Short version: a nail-biting action thriller. Read it if you want thriller, but not to experience anything new in female characterization or military sci-fi.
“If Daniel could offer her comfort, if there was something he could say that would ease the horror of what was done and smooth the scars that mark her life, True would refuse to hear it. For eight years she’s rejected all such words. She does not need comfort. She needs her scars. But she keeps these thoughts to herself.”
A lesson in feminism: First wave: women recognizing equal rights, working to legalize equality and recognizing issues around homosexuality. Second wave: the consciousness-raising wave, particularly applied to sexuality and reproductive rights. Third wave: feminism that is more inclusive, that recognizes issues of people of color, ability issues and issues of gender identity.
Unfortunately for me, The Last Good Man is planted firmly in the second wave with it’s ‘big idea’ being a middle-aged woman in a genre male role. I read thriller/military dramas here and there, but haven’t been in the genre mood for a bit. I picked this one up on the strength of Nagata’s discussion of the book on Scalzi’s The Big Idea (found here) and the 4.33 rating among friends. I’m not immune to the power of a good action-military movie, so I was intrigued by the idea of bringing an older woman into the setting.
Alas, though extremely readable, for me it did not push any conceptual boundaries. There’s really only one woman in the action part of the team, True Brighton (naming done with tongue-in-cheek? Not sure) and once the leading mission is completed, centers on her identity as a mother. I find myself curious what the story would have been like with a male lead obsessed with his dead son. In the course of the story, True’s identity as a mother is involved in making connections and justification for her actions. The two other important women are technical geniuses, the old ‘women-in-the-lab,’ ala NCIS and Criminal Minds. Gender identity, when discussed, is made clear that it falls along normative lines only (Nagata mentions one woman on the team as sleeping with a male team member in the past. No other male team members’ sexual relationships are mentioned). Only two relationships are discussed, True’s and the leader, Lincoln (!). We get a brief mention of Lincoln realizing he’s the one-woman type and trying to restore his relationship with his estranged wife. True’s is slightly less traditional, with her husband, Alex, is ex-military and currently a paramedic, following her around the country for her job, and him waiting at home for her return. That’s about as boundary-pushing as it gets.
There’s also some talk about whether the human element is going to be phased out of conflict and replaced with smart drones with rapidly programmable algorithms and the like. Again, not a revolutionary concept; every technical advance has had similar questions as we increase the physical distance between the people fighting.
Despite a nominal lead who is forty-nine and female, it failed to demonstrate any conceptual innovation for me. Nagata reports New York publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Her interpretation was that part of that was due to the atypical heroine. Perhaps. Maybe the other part of it is that it isn’t enough of any particular thing to strongly target genre. Likely too military traditional to appeal to sci-fi fans, such as those of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame series, I could understand the marketing challenge.
Still, it’s gripping and above average for the genre. Read it for the military-type thriller and not for the gender challenges.