REVIEW SUMMARY: A smart and exciting military science fiction novel.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Journalist Lex Falk is assigned to planet 86, where he’s literally embedded with a combat unit. When the soldier that he’s chipped into is killed, he has to survive against great odds as he uncovers the story of a lifetime.
PROS: Quick, intense, and most of all, a smart entry in the military science fiction genre.
CONS: Almost too quick for its own good at points, with some areas under-supported.
Embedded is the forthcoming military science fiction novel by Dan Abnett, known for his work with the Warhammer 40K and Marvel Comics universes, with his first original novel, Triumff, released in 2009. Set in a near-future where humanity has spread to a number of habitable worlds, The United States and Bloc countries (primarily China, it would seem) have simmered in an interstellar Cold War, where outright violence doesn’t erupt, but where tensions are tangible.
Arriving on the planet 86, Lex Falk, a renowned journalist, is set to report on the progress of the colonization of the world, with the assigned aim to promote the U.S.’s efforts in a positive light. However, shortly after arriving, a bombing occurs, setting his sights to some of the problems that weren’t readily apparent. The opportunity to become embedded with a unit – literally – brings a whole new light to the situation, and Falk finds himself embroiled in the story of a lifetime, only to come up against major problems when the soldier that he’s uploaded into is shot and seriously wounded during an ambush.
I really enjoyed this book, and blew through it far more quickly than I normally would have. Abnett’s writing is fluid, engaging, and smart, connecting pieces together seamlessly, as we move from bombing to chipping to ambush to several fight scenes, all in fairly straight-forward and logical fashion. At very few points did I ever feel that I had to put the book down and question the decisions of a character or a situation.
What Abnett’s done with Embedded is do what every really good military science fiction novel should do: there’s equal parts good, solid world-building, attention to the details and modern allegory to the recent military actions around the world. While doing so, he’s told a very exciting story, repent with action, but at the same time, quite a bit of intelligence behind it. The story here is far-reaching, first looking at the conduct of the soldiers on the ground, before looking at the encroachment of the planet by Bloc interests, to high-level governmental corruption and revelatory discoveries that change everything. Abnett grows the plot, but understands how all the pieces fit together, where each level is essentially a symptom of a bigger picture.
The book’s main MacGuffin is Falk’s ‘chipping’, something that reminded me a lot of the avatar process from the film Avatar. The journalist is essentially uploaded into a SOMD (Settlement Office Military Directorate) soldier named Nestor Bloom, sharing his consciousness and essentially reporting back to someone on the other end, gathering information right under the noses of the government, and blowing open the story of a lifetime. Going into the book, I wasn’t sure how well this idea would work, but throughout the story, it’s not a throwaway idea that gets the story going, but remains a continual part of the story.
Embedded works well because it’s a novel that feels purely influenced by the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my suspicion is that this will be an increasing influence in the genre as the wars are ongoing and remaining relevant topic for writers and readers alike. Other major military science fiction novels typically tap into a greater theme or political element during the time in which they were written: Starship Troopers looks at libertarianism and citizenship during the time of the Cold War, while The Forever War looks at the alienation of soldiers from the Vietnam War, to name just two examples. While Embedded doesn’t quite reach the heights of those two novels, it does look to some of the bigger things going on right now, particularly when it comes to corporate influence on government actions, but also the delicate ways in which superpowers interact on a larger scale, as well as the influence on the media on ongoing combat operations and larger strategy.
Embedded falters a little at points: one character, who initially shoots Falk/Bloom, is under-supported, and looking back, I feel that there could have been more done to tie up that particular element, while the book speeds along at a very quick pace that feels a little forced towards the end. However, with a decent set of characters, engaging story and world-building, those points don’t make a huge impact in the overall scheme of things. Indeed, it’s a solid story that entertains and delivers some good things to mull over, and I’ll be interested to see what other forays he makes into the genre: if Embedded is something to go by, he’ll be an author to continue watching.
Embedded is due out in May from Angry Robot Books.