Thursday, 30 January 2014

Book of the Month: Embedded, by Dan Abnett

Dan Abnett is probably more familiar to readers for his work on the Gaunt's Ghosts and Eisenhorn series of novels in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, although he has also worked in the world of comics. Embedded is one of his first forays into science fiction under his own name, without recourse to another firm's IP. It is rather good. Indeed, it has been a long time since I've read something this compulsive. I'm currently struggling through Wolf Hall as part of my bedtime reading, and I'm finding that quite easy to put down. Embedded is an entirely different animal.

Although the wider 'state of the galaxy' background is not provided with great detail, it is fair to say that Embedded takes place roughly 200 years or more into the future, where humanity has settled roughly 300 planets. There is still a cold war of sorts, between the US (United Status) and the Central Bloc (which seems to be a coalition of Russia and China with some other affiliates). Settlement of new systems is being managed by the Settlement Office on the US side, and new planets seem to be divided up fairly peacefully between it and the Bloc.

"His guys were looking at him. Kilo One. Stabler. Preben. Bigmouse. They were ready. Their expressions were stone, unreadable, but he could taste wariness. He could see someone else's face reflected in the espresso-black of their glares."

Embedded is very much a creature of its time however - there are echoes of the war in Iraq everywhere. The first section of the book deals with the arrival of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lex Falk on Settlement Eighty-Six and his efforts to uncover a story. It is a familiar tale of a military organisation wanting to be seen to provide access to the press and control the news message, while at the same time denying reporters real access to the story. However, the twist in the tail here is the involvement of GEO, a mega-corp which, for interests of its own, decides to provide Falk with an edge, namely using experimental biotech to embed his consciousness in the mind of a US special forces soldier about to go on a mission, without the SO Military Directorate knowing of course.

"Falk began to panic. He tried to control that, but it was virtually impossible. It was like being stuck in a lift with an incendiary charge.  The combustion source was burning up, getting hotter and brighter and more fierce, and he couldn't get out to get away from it, and it would consume him along with itself."

The story crawls a little bit in the first 70 pages or so as Abnett busily scene sets and lets us get to know Falk and some of the other players in this drama. But once Falk is effectively embedded, the plot really begins to motor and Abnett displays his talent as a writer of sci fi military fiction. Not only is there real pace here, but the attention to detail in his descriptions of scenes and hardware is grittily realistic.

"Pika-don shook hard like she'd been rammed repeatedly by a truck. One of the hardbeam shots went by the nose cone, too fast and bright to be seen, but it left a searing idiot afterimage across his retinas. Then another one punched through the boomer's hull beside him. It had come clean through the hull, across the cabin space, and out the other side. It left a fused, super-heated hole the size of a large-denomination coin. The edges glowed. There was no light, no flash, no visible ray-gun beam like in the sit-ops, just a smeared blur of heat-haze, like petroleum jelly on glass."

Of course, with sci fi military fiction, there is going to be masses of action, and Embnedded really never stops once it rolls past page 75 or so. It begins with a gentle jog, hits a sprint, and then really never stops, right to the last page. I was completely absorbed by it and will certainly be checking out some of Abnett's Warhammer 40K titles after this.

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