Monday, May 2, 2011

Dan Abnett's "Embedded"

Embedded is Dan Abnett's second book for Angry Robot Books (hereinafter referred to as ARB). ARB has stated from the outset that it is their mission to publish cross-genre texts and I posit that Embedded fits that mandate. Additionally, without blatantly stating it, some of the ARB's authors are actually resorting to the original purpose and impetus that made science fiction a genre of ideas--social commentary. Irrespective of its underlying motives, Embedded fits squarely within the science fiction tradition of ideas and is similar to Isaac Asimov's novel Fantastic Voyage and George Orwell's 1984. And, hopefully, without undermining its attraction as a rollicking good novel (because it is a fun read),Embedded cleverly and, I would also say, subtly, combines several genre elements to make a comment on rampant capitalism while employing certain popular trends or memes. More particularly, Embedded is a zombie novel disguised as a military thriller that (1) comments on current geo-political trends, (2)critiques what I will refer to as zombie capitalism, and (3) continues a trend in Abnett's work toward a more intimate science fiction (I will explain this by resorting to his Black Library novel Blood Pact).

Lex Falk, a reporter, is the protagonist of Embedded. The novel begins with his arrival on a colony planet, designated Eighty-Six. The name Eighty-Six is an implied joke. In restaurant terminology, eighty-six means take an item off the menu. In the eighties, the term entered the general populace and came to mean "to throw something away." Initially, Planet Eighty-Six was a throw-away but something secret changes that; suddenly the major powers, as well as several oligarchic corporations, are vying for the planet's assets. Falk thinks there is a story to be had on Planet Eighty-Six but everyone he meets deflects him and feeds him pablum.

Abnett has the ability to create unique worlds with a scratch of his pen; through the suggestion of a few creatures--bugs the size of birds--and a climate that is too hot and too humid, he creates a unique environment. Other writers would have spent hundreds of pages developing the situs; Abnett writes--a bug the size of a bird flutters around my light, great forests cover the hills and
vast supplies of minerals lie beneath the vegetation--and we're there. And he populates his planet with settlers who come from known space, controlled by two or three of the Geo-political powers (the Bloc, as in Eastern Bloc, who speak Russian, the United Status that speak English, and the oligarchic corporation, GEO), corporate agents, and soldiers and spies.

Soon after he arrives on the planet, Falk realizes there is a shooting war going on and he looks for a way in, a way around the bureaucracy that is designed to obfuscate the truth and deflect reporters like him. The way in is to be embedded within the brain of a soldier, a soldier who is paid to carry another consciousness in his mind into battle without his superiors knowing it. Here we are in Asimov country; an intimate space: a mind within a mind. And we are also in a military science fiction space, a space that Abnett has made his own through his Gaunt's Ghost series. But it also a new space, a more compact space in which to move his characters. I first noticed a change in Abnett's canvas in the short story "Iron Star" and the novel Blood Pact. The writing seemed more focused to me, with a greater concentration on character, and a tightening of space (canvas). Of course, it contains all the usual suspects; however, it is smaller in scope and scale. Blood Pact begins two years after the horrendous battles on Jago. The Ghosts are on Balhaut, an important location for Gaunt. This is where it all began, where things went bad for Gaunt. In fact, the people of Balhaut celebrate the bravery of the "dead" hero Gaunt. So, in effect, Gaunt is a ghost of sorts. Abnett is telling us that before Blood Pact Gaunt was a ghost, lost in the campaigns and blind to his greater role. Now, things are changing; Gaunt can see again; and, as is usually the case, in this most literary of tropes, Gaunt can see what other men cannot. He has a second sight. He sees the future and he sees into others. The action takes place in a small space and covers a short period of time. Embedded, like Blood Pact, is also tightly plotted and set within a compact space but unlike the Gaunt novel, Embedded utilizes a single point of view (sometimes we see through Nestor's point of view but it is really Falk/Nestor and I would argue the same point of view). This more disciplined approach narrows the scene, focuses the story, and provides an even more unified narrative. And in support of this focused narrative, the novel consists of a few long scenes transpiring over a short period of time. Long scenes transpiring over a short period of time make for a richer text and reading experience.

But don't become confused. Because, ultimately, Embedded is a clever zombie novel, rip-roaring military science fiction, and caustic speculative fiction. At its most basic level, Falk's inhabiting the body of Nestor Bloom is a mind manipulating a dead body. Abnett writes "He walked like a zombie, like some lumbering, spavined thing that retained only the most rudimentary brain-stem connection between impulse and action." (177) And on the other hand, Planet Eighty-Six is a world being devoured by a combination of military and corporate greed, or, in other words, zombie capitalism, arising from the joint efforts of military plus corporation. Abnett's future looks very much like the present. However, Hegel's Geist has compacted the earthly states into Geo-political blocks. Orwell predicted that three intercontinental states would emerge in the future: Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. Abnett seems to follow Orwell's lead and extrapolate the continuation of the space race onto other planets through the machinations of several large inter-continental blocks. In his universe,however, there is an added ingredient, oligarchic corporations, equal to states, work hand-in-glove with the inter-continental states to form a type of virtual fascism, which relies on aggressive exploitation of minerals and labor. Freedom does not seem to have made much progress and mind control is possible through patches, i.e. software and medication, provided to the populace by corporations, who even copyright words (Orwell).

Embedded is a fun novel; more science fiction than military science fiction. It is also a jaundiced vision of the future where Western civilization, through its military/corporate institutions, continues to grow, manipulate, and expand.

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