Embedded is Abnett’s second independent novel for Angry Robot Books and one of the most original and compelling SF stories I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, I’m drawn to a grossly overused cliché to describe my experience because it happens to be, well, true: I couldn’t put the damn thing down!
The story is set in a not too distant future where the peoples of Earth have expanded into space and colonised numerous worlds throughout the galaxy. Enter our protagonist Lex Falk, an award-winning veteran journalist on the hunt for a new story, who is in truth compelled to keep on moving after years of constant interstellar travel. The ‘camera’ immediately pans down to ’86’, a recently colonised world with excellent mining potential that seems to be experiencing some trouble in settling down.
Already at this early stage of the story Abnett starts to build a wonderfully rich picture of his universe–bland corporate-sponsored imagery, corporate-filtered language, and synthesised foods designed to taste like the original, with furniture and architecture to match. There was for me some distinctly Firefly overtones in some of the details of his world, which I loved. Though the source of some of his inspiration was apparent, Abnett, I felt, made it very much his own.
I was immediately drawn to Falk’s character, and his hard-bitten journalistic cynicism proves to be a cover for very human vulnerabilities that over the course of the story are brought sharply into focus. In the course of trying to circumvent the SO’s (Settlement Office) obfuscation about the realities of the conflict, he is taken with a unit into the combat zone to supposedly see for himself the stark visuals of combat. When this turns out to be a PR exercise with no real substance, he allows himself to be drawn ever deeper into the darker side of the corporate world to get at the story. Through an old friend he meets a group who are equally determined to uncover the truth for their own ends, and he fearfully undergoes a procedure that allows him to ride inside the mind of a combat veteran who’s being deployed to the front lines.
Using a new and clearly untested technology, Lex Falk hops into the mind of Private Nestor Bloom. The implications of this technology and its raw state of development form a central part of the story that absolutely fascinated me. Falk is immersed into an isolation tank, called a Jung Tank, so as to improve the link. I found myself wondering if the Jung reference was drawing on his concept of the collective unconscious as the route into the mind of another.
Bloom soon finds that his ‘passenger’ is actually far from just a neutral observer and is disturbed to find Falk’s fear infecting his reality. When Bloom is shot in action, the story takes on a disturbing, tense and ground-breaking turn. At first Falk’s zombie-like efforts to control Bloom’s body from within the tank are frankly terrifying to experience sitting alongside him through the story, but as he gains greater control, he steadily realizes that for all intents and purposes his survival depends upon his getting Nestor’s dying body and mind back to safety while bringing with him the story of his life. From this point on the pace picks up fast, and woe betide anyone who can’t keep up. The twists and turns experienced by Falk had me glued to the page into the wee hours of the night.
The relationships between the members of the squad and the person they perceive as their comrade is one of the things that really stood out for me and added yet another really important layer. Abnett’s portrayal of their extraordinary camaraderie challenges his assertion that he’s never served in a combat unit. He’s just got it so…right. I was also really moved by how Falk-as-Bloom develops a growing attachment to the man whose body he inhabits and the unit he finds himself fighting with. His initial terror slowly develops into the mindset of a combat veteran as he finds himself absorbed into the family of the ‘unit.’
Abnett’s coy reluctance to reveal all until the end was rather…cheeky but kept me going through amazingly tense combat scenes and the emotional turmoil at the heart of the tale. In truth, looking over what I’ve written above, I realise that I’m trying to tell you the whole story while trying to avoid giving the game away. You’d think that by now I’d have gotten the hang of the book review shtick, but this book is quite challenging in that way; there’s so much going on, and on so many levels, that I find myself feeling that I have to get it all out to do justice to it. Don’t worry, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the story, and I’ve given nothing important away even with all I’ve said.
Normally I leave at least a week after finishing a book before writing a review, to give myself some time and space to sit with it a little. Not so here, and I think that’s why my way of relating it is much more raw than usual. You’ll all have to decide whether or not that’s a good thing.
This book carries all the hallmarks of Abnett’s writing: compelling and engaging characters, fiercely visceral combat scenes, and profound, thought-provoking themes set within a world that feels so real I could almost reach out and touch it.
Embedded gets my highest recommendation–it’s a must-read for any SF fan.