Armor, by John Steakley. Originally published 1984. Approx. 432 pages.
Armor was the second book read this year, after the W40K pulpy masterpiece Gunheads.
When you are looking for good military SF to read, certain names and books invariably pop up. Orson Scott Card's Ender Books, Heinlen's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, Scalzi, Weber, Drake, Abnett, Zahn, etc. And sure enough, if you check any Amazon Listmania! list of Military SF, you'll see a little book called Armor by John Steakley. Read some of the reviews, you see some serious accolades, a few claiming 'overhyped', and, a few "eh"'s. Some people claim that that battlefield depictions are the most realistic they've ever read. Let's see what all the hype and hate is about.
Steakley is a good writer, no doubt about it. He only has two published books, Armor and Vampire$, upon which the supposedly shitty John Carpenter's Vampires movie was based. Also, Armor 2 is rumored to be in the works.
Armor is primarily billed as the story of Felix, a talented grunt in Earth's battle against 2-meter tall ant-like aliens named, creatively, Ants. Be forewarned, the book actually has two completely separate storylines, with two protagonists as different as night and day, linked by one suit of armor. More on that later. As it is, Armor is broken down into 4 basic parts; the first records of Felix, our introduction to Jack Crow, the last records of Felix, and Jack Crow's stand to defend Sanction.
Sorry, can't complete this review without some spoilers. I'll try to keep it minimal.
Armor opens with Felix, a seemingly typical grunt, preparing for his first 'jump' onto a hostile, Ant-infested planet called Banshee. Banshee is named so for it's howling winds, poisonous, frigid atmosphere, and acidic waters. Not a nice place to say the least. Earth soldiers going into battle go wearing battle armor, with formidable blaster, high explosive grenades and an additional, nasty, last-resort goody. Felix has apparently performed so well in tests that his superiors want to put him on officer duty. When he declines, they stick him with an even more dangerous duty, that of a scout; a lightly armored, recon unit. (Personally, I imagined the battle armor as looking like Halo armor, and the black scout armor as looking like Dr. Calico's henchmen in the movie Bolt). When the soldiers land, there is of course more resistance than they expected. At times Felix finds himself alone, other times, he finds himself the most capable of his peers.
At all times, during battle, Felix, who normally appears apathetic about the war's cause and his life in general, allows his natural skills and instincts to take over. All independent thought stops, as he terms it, the "Engine" takes over. This engine mode carries him through the first jump, and all the subesequent jumps. Even though all laws of probability dictate he should die, he keeps surviving jump after jump, sustaining broken limbs, getting patched up and sent right back out.
Through this all, Steakley's prose shines. You feel like you are running behind Felix, desperately trying to find safety, not knowing where the next group of Ants will appear from, knowing that even if you survive you are still just a battlefield commodity to your superiors. Honestly, it's mentally exhausting.
Part 2 of Armor introduces us to Jack Crow, a smooth pirate rogue type. Actually, he's what Han Solo would have been if George Lucas could write worth a damn. Jack's portions of the book are written in first person, and he is a clever, funny, interesting character. So just prepare yourself as a reader, since it's such a jolting 180 fromthe tone of the first part. We meet Jack as he is breaking out of a prison mining planet. Aiding his escape is the notorious space pirate Borglyn, who 'insists' on Jack's help with a mission. Borglyn's ship is in the vicinity of a privately-owned planet called Sanction, which the military finances and runs a research center, as well as providing living facilities for refugees. