Ernest Lilley is the former Sr. Editor/Publisher of SFRevu and former radio Co-Host of Sci-Fi Talk with Tony Tellado. He currently publishes TechRevu (www.techrevu.com), occasionally writes for science and technology publications, and is Director of Technology for a DC based educational association. He regularly blogs about sf, technology, culture, poetry and soup at “being Ernest” and can be found here on Facebook. He currently lives in the Gernsback Continuum with that classic trope of SF, a red headed heroine.
Embedded, by Dan Abnett, isn’t war the way Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers) wrote it. It’s more like war the way Robert Kaplan (Imperial Grunts) writes it. Full of dust, heat, sand and weary soldiers doing what they do without the solace of believing that things are going to be better because they were here. It’s war the way it’s fought now, brought to us by embedded journalists.
Abnett’s main character, Falk, is a prize-winning war correspondent, or he was. Without quite realizing it, he has become worn and bitter and very burned out. He only took the assignment to Eighty-Six (planets don’t get names till they become states) to score some quick cash, swallow some mil-PR crap and head back to the land of porcelain toilets.
(See also: Andrew Liptak’s review)
Falk gets taken for a ride to see the bad guys at work but doesn’t buy the whole “local insurgents versus a mega-corp” smoke job they throw at him, partly because he’s been warned by someone already went on the ride and can tell him where all the scary parts are. Sure enough, they show up on cue…and this pisses Falk off. Not that he was lied to, but that they expected him to be taken in by it. So rather than staying just long enough to get his clothes authentically dirty, he digs in and starts really working the story.
Though the situation on Eighty-Six is supposed to a local conflict, Falk starts to pick up rumors that it might actually be the first shooting war between old enemies since mankind started colonizing the stars. There are rumors that the (Soviet) Bloc wants access to the raw materials on one of Eighty-Six’s moons, and if Eighty-Six achieves U.S. statehood, the Bloc would lose out.
The mega-corp taking the hit for the cover story is not loving the bad press, and that’s where Falk gets his chance to see what’s really going on. You see, they’ve got this experimental technology that lets you see all that you can see…from inside another person’s head. Falk finds a soldier who’s willing to lend his for the right price, which creates a neat reversal of the setup in James Cameron’s Avatar. Instead of a member of the Jarhead Clan infiltrating the friendly natives, Falk is infiltrating the Jarheads themselves. He does not get a date with the chief’s daughter for his reward, but he does get a front seat for the story of his life.
In a lot of sf, that’s old hat. In far future stuff, that’s fine with me, since it involves an anything-goes mandate, but here I appreciate the author’s decency in making it hard, but more importantly, in making it something that requires a team effort. Falk, the ultimate loner, is going to have to trust some people in order to get the story, and maybe even to survive.
Falk’s story requires the help of Cleese, an obese news editor now out of her zero-g comfort zone and looking for a story and Apfed, a corporate operative, who has a portfolio that blends PR and black ops with considerable flexibility. And there’s the brash young reporter on the rise, full of the same kind of disdain for Falk that Falk once held for his own sources. Strange and dangerous bedfellows all.
On Eighty-Six Falk finds something more disturbing than an uptick in the temperature of a war long assumed to be stone cold. He finds that the haggard and wasted man in the mirror is indeed who he’s become. So that’s how he winds up, hung-over and uncomfortable, slipping into a sensory deprivation tank on a backwater world so he can hitch a ride on a young buff harness who wanted to make a little extra cash and didn’t mind having another set of eyes along.
What the soldier doesn’t count on is getting killed in action, and having some burned-out journalist running his body on the battlefield, trying to get his team out alive and figure out what’s going on. With no one home in the soldier’s head, Falk’s link to the soldier’s body becomes stronger. Though he can barely shamble about at first, he is soon able to pass as the squad leader he’s chipped into-at least, the squad leader with a head wound.
So in a way, this becomes a zombie novel. Sort of. And while were speaking genre labels, it’s also alt-history, with a 1960 moon landing and a world that never quite resolved the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Though that may not be so alt. Time will tell.
Although author Dan Abnett’s written some thirty five plus novels, I didn’t think I’d read his work before, having passed on some of his previous books, which include the Warhammer series, Guardians of the Galaxy and a number of Doctor Who and Torchwood books. Checking his bibliography, I realized I’d read one of the latter, Border Princes, in which the Torchwood unit is joined by a memory-warping alien whose job is to guard the space-time rift that causes so much trouble for the unit. All well and good, but it seriously annoyed me, a newcomer to the series, since there was no way for me to know the intruder wasn’t just part of the cast. But then, I never liked Torchwood all that much.
On the other hand, I like Embedded quite a lot. Every generation has their own sort of war, and Abnett’s clearly got the sense of this one. No doubt there will be a totally new kind of war by the time the real future rolls around, but Embedded offers an intriguing glimpse of what it might look like through the lens of the present.