Thanks to the Internet, it’s very easy to transmit information around the world much faster than it used to be. It’s also easy to spread misinformation. “Democratization” of the Web and media aside, we still rely on authorities and experts for our news—and often their job, even if they are doing it properly, is made much more difficult by secretive and uncooperative governments and organizations trying to obscure what’s really happening on the ground. It’s the age old story, whether perpetrated by an autocratic regime in the Middle East or a corrupt official in North America or colony and resource extraction planet out in the middle of nowhere.
In Embedded, Dan Abnett comes up with a novel way to circumvent such circumspection: journalist Leo Falk goes along for the ride by piggybacking the mind of a soldier. His body suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, Falk’s consciousness takes up residence in the back of Nestor Bloom’s brain. After a sneak attack by terrorists devastates the teams travelling with Bloom, Falk finds himself in control of Bloom’s body, facing the daunting task of regrouping the few survivors and figuring out what’s happening fast enough to stay a survivor. It’s a gritty, fast-paced, high stakes thrill ride as Falk races to discover who was behind the attack and why—wondering, all the while, whether he or Bloom or both of them will ever make it out alive.
Mental eavesdropping. It has so much potential as a plot device. In this case, Bloom was aware of and consented to the eavesdropping. The tech people who make this possible for Falk never really explain how it works, so I don’t know if it requires the host mind to be equipped and prepared for such a connection—if it didn’t, that would be on hell of a way to spy. Similarly, there are all sorts of psychological issues when it comes to inhabiting—or cohabiting in—someone else’s body. So it is frustrating that Abnett spends very little time investigating any of this, choosing instead to focus on a straight shoot-em-up style action novel with very little in the way of subtext.
Look, we get it: war is hell. Corporations do evil things because they need to keep their discoveries secret so they can make a profit. Everyone lies. Let’s move on, shall we? Let’s do something.
Embedded sure takes its time getting started. Falk begins leisurely meandering about Eighty-Six, sticking his nose into places that don’t want him around, before falling in with the right group of people to send him on this little assignment. Their motivations aren’t all that complex—essentially they want the truth out there, and they also want to be the first ones to break the story. Yet, as with the other things I noted above, Abnett spends precious little time delving deeper into the ethics and ideas behind this type of journalism. It’s more like, “Falk is a journalist. People don’t tell him the truth. Oooh, look, a gun.”
Abnett seems more interested in the military part of military science fiction than the science fiction part. And that’s fine to a certain extent—I’m aware he’s a Warhammer 40K author, and his style is definitely reminiscient of a shared universe franchise author. But it’s not just style. Embedded lets me down because it never really accomplishes anything.
Let’s consider Leo Falk for a moment. Yes, analyzing the protagonist—scary stuff. Let’s look at his relationships. He’s reunited with Cleesh, someone he has worked with before but has never met in person, since she spent all her time working remotely from a space station. They talk, she gets him this gig, and then he doesn’t see her again. He develops a rivalry that evolves into some kind of tenuous mutual respect with another reporter, Noma, also known as “green hiker girl”. He is a jerk to just about everyone else he can possibly manage to offend.
And then there’s Nestor Bloom.
Bloom talks to Falk for about a minute, enough to tell him that Bloom is not interested in talking—because talking to yourself is not advisable when you, and everyone else around you, are heavily armed. So it would be inaccurate to say that Bloom and Falk have any kind of relationship, but at one point Falk is the only thing keeping Bloom’s body alive. Despite all that rich potential for serious explorations of philosophy of mind and the sense of self, all we get a few wry moments of introspection at the end of the book, as Falk wonders at not having any scars on his own body. It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s still not much.
The actual plot is little better. The attack that wipes out Bloom’s squad and nearly kills Bloom and Falk is over something “big”, as in significant. This is obvious, because nothing else would motivate the Central Bloc (ooh, such an original name for an antagonist!) to turn the cold war on Eighty-Six into a legitimately lukewarm one. Instead of dropping tantalizing hints and making it more central to the plot, though, Abnett prefers to have Falk stumble through a few hundred pages of live fire before getting a glimpse of the thing. It’s alien tech, obviously (what else would it be), but if you’re hoping for so much as a bare description of what it is (or might be), you will be out of luck. Even the fact that it’s alien tech is never so much as whispered, but Abnett is at least competent enough to telegraph it in some fairly heavy dialogue.
I miss the good old days when the alien tech was actually a part of the story, the bad guys weren’t faceless factions sending soldiers after the good guys, and there protagonist’s relationships were more than a set of names and some vague feelings associated with each of them. But I guess that’s too much to ask for in this case. Embedded has some nifty action sequences and definitely comes up with an interesting premise. Its execution, in plot and character, comes up way too short.