The Last Good Man, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press, 978-1-937197-23-0, $18.00, 464 pp, tp) June 2017. Cover by Philippe McNally.
Linda Nagata’s The Last Good Man runs a compelling set of variations on motifs and themes introduced in her Red trilogy (2013-15). Once again we have detailed accounts of technologically enhanced near-future warfare, but this time the emphasis is less on uncertain and shifting loyalties and more on the impact of advancing tech on combat and the roles of the humans who carry it out – and on the ancient forces that bind soldiers together, even across the lines that determine which side they fight for.
Segments of the underlying thematics do remain. In the trilogy, the omnipresent, evolving AI called The Red is distinct from and opposed to the toxic, power-and-money-driven arms-business oligarchs called ‘‘dragons’’ – it has its own agenda and goals, not so much inhuman as unhuman. In The Last Good Man, a different kind of supra-human historical process is upsetting applecarts: the automation of warfare, and the replacement of human actors with autonomous war machines that can be set loose to do the bidding of their controllers, without fear or hesitation or subtlety of judgment.
The primary viewpoint character is True Brighton, the Director of Operations (and sometimes field agent) of a private military-services company. (They don’t like to be called mercenaries.) Immediately, there is a signal that this might not be quite a conventional guns-and-guts adventure: True’s boss at Requisite Operations, Lincoln Han, is a combat veteran who has to settle for administrative and planning roles thanks to injuries that left him with prosthetics in place of one eye and one hand. True, a retired helicopter pilot, comes from a military family, but she is 49, solidly married, and the mother of grown children – one of whom died horribly in a Special Forces mission gone badly wrong eight years earlier, a fact that will eventually drive much of the book’s action.
Before the various back-stories get pushed to the front, though, there is a job that allows us to see the nature of private-military work, from planning through execution and follow-up: the rescue of a young woman taken by a particularly nasty bunch led by one Hussam El-Hashem, who
has styled himself a holy warrior… but in truth… is nothing more than a gangster grown wealthy on protection money and kidnapping-and-ransom schemes. There are men like him all over the world, bereft of conscience and willing to commit atrocities in the name of any convenient cause.
‘‘Men like him’’ and ‘‘a world of failed states and ungoverned territories’’ are why companies like Requisite Operations exist. Lincoln Han reflects that ‘‘When… no legitimate government exists, then hiring a private military company… becomes the only realistic option…. Someone’s got to do the dirty work.’’ And even though there is a legally-binding code of conduct defining who can do what, where, to whom, and under what circumstances, not every mercenary outfit – excuse me, PMC – abides by it, so ‘‘black hat’’ organizations can and do operate in any way they can get away with. The book’s introductory mission ends up encountering one such outfit, and the rest of the novel pursues its leader, ‘‘Jon Helm,’’ and along the way untangles his connections to True and Lincoln and their respective back-stories.
The book’s action sequences are cinematically energetic, detailed, and convincing – in fact, a shooting script (pun acknowledged) would practically write itself from Nagata’s prose. That’s not to say that there is no interiority – True and Lincoln in particular fret over the personal, interpersonal, organizational, and political issues that condition ReqOps’ actions and make the whole more than a good-guys/bad-guys melodrama. Behind the operational/procedural mechanics stand the ethical and personal sides of the military profession. The environment within which soldiers work is evolving – not only new political and legal alignments and new clients but accelerating technological change. The book’s speculative technologies are not quite as far out as those of the Red trio (no powered armor or neuro-pharmacological enhancements, let alone emerging godlike AI), but they are advanced enough to generate a crucial tension: what becomes of the on-the-ground soldier when robotic aircraft and swarms of autonomous fighting machines can do the dirty work faster, cheaper, and with inhuman precision? Lincoln and True come from military backgrounds, and they both accept a version of the warrior ethos of professionalism, loyalty, service, and sacrifice, but rapidly-evolving technologies are leaving less and less space for their skills and that traditional ethical framework. True reflects that
It isn’t hard… to imagine a future in which programmers set up battles conducted between machine armies without immediate oversight, not a single soldier on the field—though vulnerable civilians will still be there. Or a future in which a narcissistic leader orders a machine invasion of a weaker nation, with no risk of creating grieving parents on the home front. Or one in which a military option in the form of a PMC powered by robotics is available to anyone with the money.
The pursuit of ‘‘Jon Helm’’ leads True and eventually the rest of Requisite Operations into that new no-man’s-land of murky alliances and murkier motives; of actions divorced from social accountability; of the slow poisons of fanaticism, betrayal and reprisal; of the loosing of forces that can execute orders without the hesitations and ethical qualms that can plague merely human soldiers. Once again Nagata has devised a thinking-reader’s future-military scenario, a highly qualified adventure in which every thrill comes with a realization of what it costs, what it says about the world that enables it, what it means to fight and kill and face death.