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Worlds Without End Blog

Embedded – Dan Abnett Posted at 11:55 PM by Emil Jung



I am a Dan Abnett novice. I’ve never read anything out of the Warhammer 40K universe. This is probably a blessing in disguise. Reading Embedded, I was not polluted by inevitable comparisons to his syndicated work; I could read it wholly in the context of a setting entirely Abnett’s own. As a result, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Embedded is a tough, near-future, military-sf novel of the highest quality. With a serious story about people caught up in a warzone, Abnett has skillfully created the ultimate eyewitness account of a military struggle that features persuasive allusions to the current situation in Afghanistan and past conflicts in Iraq. In the process he succeeded in creating a very authentic universe with his own blend of unique but not unbelievable military technology, corporate sponsorships and analogous architecture, synthesized food items that taste like the original and even filtered language that is the cause of much amusement throughout the storytelling. It is solid world building with wonderful attention to detail.

Having a journalist’s consciousness embedded into the synapses of a soldier’s brain is an unprecedented innovation and sets up a rite of passage truly comparable to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Pitch in Abnett’s gripping, engaging and fluent writing style and an uncanny ability for seamlessly connecting the various pieces together with near-perfect timing and pace, it was easy to imagine watching the same grainy, documentary footage shot by embedded reporters so often seen on television. This is a book with movie written all over it!

Embedded starts off slowly, almost a trudge, as if Abnett purposefully wanted to relay just how exceedingly dull and dreary planet Eighty Six seems on its surface. Initially there is very little to engage with. Falk, the main character is, at the outset, a dislikeable, clichéd reporter with boorish and egotistical manners. After about 90 pages though it becomes evident that all is not what it seems to be. Despite the military’s spin on events there is a very ruthless war going on here, but it is not immediately clear why. Abnett sets up various red herrings as possible answers to this enthralling question that demands you stick around ‘till the end.  Audaciously, he only reveals the true answers right at the very end after putting the reader through many remarkably anxious combat scenes and the ensuing emotional turmoil of the characters. The relationships between the soldiers and Falk’s own rite of passage after his “host” is shot are written with believable clarity. These character developments are especially satisfying and the particular journey that Falk undergoes totally redefines his character to the extent that he becomes worth following. Ultimately very little remained of the cantankerous and obnoxious Falk I met in those first few pages.

Nothing in the novel felt contrived. Yes, there are some uncomfortable questions raised about the way Abnett presents the “remote controlling” of a corpse but these are soon forgotten once the many action scenes present themselves. With these, Abnett’s adroitness is beyond contention. He has a pronounced skill and flair in creating anticipation, tension and release balanced with immaculate timing, pace and the unexpected. The battle scenes are terrifyingly realistic and intentionally chaotic. War is not a pub brawl and Abnett unquestionably does not treat it lightly.

The novels denouement is arguably its only weak point. Despite everything tying together rather well, lifting the veil on the overarching vagueness, I find the final revelation a bit convenient and a typical science fiction “exit.” But it does not detract from what Abnett ultimately wants to say: that every war, fought for whatever reason, reduces the stock of human good, and diminishes civilization. The last, short chapter brought this home for me.

Embedded is pulsating military-sf, cynical but not jaded, ruthlessly brutal yet intelligent. An impressive and very satisfying read.


Wintermute   |   28 May 2011 @ 16:10

Thank your for the fine book review! I really appreciate it because I know it’s not easy. It sounds like an interesting read but unfortunately the final revelation as you describe it, is a major turnoff for me. "But it does not detract from what Abnett ultimately wants to say: that every war, fought for whatever reason, reduces the stock of human good, and diminishes civilization." If this is indeed Abnett message then he is not a morally serious person, or at least the book’s message isn’t. I’m sure we can all come up with any number situations past, present, and theoretical that invalidate the idea that war reduces the stock of human good.

