missions even though she's "retired", and doesn't want her dying when there are still two living children to bring up. And the mother obsessed with her dead son is, sadly, something of a familiar story, so this is rather less revolutionary than it first appears.

People who like "normal" military SF probably won't enjoy this, because it doesn't have the solid military tradition, organisation and discipline that are usually core to that kind of book. People who want big-picture SF will find it lacking. People who like technothrillers will find all the SF stuff disconcerting. Yes, I can see why this would be hard to categorise.

It's well-written, but for me less enjoyable than The Red perhaps because it backs off from the big questions it raises in favour of small-scale action. Recommended by Dr Bob who liked it better than I did.

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