Lex Falk, you are an acclaimed correspondent with several agency awards to your name and a reputation for hard facts and penetrating coverage, therefore the SO is very pleased to welcome you to Settlement Eighty-Six, and to validate your accreditation. Having you here proves to the public back home that, despite reports of open conflict, the Settlement Office has nothing to conceal on Eighty-Six, and your reportage will be received as unvarnished and credible.
You will, of course, report only what we permit you to report.” (1% )
Suffering from the burnout that comes with decades of space travel, Falk has come to Settlement Eighty-Six in expectation of the usual media show-and-tell and a fat pay cheque, not because he actually gives a shit about what may or may not be happening. According to the Settlement Office Military Directorate, an outfit not so much an army as a “very, very slick PR company with added guns” (12%), Eighty-Six is the site of a local dispute with anti-corporate paramilitaries and not, as rumour would have it, a war with Central Bloc forces.
“The Cold War’s been cold for nearly three hundred years, Falk. As we move out and expand, all it ever does is get colder and colder. Hard space sucks all the warmth out of it. We were at close quarters when it started, sharing one world, and still it started cold. It must be approaching heat death by now.” (8%)
Aha! It’s an alternate future history! Through casual conversation and narrative musings by Falk, we discover that Earth has diverged significantly from our present history and is made up of three superpowers: the United Status, the Central Bloc (aka the Russians) and China, all of whom compete for resources on each newly discovered planet, as overseen by the nominally neutral Settlement Office and its military arm. In this future, media control is extremely tight to the point where journalists are given hundred-page long vocabulary guides (“dispute” should be used instead of the sensitivity-averse word “conflict”) and corporations sponsor expletives and ling-patches that force journalists and soldiers to say the safe expletive in place of any other swear word.
Naturally Falk is too cynical to believe the SO cover story. In fact no one believes it, least of all the post-global corporations who are taking the blame for the situation. When Falk meets his former data engineer, Cleesh who has been forced out of orbit for health reasons, she hints at the bigger picture but refuses to let him in for fear of him scooping her. Meanwhile, Falk does some investigation of his own and partners up with a rookie reporter who finds hard evidence the official story is bullshit.
The rookie shags Falk to keep him on side and promptly takes a back seat after Cleesh introduces Falk to a corporation who intends to get the real story out there by embedding war reporters in the warzone. Since the SOMD won’t allow journalists to travel to the real front line, the corporation intends to “embed” Falk’s consciousness into the head of a chipped active duty soldier.
Falk’s embeddee is Private First Nestor Bloom, a twenty-something alpha male whose male and female buddies talk with gung-ho machismo, complete with fist-bumping and “bringing [one’s] A game”. Witness the briefing from Bloom’s staff sergeant Huck:
“This is no fuckabout. It’s come down from the top, the gloves are off. We’re going in live, so I do not expect you rat-ass motherfuckers to make me look like a pretard. Every day for months you’ve been telling me you want the real thing. Here we go, the real thing. You fumble this, so help me I will sodomise each and every one of you with a loaded PAP 20.” (27%)
Nice. Being experimental technology, nobody is entirely sure what the embedding experience will feel like for either person involved. What happens is that Falk’s anxiety starts to affect Bloom’s performance, leading to a serious case of nerves just when the team is deployed to the front line. “He felt the other him pulling against him, like an anti-him, equal and opposite, blocking his ever urge, his every desire, negating his every move.” (28%) Things promptly go to hell in a hand basket and most of Team Kilo get, as parlance has it, scorched. Bloom himself is critically injured and Falk finds himself in control of Bloom’s body, with the aims of getting Bloom out of the firing line without giving himself away and trying to find out precisely what is worth starting a hot war over.
Being mil-sf and not from the hand of David Weber or Elizabeth Moon, I didn’t go in expecting strong female characterisation, but Pyrofennec’s enthusiastic review of Abnett’s Warhammer 40K trilogy Ravenor led me to hope otherwise. However at this point I was in despair. I’d been disappointed by Noma Berlin shagging Falk, even if it was shown as being entirely her choice to keep him from breaking the story early, disappointed by Cleesh being reduced to technical support and then even more disappointed when Salter, the sole female member of Team Kilo gets killed off so that Falk could experience Bloom’s subconscious grief. It gets even better when the three Central Bloc Russian sex slaves show up in a bizarrely tangential sub-plot, though at least one of them gets to save the day by driving everyone to safety. Fuck yeah!
In between tightly written, albeit slightly samey firefights, Falk starts putting the pieces together and discovers that the SO has been illegally giving prime planetary resources to the US. Whilst this seems like a good way of providing some balance it comes so late in the book as to be utterly redundant. There’s no obvious ideological slant, which makes a refreshing change from the usual gamut of mil-sf, but the narrative places the Central Bloc squarely as the bad guys, guilty of procuring sex slaves and slaughtering a large number of Eighty-Six’s settlers (I refuse to use Abnett’s word “settlementeer” because it’s clunky as hell, like the other neologisms scattered about such as “presearch”, “undertractive”, “conflirtation” and “pretard”). There’s no attempt to paint the Central Bloc in a favourable light even though the ultimate prize is something that every side would quite happily go to war over. Also, where the hell were the Chinese in this? All three superpowers provide military personnel to the SOMD and yet we only ever see the perspective of US soldiers. It would have been nice to have had confused Central Bloc SOMD units involved, or some oblivious Chinese units who simply got caught in the crossfire.
Going back a little, the concept of a future conflict with Russia the Central Bloc seems like a misstep of sorts. Despite being a modern mil-sf novel, there was a quaint feel to the proceedings that one gets from reading Cold War era sf after the Cold War ended (Greg Bear’s Eon would be a prime example). I’d almost have been happier if it had been the Chinese who were the bad guys, although that would have come under heavy scrutiny if they had been as obviously villainous as the Central Bloc here and I suppose one should be grateful that he avoided dragging the Middle East into this.
The ending when it comes is rather abrupt, with the macguffin (well, the second if one counts the sketchily described embedding technology) being painfully obvious and yet not explicitly stated. Make of that what you will, but in certain respects it’s good when an author leaves something to the imagination instead of tying off all the loose ends in painstakingly tedious detail.
Anyone coming in for instant gratification like that girl on GoodReads who gave up after a few chapters should adjust their expectations accordingly. Abnett takes his time with a slow burn start before the Hollywood-styled action mayhem begins. Overall, it’s a good read and a refreshing change from the usual right-wing weapon fetish junk, but sadly it’s too under developed to warrant re-reading.
 Page numbers are sadly lacking on my Kindle edition of Embedded so quotations are referenced by how far into the book they are. I have no idea if this is Amazon or Angry Robot’s problem but someone sort this shit out please.