Sunday, January 22, 2012

Combative Correspondent: Dan Abnett's "Embedded"

Meeting Dan Abnett at Games Day 2005 in the U.K.

I've been a fan of Dan Abnett's writing for many years now, mostly through his excellent Warhammer 40,000 novels, like the Eisenhorn trilogy, or his excellent Gaunt's Ghosts series.  He is legendarily prolific, writing 2-4 full length 40K novels a years as well as occasional gaming background material and tons of monthly comics, including a long run on DC's Legions of Super-Heroes some time ago, and more recently, a successful re-vamp of the character Nova for Marvel.  Jokes about his having an army of clones in order to maintain his output are sure to continue to dog him now that he is branching away from the creations of others and on to his own original stories and settings.  I quite enjoyed his alt-history novel Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero, but more recently read Embedded and can recommend it most science-fiction readers who have an interest in either the military or the media.

In Embedded, we meet reporter Lex Falk, world-weary, cynical, plus tired, pasty and brittle from too much time in micro-gravity as he moves from hotspot to hotspot. Falk has come to Planet 86, still in the process of being colonized by rival political  factions and so new it doesn't even have a proper name, but there have been bombings and shootouts that have drawn him to the scene.  Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the Settlement Office Forces of the United Status might not be up against the run of the mill insurrectionists this time around, and there is a worry that the Cold War that has been simmering with the Bloc for decades may be about to turn hot, but no one will say why.

Falk is offered the opportunity of piggybacking his consciousness onto the mind of an trooper heading out on a patrol that could provide the answers he's looking for.  When that soldier takes a mortal shot to the head, though, Falk has only his own experience to help both of them get back to safety so he can be extracted.  Along the way, more clues come to light, forcing him to makes some hard choices between his safety (and that of his host) and discovering the truth.

Abnett has earned the right to stand among some big names in military-sci-fi, like Davids Drake (Hammer's Slammers) and Weber (Honor Harrington), so once Falk's trooper grabs his weapon and jumps onto his troop transport for a ride into the Hard Place, you are heading into somewhat familiar, if unpredictable, territory.   Despite the chaos of the ensuing firefights and multiple types of high-tech lethality coming into play at any given moment, the reader can be assured of two things: 1) they are gonig to have a very clear idea of both what is going on and what is at stake, and 2) it will probably be surprising and unpleasant, which is certainly proper.

I was concerned that this story might feel like a transplanted 40K story with some cosmetic changes, but I needn't have worried.  Although some of the banter between troopers might be reminiscent of a Gaunt's Ghosts tale, the political backdrop and opposition forces set Planet 86 a good distance away from The Nightmare Future in both time and space.

More importantly though, everything leading up to Falk's remote experiences in the field, his description of a future human society (no aliens, unlike 40K) as they colonize the stars while states and corporations bicker with each other, feels both distinct and insightful.  There are elements of cyberpunk as well, with Falk's observances about changing corporate logos and the pecking order of the modern press pool really standing out.  When a colleague announces she has taken a sizable commission to fit herself with a 'ling chip' that prevents her from cursing, she describes it as being "freeking(TM) unsettling" to which Falk replies, "I was wondering how you made that sound at the end of the word like that."  Vaguely reminiscent of Max Headroom, but still.

After dealing with comic-book paragons and the embattled heroes of the 41st millennium, Lex Falk is probably Abnett's least sympathetic character, who, to his credit, is at least aware that he is a smug, occasionally charming dick.  His conflict over the right course of action, or even determining what it is he wants and why he wants it, sets the hook so that when we get dragged in to the action-heavy second half of the novel, we already feel at least as committed as he does: riding into a battlezone with an uncertain enemy and unclear objectives in the head of a soldier who actually has to admonish him to stop thinking so loud in order that he doesn't get them killed.

Embedded is a good read for fans of military science-fiction, those who like a gripping, action-oriented yarn, and for those who like to speculate about what the media of the future might be like.  It's unclear if we will return to Planet 86 or other interests of the United Status in future books, but at one point Falk looks over a children's book showing the history of space colonization, beginning with the first man on the moon, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, which might be a seed from which this slightly alt-future-history is wrought.  I wouldn't mind going back; like the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it is a great place to visit, but I certainly wouldn't want want to live there.

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