The Big Idea: Linda Nagata
Posted on June 21, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 21 Comments
For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?
For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.
And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.
“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.
So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.
But older and wiser, right?
Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.
It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.
Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.
Hey, we can all dream.
The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.
My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:
Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)
Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:
Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.
I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.
On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.
So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.
Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.
True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.
Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.
True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.
This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.
Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.
So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”
The Last Good Man: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
I’m a big fan of Ms. Nagata’s works. This is on my short list to read soon.
Her science *works* even when it’s crazy superscience (Deception Well, Vast). And that’s never aat the expense of the characters. Go. Read.
Ex-military middle-aged woman as protagonist? Absolutely! *Nearly* retired middle-aged woman general as protagonist totally worked in Robert Bennett’s “City of Blades”. I’m looking forward to giving this novel a spin.
I just started it. About 10% in, and so far it is frackin’ great.
Nicely written excerpt, and the premise sounds engaging, but – and this may get a spoiler – even with the “near future” setting, is there anything more to the choice of the Iraqi warlord as the (presumably) big bad?
Or is that simply the default?
After reading the Red trilogy I hope you continue to find military science fiction a “market savvy intensely interesting” direction to take your writing.
So, PI Neapple, don’t get too hung up on the Iraqi warlord. He’s not the big bad.
I’m about 50% through right now, and it’s not letting up yet. Super fast paced, exciting, lots of fun, compelling central mystery. The protagonist’s identity is not just a gimmick, it drives the entire plot.
Also, it bears mention that this is a stronger, tighter, better-written novel than Ms. Nagata’s Red trilogy, which I found to be compelling and interesting but flawed – occasionally clunky language, some odd plotting and pace choices including major events that seemed unnecessary, and a few characters that strained believability. This book remedies those flaws entirely.
I hope this is a huge success for Ms. Nagata and those New York publishing houses cover her ass in smooches.
I wanted to like “Red” (very glad to see Ms. Nagata back in the saddle) but for the reasons some folks mentioned I had a hard time suspending disbelief…this sounds better.
Wasn’t really hung up on the Iraqi warlord as antogonist, but was curious if there was some plotting behind it or if he was just the default, generic bad guy … Like the “Russkies” during the Cold War, or the “Yellow Peril” back in Homer Lea’s day…
There are certainly plenty of failed states where evil warlords could have their lairs, and presumably will be even more in the near future, but Iraq – especially given what that country has gone through in the past several decades – is less likely to be such in the near future than some others … Oil wealth alone is not enough,but it is far better than nothing to build an economy upon…
Granted, Canadian oligarchs and Swedish warlords are a stretch for the near future, but something more speculative than the default Arab/Muslim crazy guy is always interesting.
Encouraged by the statement there is more to the antagonist than the above, of course.
Peter Watts, Canadian oligarch. Watch this terrifying vision of the future on CBC, each Tuesday starting February 31. It’s a beauty way to go.
Been working my way through the Red trilogy, but this sounds even cooler.
Bought this one yesterday and hope to start it when I finish working my way through library books that are due next week.
Great article. Bought the book and will try and get to it soon.
Linda, Thank you for your “Big Idea” post. Unlike many, I have never read anything you’ve written. I started reading fantasy and science fiction in the 70’s. But when I hit my 30’s and 40’s, I shifted into mainly non-fiction. Later, I went back to school, so my bed time reading was consumed with required texts, lit theory and other essays. Since graduation, I’ve been able to return to reading stories of my choice. I started reading this blog to learn about new-to-me authors and books (and because I like the writing). Despite recognizing your name, and having the book cross my radar, I put it in the perhaps, if there’s time, category.
Thank you for changing my mind. :)
Whoops. Sorry! Should have mentioned, downloaded and queued up as next to read.
February 31? I have obviously missed something. ;)
Canadian oligarchs? I wouldn’t be surprised! They’ve been lulling us into a false sense of security for 200 years now, with their tasty maple syrup and stuff. Watch ‘SOUTH PARK, THE MOVIE’ if you don’t believe me!
Oh yeah, *this* goes on my TBR pile ASAP.
BTW, the older you get (if you’re blessed/fortunate to be able to stay healthy), the farther away “old age” gets. Right now, to me, even 75 doesn’t seem like it will be “old age” – just more years to be creative and do stuff I enjoy and make some kind of a contribution to civilization. :-)
This is already near the top of my to read list. The Red was good; although, not without flaws.
I did like the characters in The Red and I’m looking forward to meeting the middle-aged mother, retired army helicopter pilot. Sounds like someone is like to know.
“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.
I think that was me. But! I’ll read this latest!