News coverage of military conflicts changed forever when journalists were allowed to travel along with combat units and report right from the front line, providing dramatic real life images of what life is like for soldiers and civilians in a war zone. Dan Abnett effectively takes this concept of the “embedded reporter” into futuristic territory with his new military science fiction novel, Embedded.
Lex Falk is an acclaimed but cynical and war-weary journalist who has visited and written about several newly colonized planets throughout his career. At the start of Embedded, he finds himself on planet Eighty-Six, chasing hints that an armed conflict may be on the verge of breaking out. It’s in the best interest of the various planetary and corporate authorities to downplay any hint that war may be coming, so even Lex finds it difficult to get past the lines fed to him by official propaganda channels. All of that changes when gets the opportunity to test out a new technology that would allow his consciousness to be “embedded” into an active duty soldier…
Dan Abnett has written an almost surreal number of comics and Warhammer novels, so it should come as no surprise that he knows how to tell a story. Lex Falk quickly becomes a solid, recognizable character: a grumpy, tired and arrogant seen-it-all correspondent who is still unable to let go of a story once he’s caught a whiff. Through Lex, the reader gets a vivid and realistic view of life on Eighty-Six, a colony planet that seems to be a mix of corporate interests, government officials and armed forces. Information is restricted to such an extent that the use of the word “war” is discouraged (officially, it’s just a “dispute”), and the degree of media control is chillingly demonstrated by a corporation’s ability to sponsor an expletive: people can be voluntarily “ling-patched” so their curse words are automatically changed to a new soda brand’s name.
The first part of Embedded, showing how Lex tries to get information in this controlled environment, is great. It has a dark, gritty atmosphere, with Lex Falk playing a latter day Phillip Marlowe (but as an investigative journalist rather than a PI, of course). There’s solid world-building, a fascinating main character, and hints that a great plot is about to develop. I had trouble putting this book down early on.
Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse once Lex is actually “embedded.” The concept is neat, and at first it makes for great reading: Lex’s disorientation when finding himself in the body of the young and healthy soldier Nestor Bloom, then being part of the hyper-masculine camaraderie with his unit’s soldiers (who are all unaware that someone else is riding along), later the shocking first-person experiences of actual combat. It makes for vivid and highly entertaining reading… but then Dan Abnett basically keeps playing the same song over and over for too long. Spectacular battles, daring rescues, soldiers joking among themselves. More combat scenes, more high-testosterone joshing and needling, another desperate escape. The author introduces some new elements here and there, and some of the action scenes are true nail-biters, but in general the second half of the novel is too monotonous, and the ending, unfortunately, a bit rushed.
Still, the first half of Embedded, focusing on Lex before being embedded and his first experiences afterward, is truly excellent, and while the second half is too repetitive, it’s still well-written and action-packed. This is a novel that almost begs to be turned into a sci-fi action movie, and it also sets up very effectively for a possible future sequel. If you’re a fan of military SF, definitely check out Embedded by Dan Abnett.