Message Fiction: Power Rivalries and Interstellar Cold Wars

Welcome to the second installment of “Message Fiction: Politics in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Literature!” In the introductory post I outlined a framework for analyzing the political messages encoded into SF/F, talked a bit about what I personally like and dislike when it comes to political messaging, and explored the politics of Glen Cook’s trailblazing military fantasy novel The Black Company (1984).

This month we pivot from fantasy to science fiction, but retain the thematic focus on war and the regular folks who fight them—with an in-depth discussion of Dan Abnett’s 2011 novel Embedded.

(Warning: some spoilers.)

Lex Falk is a seasoned war correspondent looking for a plum assignment at the end of a distinguished career. When he hears that settlers on planet 86 are resisting the authority of the Settlement Office (SO), he figures that he’s found just the thing. Only it turns out that the situation on 86 is a bit more complicated than he thought, and the rebels much better organized than farmers and miners should be. There are even hints that the Central Bloc might be behind the whole thing—driven by frustration at their subordinate status under the SO regime (which clearly favors the United Status). So when corporate executive Bari Apfel offers Falk the chance to be embedded within the body of a Settlement Office Military Directorate (SOMD) soldier en route to a site of recent insurgent activity, he jumps at the chance. Only things get a lot hotter from there, and in a desperate bid to stay alive and to find out the truth, Falk is forced to take control of the soldier’s body.

If you aren’t overly familiar with military science fiction, then trust me when I say that Embedded is a really good example of the style. The plot races at a fast clip and the action scenes are gripping, chaotic affairs. Like Glen Cook, who we discussed last month, Abnett does a great job capturing the voice of the soldier and the close-knit relationships that develop under fire. And the writing is impressive too—terse and economical, as befitting the subject matter, but evocative and peppered with shrewd metaphors. What makes Embedded really stand out in the field, though, is its carefully constructed political narrative, the true gist of which is not entirely clear until the very end of the book.

Embedded takes place in a “world” bifurcated into rival blocs—an interstellar Cold War, if you will, and one still enacted by American- and Russian-dominated entities at that. The SO is supposed to be a neutral arbiter, tasked with overseeing humanity’s expansion to the stars and managing the rivalry between the United Status (US) and Central Bloc. But in reality it’s nothing of the sort. As we find out, the SO is staffed almost exclusively by US citizens and tends to privilege US-based corporate interests—a relationship symbolized by a prayer led by SOMD Sergeant Huckleberry, in which he implores his soldiers to “uphold the great institution of the Settlement Office, and the constitution of the United Status, amen.” The prayer, one notes, appears twice in the text. I doubt this is coincidental.

The decision to graft action onto the “Cold War-goes-hot” template, that staple of 1980s action flicks and techno-thrillers, initially felt curious to me—after all, aren’t there more recent conflicts to mine, or a less dated power rivalry to project into the future? Still, I was interested to see where Abnett would go with it. And he eventually reveals, almost as an aside, that Embedded actually takes place on an alternate timeline:

Two of them, the US and the Bloc, had essentially used the First Era to pursue and expand their Cold War rivalry through technological superiority and brash endeavour. There were the great moments he remembered from his own childhood picture books, the building blocks that had led to the real acceleration into the First Expansion. Vostok and Gemini. Glenn and Leonov. Shepherd and Gagarin. The Soyuz, Apollo and Long March programmes. The launches. The orbits. The spacewalks and the launch pad fires. The most memorable shot of all, the indelible image of the first man on the moon. Virgil Grissom, June 1967.

The real-world Grissom, of course, died in a pre-launch test for the first Apollo mission, paving the way for Neil Armstrong to become the “first man on the moon” in July 1969. That’s proof positive that we’re on an alternate timeline; we don’t know what other divergences occur—though it’s clear that they do.

More importantly, the alternate timeline device allows Abnett to state his messages clearly without hitting the reader over the head with them, Oliver Stone-style. I prefer it this way: the more subtle approach allows the reader to reach that “holy shit, now I get it” moment once all is said and done, and that would be impossible if Abnett had been flashing Iraq! Iraq! Iraq! the whole time.

Yet it is still, in my reading, about Iraq. Cook, as you will recall, suggested that war is rarely about right and wrong, or good and evil, and more often about competing interests. In this he is clearly informed by the historical example of the Vietnam War, and a cynical view of rhetoric. Croaker and company are painfully aware that good and evil are at best illusory, and often tools to be deployed for the most selfish of purposes. Abnett, however, goes one step further, suggesting that war is a response to the perception of interests by people who, however powerful, may not have a clear idea of what’s actually at stake. In an exchange with Falk/Bloom, fellow soldier Rash articulates this perspective:

“My reading is wars are always started for ultimately stupid reasons. Reasons just like you said, big reasons even, but ultimately stupid ones. They always look like they could have been avoided, if someone had shown the presence of mind to communicate the right notion. We put up with a lot of shit from each other. Why stop?

It’s probably some giant domino effect. Some asshole somewhere said the wrong thing to another asshole at some fucking summit, and then some other asshole didn’t get his preferential deal, and so he cut the profits on yet another asshole’s contract and then…and then…and then…and it’s a giant rolling ball of shit coming downhill and sweeping everything up. And that giant rolling ball of shit’s called history, Bloom, and we were standing in its fucking way.”

In other words, people with power get ideas—often not very good ideas, but given a capacity to act on those ideas, the ideas are automatically imbued with power, immediacy, and urgency. In fact the content of the ideas doesn’t really matter, provided they entangle enough matter to roll down the hill and assimilate or annihilate anything in their path.

Here, Abnett channels the post-Iraq zeitgeist, presenting a theory of war in which path dependency and confusion have causal power. This isn’t a particularly new way of thinking: it was Napoleon, after all, who is thought to have coined the famous dictum, “never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.” Over the past half-century several SF novels have drawn the same conclusion. But Embedded really gets down in the muck underlying the fog of war. As a consequence, it also feels like a welcome antidote to the highly competent schemers and one-size-fits-all conspiracy theories that pop up in the literature altogether too often. Sure there are murky relationships, secret plans, and shadow operations galore, but does anyone even know why?

Before wrapping things up, I’ll also note that there’s one additional message articulated toward the end of the book—an important one, but I’ll decline to discuss it here, because that would be a spoiler too far. Just go read the book, if you haven’t already.

The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.


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