Dan Abnett
Embedded Cover

Dan Abnett - Embedded (2011)


"They'll blame this on minerals. Well, great. It isn't the fucking ground's fault, right? It's probably some giant domino effect. Some asshole somewhere said the wrong thing to another asshole at some fucking summit, and then some other asshole didn't get his preferential deal, and so he cut the profits on yet another asshole's contract and then... and then... and then... and it's a giant rolling ball of shit coming downhill and sweeping everything up. And that giant rolling ball of shit's called history, Bloom, and we were standing in its fucking way."

'Embedded' by Dan Abnett is a stodgily written military SF story that nevertheless includes some competently written action sequences. Its central conceit, about a journalist embedding his consciousness into a soldier so that he can get the inside scoop on a military cover-up operation, is intriguing and plausibly played out, and at times the novel flirts with some interesting ideas, which it never really makes the most of. The end result is uninspiring.

One of the problems with the book is our protagonist, Lex Falk, an obnoxious journalist who is ready to sleepwalk his way through another assignment until he's denied access by the military, at which point he decides it's personal. The idea of a journalist not being this idealistic seeker of the truth is healthily cynical, and to be fair to Abnett Falk does undergo some character development along the way, ending up willing to risk his life to get the truth out because the people deserve to hear it. But unfortunately Falk's characterisation is just so annoying it's hard to enjoy spending time in the man's head. One doesn't need to sympathise, share the views of or indeed like a protagonist for a novel to work, and one of the benefits of fiction is that it asks us to empathise with those we might otherwise not, but for this to work the character does need to be compelling. Falk, with his sense of entitlement, his sleaziness and his casual misogyny, is simply unpleasant.

Another problem with the book is the writing. Abnett's prose is clunky at best, and he is fond of cutesy neologisms, such as "presearch", or "wealthy" as a term meaning 'well', that are not nearly as clever as he thinks they are. The worst offender is "freeking®", the sponsored swearing that some of the characters have inserted into their speech. The idea of sponsored swearing is marginally witty, though the first time I saw it in writing I wanted to hurl the book across the room, and combined with 'wealthy', and the fact that the book sets up Space Communists as the bad guys, I was kind of hoping there would be some kind of satirical pay-off to having these in the obviously American soldiers' lexicon, as a way of telling us something about two contrasting cultures. However this never happens, these words are just there, glaring, gimmicky and serving no narrative purpose whatsoever.

Having said that, once Falk is implanted into the soldier Neil Bloom's head, the book finds its footing a bit more and the plot finally kicks into gear. It's just a shame it takes almost a hundred pages before this happens. Bloom gets shot in the head, removing his conscious control and leaving Falk in charge of his body. There's an actually pretty great scene in which Falk slowly comes back to consciousness in Bloom's mutilated body and staggers up like a zombie. Through the rest of the book, Falk has to rely on Bloom's training to get him through the day. This is the real meat of the book, that soldiers train so hard so that they can internalise these actions so when they're dropped into combat situations, the autonomic reflexes take over, and they can trust these reflexes and their training to help them survive.

What follows is by far the most successful part of the book, as Falk, in charge of Bloom's body, and the remaining soldiers in his platoon, must work together to survive. There is a tightly written, engaging action sequence in which one of the soldiers panics, leading to the death of many of the others. In this part of the book, Abnett at times approaches the gritty, from the ground view, as well as the violence and meaningless death, the horror, sadness and frustration at it all that we encounter in a truly great piece of war fiction like, say, The Forever War. However, as well as being a lesser writer, Abnett also lacks Haldeman's unwavering focus and purpose in writing about war. This comes across in Abnett's tone; he is never able to achieve the sincerity of Haldeman's writing. It also manifests in how easily Abnett lets his characters off the hook. Multiple soldiers all swear that they're going to kill the soldier who made the mistake, and many of them are gearing up to, but his reckless actions kill him before Abnett's characters are forced to make that moral choice. Similarly, at the end, Falk is only able to talk his way out of the situation due to a coincidence that stretches suspension of disbelief, though to be fair to Abnett I think having the military kill everyone before they could spill the secret would have perhaps been too cynical a move. 'Embedded' also spreads its philosophy pretty thinly on the ground, although the discussion quoted above, in which the soldiers make the point that war is frequently fought for the petty reasons of the rich and powerful, while the soldiers do all the dirty work, is well taken.

'Embedded' is a mess and something of a missed opportunity, but for all its faults it does show the occasional flash of brilliance. Unfortunately the one-note characters and poor quality of the prose drag it down, but these are things that can be fixed when a writer develops. In particular if Abnett had found something more concrete to hang that middle section of his novel on, 'Embedded' might have turned into something special.