SF Signal recently had a chance to speak with science fiction and fantasy author Dan Abnett. His upcoming military science fiction novel, Embedded, is due out March 29th, 2011 is a departure from a long line of Warhammer and Warhammer 40k novels. Dan has also worked at Marvel UK, with titles including Death’s Head 2, Knights of Pendragon, The Punisher, War Machine, Annihilation: Nova and various X-Men titles.
Here’s what we had to talk about…
SF SIGNAL: Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First off, your book Embedded was my first introduction to your work, although friends have recommended your tie-in novels before: how was it moving from an established world to one of your own creation?
DAN ABNETT: Fun. Scary. There are no handrails. It’s the second time I’ve done it in a book, the first being Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero for Angry Robot, but I’ve also done it with comic book series that I’ve built from scratch like Sinister Dexter, so I wasn’t a total newbie. But world building is a challenge, and Embedded‘s world(s) had to really work. I wanted it to be able to do the things I needed to without being too wildly SF and flashy. I wanted it to feel authentic.
DA: Very useful for the handling of action and the military vibe. Embedded allowed me to do things that Warhammer 40K doesn’t, though, like reference the modern world and make other cultural allusions. It’s also more personal. The human at the heart of it is much more like us than a 40K human is.
SFS: As someone who’s attended a military academy, I can attest that war gaming is pretty popular. How are your books received by those serving in the military? What do you think (or hope) a modern soldier reading Embedded will get out of it?
DA: They seem to be very well received. I get an awful lot of positive feedback by email and also at Cons from veterans of currently serving members of the military. It’s actually very, very flattering. I guess I’m doing my research right. As for what they’ll get from Embedded…actually, I’m really interested to find that out. I’m keenly anticipating the responses.
SFS: While working with established universes, what are your thoughts on the ‘originality’ of said works: is ‘original’ fiction inherently better than tie-in work, or does tie-in work have its own strengths that ‘original’ fiction might not have?
DA: I can understand why there’s a perceived difference between “tie-in” and “original” fiction, but the snobbery is sometimes very hard to take. I certainly never treat tie-in as ‘second class’ work, or something I can bang out between ‘proper’ jobs. It gets my full attention and I do the best job I can. Tie-in is often very technically demanding; it also offers, on occasions, vast opportunities to make world building contributions; authors also want to write for an audience, so what’s so bad about being commissioned to write for an audience that is ready and eagerly waiting for what you’re producing?
DA: Plenty, really. I wanted to write some combat SF that was able to culturally check our world. I wanted it to have a grainy feel of reality to it, to be something we almost recognised. The central concept just popped into my head one day, fully formed, and I set out to see what I could do with it and what kind of world I’d need to build around it to make it work.
SFS: Military Science Fiction has a long and storied history: what is your take on it, and what do you count as influences? Do you have any particular favorites or recommendations?
DA: The obvious benchmarks of the genre – like Heinlein, Haldeman, Scalzi and Card – are well established as masterworks, and rightly so. I took as much inspiration from (a LOT of) non-fiction memoirs and military accounts.
SFS: Which military accounts and memoirs?
DA: Oh, too many to list, but right across the spectrum from classical sources to modern memoirs. Xenophon to Jarhead.
SFS: Let’s shift to the real world for a moment: Embedded is the story of a journalist who’s caught up in some pretty major military actions: what are your thoughts on combat journalism: do you think it’s a good idea, or do you think that it can run counter to military goals?
DA: There are inevitably going to be situations where having a non-combatant reporter in the middle of a combat situation is going to make things more complicated, or awkward, or simply dangerous for everyone involved. But there have always been military correspondents – it’s just the intimacy of their involvement and the immediacy of their reportage that’s evolved. I think it’s important we know about things we’re expecting our military personnel to go and do, in our name. I think it’s also important to remember that, even if we disagree or oppose a particular war, or even war in principle, we can support and respect the servicemen and women obliged to prosecute it. Good reportage helps us to understand that commitment.
SFS: Where do you think the way wartime reporting will be going over the next couple of years?
DA: I don’t think they’ll be embedded the way I describe quiet yet, but I see it going one of two ways: it’s either going to get a great deal more intimate and intense, or there is a going to be a strong backlash that disengages military action and personnel from the media. Given the portability of technology, I imagine the former is more likely, whether its officially sanctioned or not.
SFS: Trying to predict the future is something that’s difficult, and often, there’s a lot of dramatic things like powered armor, personnel atomic weapons, and so forth, used in the genre when it comes to soldiers, yet your soldiers would be fairly recognizable to a modern day reader: why is that?
DA: I wanted to preserve that ‘near edge’ feel. Close future authenticity. I felt that the moment we have full on power armour and light sabres, everyone will go going wow at the SFX and not caring about the story and the people.
SFS: One element that surprised me was the scalability of the story here, as Falk enters the game and uncovers far more than he thought was present, and it feels like there’s a divide between what the ground level soldiers see, and what someone who’s outside of the situation might observe. Do you think that this can be applied to any combat situation?
DA: Very probably. The lack of general context, and the reduction of everything to simple objectives, from the trooper’s POV was something I wanted to establish. I had to work a careful balance between a sense of being in the heart of things, and having no sense of the significance, and the dramatic demands of a book to reveal something and gradually unveil a plot line.
SFS: I felt that there were some influences from the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: do you think that those two conflicts will influence the genre, or science fiction in general? How?
DA: I think they already are. In fact – and not just in terms of technology levels – military SF has been anticipating wars like this for a while now. Long term, ‘foreign’ wars that are costly, increasingly unpopular and misunderstood on the home front, which conflate moral imperatives with resource arguments, and ultimately demonise those we’re at war against by ignoring nuance and generalising them as impenetrably and inimically alien.
SFS: There’s an interesting universe that you’ve put together for Embedded: are you planning on revisiting Falk’s story again?
DA: The “Universe” of Embedded was engineered for the particular needs of this book, but the more I built it, the more potential I could see in it. I suppose that’s a testament to its structural integrity, that it doesn’t just work for this one particular story. I already have some other ideas that may play out in Settlement Space.
SFS: The publishing industry is going through quite a bit of change: where do you see the future of books in the foreseeable future?
DA: I don’t think it’ll matter where you buy them from, or in what format, people will still have a voracious appetite for good books. But I’m also old school, so I will always have shelves and paper books.
SFS: Do you have anything coming up that we should look forward to?
DA: A new Gaunt’s Ghosts book – Salvation’s Reach – later this year, and plenty of fun comics (Heroes for Hire and New Mutants for Marvel, Soldier Zero for Boom!)… plus a few other juicy things I’m prevented by NDAs from talking about… yet 😉