Rico Simpkins   |   28 May 2011 @ 22:17

Wintermute: I think it’s possible to agree with the statement (that war reduces the stock of human good) without delegitimizing all participation in war. For instance, the classic example: America’s involvement of WWII is largely viewed as just. Nevertheless, the war itself cost us millions of lives, years of capital and left civilation with far less that it might have had in peace time. Perhaps the original statement is not nuanced enough, but I still buy it as basically true.

Emil   |   29 May 2011 @ 03:45

I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin said: "There never was a good war, or a bad peace." For me the question Abnett raises is not about what constitutes a "just war" – rather more so about the consequences of war, particularly on those active in the fighting. The main aim of a just war theory, I think, are to identify a set of conditions under which it is morally defensible to resort to force of arms and to offer guidelines on the limits within which fighting is to be conducted. In this respect I’m again haunted by a quote: "Bismarck fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; the idealists of the 20th century fight ‘just’ wars and kill millions." I may have attributed too much to Abnett on the morality of war, but that final chapter, to my mind, saw Falk fully transformed. The last sentence "I know how he feels" says it all. The reason revealed for the bloody conflict seems a little trivial (perhaps Abnett did this on purpose) compared to the camaraderie of Falk’s squad. Ultimately they fight for one another. Many military-sf novels treat the subject of war very lightly. Abnett doesn’t. Perhaps I’m stretching it a bit, but he seems skeptical about the applying ethical concepts to war. There seems to be a "just cause" but in the end we are often faced with pettiness. I guess one of Falk’s squad members summed it up the best: "It’s a giant rolling ball of shit coming downhill and sweeping everything up. And that giant rolling ball of shit’s called history, and we were standing in its fucking way."

Wintermute   |   29 May 2011 @ 10:10

Rico Simpkins – I agree with you, the cost of that war was unbelievable. But the alternative was not peace (and therefore an increase in the stock of human good). It is a false choice in that particular example between a war that costs tens of millions of lives and scores upon scores of millions maimed and debilitated humans versus peace. The alternative was Soviet, Nazi, Italian, and Japanese hegemony over vast swaths of humanity. What horror. So that’s where I am coming from when I am dismissive of a conclusion that says all war is bad. However, Emil makes a great point in that very last sentence of his post. I would definitely agree that all war is bad for the soldiers. For them it’s not about the grand political goals – just or unjust – it’s about the guy next to them and survival. Definitely, all wars are bad from the soldiers perspective. Great comments guys! The book definitely treats the subject more seriously than average sci-fi. It sounds like a fine read! I just want to make sure that it was mentioned that war is not the worse alternative for society as a whole (though it is for the soldier).

Mattastrophic   |   29 May 2011 @ 13:06

It sounds like Wintermute’s point of contention in his first post came from a concern that Abnett may have been too absolutist/simplistic about war being bad and unnecessary, which is just as problematic as it’s antithesis of war being good and grand? I certainly wouldn’t want to read a book whose message reads like a cliched soundbite from a protestor’s picket sign. I’m hoping this is not the case in Abnett’s book since it’s interested me enough to give it a shot. The comparison to the Forever War seems very apt. Perhaps Embedded is a book that can use SF to create incisive social commentary on the wars we face today, just as Haldeman’s book did for Vietnam? I’ve been wondering how SF might react to the wars were’ fighting today and how they’re covered by the media, so the premise of this book intrigues me greatly. I look forward to picking it up when I can!

Emil   |   30 May 2011 @ 01:45

@Wintermute @Mattastrophic: Abnett does not say that war is bad, or that peace is preferable. What it does say, is that war changes people, particularly those who actually do the fighting. There are no bravado or heroics here as a celebration of war (as what one may find reading Weber’s Honor Harrington series, for example *ducks*). What you do find is that people are effected by the fighting and the loss of friends. Falk’s emotional journey in this regard is a point in case. We experience the cost of war rather than philosophical considerations on the morals of war. What I did relate to very well, is that Abnett does not simplify the complexities of war. Saying that, I don’t know how he treats the subject matter in the Warhammer series or in his other work, but in "Embedded" he proffers a very realistic approach to war.

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