It's difficult to find military SF that isn't wildly partisan and ideological. But whether it is or isn't, all military SF seeks to understand humanity's penchant for violent conflict, for our willingness to not get along as long as there's some "higher ideal" — which is often just plain petty in its true motivations — to fight and die for. One of the soldiers in Dan Abnett's blistering and brilliant Embedded sums it up with a soldier's refreshing bluntness. "...It’s a giant rolling ball of shit coming downhill and sweeping everything up. And that giant rolling ball of shit’s called history, and we were standing in its fucking way."
The battlefield here is the colonized world of Settlement Eighty-Six, where the land is divvied up between US interests (here called the "United Status") managed by its military's Settlement Office, and a rival power, the Central Bloc (Russian). That rolling ball of history has lapped itself, I suppose, which is why the US and the Bloc have been in a 300-year cold war as the story opens. Very soon, this cold war will get extremely hot. What results is far more than just the swaggering, flag-waving machismo of most military fiction. Action scenes are par for the course in this subgenre, but Abnett's are genuinely intense and nerve-wracking, because I cared who was doing the shooting, and who was being shot at.
Abnett isn't exactly subtle, at least not in his early chapters, about his intent that we equate what goes on in Embedded with the post-9/11 US military adventures in the Middle East. But when the storytelling is this gripping, who cares? The military's relationship to the media, the use of arms to support corporate interests — Embedded catalogs it all. It's a novel that's cynical but not bitter, brutal but not bereft of hope. It doesn't promote any political ideology other than that, once the guns have actually begun to go off, everyone, especially those innocents in the crossfire, deserves the inconvenient truth over any convenient lie.
Lex Falk is a prominent journalist who's been dispatched to Eighty-Six, where he's disgusted to find himself driven around on carefully stage-managed tours of the planet's settlements by smiling government flacks who do everything to dismiss and downplay an uprising that's clearly gaining steam as the work of a small handful of insurgents and malcontents. But their attacks are getting more intense, and they're starting to impact the shares and the public image of GEO, the principal corporate interest on Eighty-Six, thanks to the media blackout the SO is imposing.
Thus Falk gets the opportunity for the scoop of a lifetime. The technology exists (the scientific details are a little brushed over) to embed Falk's consciousness directly into the brain of an SO private, Nestor Bloom, who's about to be deployed in the field. Falk will be riding shotgun in the soldier's own head, seeing through his eyes, and able to find out exactly what is happening with the rising insurgency and transmit it all back in realtime. GEO hopes everyone will see they're not the villains in the not-a-war, and perhaps unearth some evidence that the Bloc is involved. Yeah, it's hard to imagine this going wrong.
The early chapters of the novel are peppered with satire (corporations in this future have even trademarked which profanities people are allowed to use), and there are a number of fun in-jokes for SF fans. One weapon the soldiers wield is called the "h-beam piper." But once the fighting erupts, the tone shifts. Shit gets real very fast, and Falk finds himself the dominant personality in Bloom's head when the private is shot. For all the SO's spin, there is a very ruthless and bloody shooting war going on here. But what could it be over? Numerous red herrings abound, including speculation that it all may actually be over possession of Eighty-Six's moon. Still, what resources Eighty-Six provides hardly seem worth the escalation. There's clearly something so hidden, so profound, to make all the unfolding chaos worth it. And Falk means to find out what it is, while he has his hands full trying to escape from the hot zone with the handful of surviving members of Bloom's platoon.
I admired the way Abnett always kept the focus of his action on its consequences to his characters, and Falk's own arc is especially satisfying. Not only must he hide the fact that he isn't really Bloom from his fellow grunts, but he finds himself sharing and absorbing much of Bloom's thinking, his memories and his training, and his dedication to the platoon. He refuses to allow one wounded soldier to be abandoned. There's nothing like walking a mile in someone else's shoes — or brain — to give you a perspective on the experience of others. Falk's growing respect for Bloom and his men in their ordeal only makes Falk more determined to get to the heart of whatever it is the SO and Bloc are fighting over, and what the official story is trying to hide. Abnett's skill at structuring a battle scene, giving form to chaos, resonates with his attention to character to make the book completely electrifying. If anything disappoints, it's that a key story reveal is a bit too conventionally and predictably SFnal. But it's not enough to distract from what Abnett ultimately has you take away from it all: wars may benefit governments, or economies, or politicians back home, but they always hurt the people who actually have to go and fight them.