The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

There’s a chapter in Linda Nagata’s The Last Good Man where one of the main characters, a military contractor, is walking through a parking lot with his teenage daughters. The scene perfectly illustrates Nagata’s vision of what a future saturated with technology has in store for us:
Lincoln is hit with a presentiment of danger.
He’s coached his girls to be alert, encouraged them to always be aware of their surroundings. He’s trained them how to recognize potential threats and how to react. It’s a game for them. Not for him. He shifts both collection bags to his prosthetic hand. His skin prickles, puckering around his scars as he tries to figure out what’s wrong.
Anna is partly on his blindside, cast half in amber by the building lights, half in black and white. She turns to look at him. He’s confused to see her smiling—proud, excited—not scared at all. When she’s sure she has his attention, she points—using just her finger, not extending her arm, exactly the way he’s taught her. She indicates the unlighted access road that leads to the highway. Then she flattens her hand, wobbling her palm. It’s their sign for a drone.
The generational divide is what I find captivating about this scene. Lincoln’s job makes him paranoid, but he is also old enough to remember a time when one needn’t concern oneself with spy drones lurking in the shadows, certainly not enough to train one’s children how to respond and react to them. Later, while the family is driving home, Lincoln is still anxious and upset; the girls already have their minds occupied with something else.
Linda Nagata’s brand of military science fiction does not take technology for granted. She does not write “boys with toys” adventure stories or jingoistic thrillers where the good guys and their gadgets save the day from the fearsome foreign menace. In her acclaimed Red trilogy, as well as this novel, the intricate web of political and industrial forces behind the development of advanced weapons systems does more than just impact how battles are fought and won: they reshape the cultural landscape as well as the human mind, both within the military and in society at large.
The Last Good Man is the story of True Brighton, a former army chopper pilot working for a private military contractor called Requisite Operations. The company’s founder, Lincoln Han, started ReqOp because he was fed up with the gray area morality of the missions he and his Army special forces unit were sent on; he wanted to engage in “right action,” to use his military training and expertise to help people and make the world a better place. But a strange hiccup during an otherwise successful mission dredges up a terrible episode from True’s and Lincoln’s shared history that puts the two friends and colleagues at odds and the future of their company in jeopardy.
Nagata’s directness and clarity of purpose are her strongest attributes as a writer. She does not mince words:
It isn’t hard for [True] 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.
These are scenarios that offend her martial heritage. She imagines the consternation of bow masters when guns first appeared on battlefields. Like those bow masters, she has adapted.
Technology changes.
War is eternal.
Throughout the novel, Nagata’s language is precise, delineating all the implications of her novel’s premise through the sharp observations of her characters. This rigorous expressiveness – in her thematic illustrations as well as in the near-perfect symmetry of action and drama – makes the novel a consistently captivating and thought-provoking read.
Looming over the story is near constant presence of surveillance technology – and the casual acceptance of it – in everyday life. This coincides with the gathering storm of fully automated weapons systems capable of completely removing the human element (but not the human cost) from military operations.
By the end, there are two kinds of people in The Last Good Man: those who are disturbed by what this brave new world has wrought and fight to keep their humanity intact, and those who succumb to it and lose their souls in the process. Nagata spins a crackerjack tale in The Last Good Man – from its eye-opening first act twist through the tense and explosive finale, she skillfully balances her tightly paced plot with the psychological implications of the all too near future she envisions.

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