BOOK REVIEW: Embedded, by Dan Abnett

Rating: 2 out of 5.
  • A standalone novel
  • Published by Angry Robot in 2011
  • Military SF
  • 363 pages

Lex Falk is a journalist on a mission. To uncover the truth of the escalating conflict on the colony Eighty-Six. The higher-ups claim it is a local matter, but Falk knows it goes deeper than that. Just how deep will shock everyone . . .

It’s very hard to find new angles to approach military SF. It is at its heart the genre of big battles, and the role of the military. A lot of authors focus on the former. explosions and gunfights appeal to a lot of people, after all. There’s a simple pleasure to be had in stories of brave human soldiers trying to stem the unstoppable tide of monstrous aliens. But the better stories are always the ones that go deeper. Jack Campbell’s JAG in Space focuses on the role of law within military organisations. Michael Mammay’s Planetside is a hybrid of military and detective fiction. Jamie Sawyer’s The Lazarus War examines the psychological effects of soldiers who cannot die. With all these and more, what new aspect of future warfare is left to explore? Dan Abnett’s answer is journalism.

We live in a world with a 24 hour news cycle. A world where journalists risk their lives on a daily basis to bring the latest updates straight from the warzone. You only have to turn on the TV to see how bad it is out there. Especially in light of current events. Abnett takes this state of play and runs with it, positing a future in which even minor skirmishes on other worlds have whole fields of journalists clamouring at the opportunity to break the latest piece of news. Protagonist Falk is just one of many. Tying into the role of journalism is the manipulation and control of information that comes with war. For obvious security reasons, you can’t have the news reporters telling everyone about sensitive military operations. But this is science fiction, so it goes beyond that. Soldiers are implanted with chips that control the words they are able to use, even going so far as to replace profanity with sponsorship. Then there’s the clear divide between the played-down version of events supplied to the media, and the amped-up version shared among the troops themselves. Again, it’s that control of language that Abnett employs to maximum effect, with an all-too chilling plausibility.

The plot is where things come undone. About a third of the way through the story, Falk employs advanced technology to essentially hijack the body of a soldier, all in the pursuit of getting closer to the story. It’s a jarring shift from investigative journalism to a more traditional military SF viewpoint, and does the book no favours. Especially when we stay there for the rest of the book. Technological jargon aside, the actual soldiering doesn’t feel any different to it would in a contemporary novel. Now, maybe there is something to be said here. A point about how war never changes, and that all battlefields are ultimately the same. How the bonds of soldiers remain constant through the ages. But I prefer my science fiction to have a little more science fiction in it. The closest we get to that is at the very end of the novel, where the reason for the war becomes clear. Along the way there is also a very odd moment that lists Virgil Grissom as the first man on Earth’s moon. I’m not sure why Abnett set his future in an alternate timeline, but it adds absolutely nothing to the narrative that wouldn’t have worked regardless.

As is often the case, I like the ideas of this book more than I like the book itself. Less than the sum of its parts, Embedded is a rare misfire from a master of science fictional warfare.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also enjoy:
First and Only, by Dan Abnett
Stark’s War, by Jack Campbell
Terms of Enlistment, by Marko Kloos

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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