Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Linda Nagata

Thank you for chatting with us about your story, “Codename: Delphi.” This story follows a combat controller as she advises several squads in a combat zone. What specifically inspired this story?

A lot of my stories have vague beginnings, making it hard to say specifically what inspired them, but “Codename: Delphi” is an exception—it was directly inspired by my novel The Red: First Light. Delphi is an important character in that novel, but because TR:FL is told in first person from the point of view of a soldier in the field, we never have a chance to get inside Delphi’s head to experience war as she experiences it. So writing the short story gave me a chance to remedy that, to take a look at war and duty through the eyes of a character for whom war is physically remote, but very, very real.

I’m reminded of the descriptions of how drone pilots operate, although in this case, the soldiers Karin is directing aren’t drones. Do you think people will perceive soldiers (real or robotic) differently if they’re watching from afar?

Within the story, there is a personal relationship between the handler and the soldier that helps to “keep things real.” Handlers converse in real time with the soldiers they work with, hearing the emotion in their voices and occasional personal asides, as well as their interactions with the rest of their squad. In this scenario, the concern is that the relationship will become too personal, which is the reason for using codenames to help maintain a formal distance between soldier and handler. Handling drones must be very different. In my story, the handler is an advisor, an extra set of eyes, and a researcher able to provide requested information—but is always peripheral to the decisions of the soldier. A drone pilot, in contrast, has direct control over what happens in the field, but is not personally vulnerable—an altogether different situation. How a drone pilot reacts to that situation probably has much more to do with individual personalities and the attitude of the unit, than with the fact of distance alone.

As we see cheaper and more prevalent technology spread out around the world, we’re likely going to see the nature of combat change. Do you think this scenario is likely?

I think it’s a possibility. Information is power. A soldier can surely benefit from real time battlefield information, especially when it’s filtered and focused by an experienced handler, but—hugely important—the lines of communication must be reliable and secure.

Karin appears to be a contractor at the center of the action, one with a duty to her soldiers, but also stuck in a call center: Do you worry about people making decisions that affect soldiers becoming desensitized, not relating their actions as anything but a game?

I think as long as we engage in warfare, the conduct of everyone involved needs to be open to scrutiny on some level, and the seriousness of war needs to always be emphasized. But whether we’re talking about remote warriors or boots-on-the-ground soldiers, we, as a society, ask them to do terrible things—to take human lives—and to live with the emotional weight of that for the rest of their lives. “Desensitization” is the term we use to express our concern that regard for human life—whether the lives of the enemy or the lives of our own soldiers in the field—has been lost. But how much emotional weight should war fighters be asked to bear? The US Army has looked into immediate post-combat treatments aimed at reducing eventual PTSD. Is that desensitization? I don’t think so, but the argument could be made. So while it’s easy to make simple, sweeping statements about remote warfare, war is complex and so are the people who fight it. And finally, what of the rest of us? The desensitization of society-at-large to the remote wars we engage in should be a major concern as well.

Finally, what do you have coming up that we should be looking forward to?

The big item is my newest novel, The Red: Trials. I’m hoping to bring it out in May or shortly after. It’s a sequel to The Red: First Light, which I hope you’ll check out in the meantime. On the short story front, I have work in three anthologies scheduled for publication in 2014. The two that I’m free to announce are “Attitude,” near-future science fiction to appear in Jonathan Strahan’s Reach For Infinity, and “Light and Shadow,” part of your own anthology [edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak] War Stories.

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak is the Weekend Editor for The Verge. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, (Apex Publications, 2014). His writing has also appeared in io9, Gizmodo, Kirkus Reviews, Tor.com, BN Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Clarkesworld and others. He lives in Vermont.