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Armor

John Steakley

Daw Books: New York, 1984. ISBN: 0-88677-368-7. Pp.426

Review © 2006 Branislav L. Slantchev

This book was recommended as something that anyone who likes Heinlein's Starship Troopers or Haldeman's The Forever War would appreciate. In that sense, the book was both a pleasant surprise and a major disappointment. In terms of military sci-fi, it is perhaps close to the pinnacle: I can think of no title right now that does a better job of thrusting the readers into the maelstrom of an imagined interplanetary war. The cold brutality of sheer determination to stay alive no matter what, the unsentimental treatment of transitory personal relationships of those exposed to constant danger in an environment with exceedingly high lethality rates, and the realist, unromantic notion that the enemy may be as incomprehensible as he is implacable, all of these paint a bleak view of war that may cause the reader to shudder. Because it just sounds so real. The parts of the book that deal with these issues through Felix, the protagonist there (the first third and the very last twenty pages or so) are without peer.

On the other hand, the book suffers immensely from lack of depth when it comes to philosophy and politics. This is certainly most evident in the half of the story that deals with Jack Crow, the space pirate, and is indeed painful to read. Although the book does not quite sink to the depths of Haldeman's anti-war screed with its laughable politics and vision of the future, it is nevertheless not an exciting and thoughtful treatment that Heinlein offered in his, admittedly ambivalent, work. Even if all of this appears as background noise to Jack's transformation from an egocentric privateer into a noble defender of the wretched, it all sounds as implausible as that character arc.

The Earth is in the midst of an interplanetary war with an alien race of bug-like creatures. Why does it always have to bugs? Is it because insects are instinctively repulsive to many humans, or because they represent a collective that is at odds with our notions of individuality, or because such a mind would appear quite alien to us no matter what---and therefore can underpin a war without negotiations? I do not know, and clearly any and all of these reasons can be given for choosing such an opponent. Why else would Heinlein do it? Or Orson Scott Card? At any rate, the war is on, nobody (at least in the ranks) knows why, nobody seems to care, nobody seems to be able to communicate with the enemy, and nobody seems to be trying. Now, all of this makes for a bad war strategy, only if by gaining some knowledge of the opponent one may find better ways to kill him, but also because without communication, a total war of extermination is the only solution.

Humans have made it to one of the main planets of these aliens, a truly inhospitable place by the name of Banshee. People cannot survive in its environment, and have to wear their protective suits at all times. These battle suits are also reminiscent of Heinlein's and are lovingly described in great detail by Steakley too. The eponymous "armor" is a piece of equipment that renders its operator a veritable superman. Felix, for one, uses his as much to fight enemies as to shield himself from his own problems. So the title word has a double meaning: the shell is supposed to protect from external threats but that very act can also serve to distract the wearer from his own turmoil. Although it is not revealed until the last third of the novel, it is quite obvious from the very beginning that Felix has "issues," to put it in SoCal slang. It is not really important what these are, but the fact is that he seems to have volunteered for a war he gives not a hoot about, a war where the casualty rates are appalling, and that he is ready to fight with the cold detachment of one who really has nothing to live for.

Felix, however, is no suicidal maniac. He looks for death but his own instinct for survival does not let him die. This inner demon comes to life when Felix is threatened, and it takes over, controlling his body, making him do whatever is necessary to live another day. Felix calls it the Engine. The first drop of Felix's group (he is not even a warrior but a scout) is astonishing: they are transported into the middle of a bug group arrayed to meet them, the fighting begins instantly, with Felix, or rather, the Engine, mowing down tens of these countless aliens even without comprehending what goes on. The description is brutal: limbs flying, fluids squirting, bones cracking, comrades, most of them nameless, perishing without even taking a shot. A lot of the combat is hand-to-hand, and one can only imagine would it would feel to grapple with a giant ant-like insect that claws at you with blind determination. All characters introduced along with Felix die just when the reader has begun to develop some sort of connection with them. Felix slowly gets lost in the chaos of war as he is forced to do one drop after another because of a computer glitch. Statistically, he should have died a long time ago. Amazingly, he lives. His Engine would not let him perish.

The other part of the book is mostly disconnected from this. It is about one Jack Crow who escapes prison only to end up on a space ship who's crew has mutinied and is itself on the run. The captain hatches an astonishingly hare-brained scheme to take over the fuel supplies of a distant research outpost: Jack must infiltrate it and disable its defenses. Of course, Jack meets the brilliant scientist who runs this facility (and the guy is suitably, if predictably, naive when it comes to personal relationships) and everything changes when the scientist finds a way to retrieve the memories recorded by the armor that Jack had presented him with. The rest of the story is about Jack sabotaging the station, getting involved in local politics, and learning about Felix's fate (it is his suit that he had found). In the end, the two stories abruptly come together with explosive results, but it is so far in the end, and so implausible that one can only wish that this whole Jack Crow subplot were dropped entirely.

As a novel, Armor is a great piece of entertainment. As military sci-fi, it is among the best. As a thoughtful examination of an individual's experience in combat, it's pretty damn good too. But as a rumination on the future or about non-extreme behavior, it is pedestrian at best. Still, this is certainly one book to read. The writing is dynamic and especially good in the action scenes (it's almost as if it was written for the screen, one can easily visualize them). If the book were limited to Felix and his travails, it would have been far better.

January 15, 2006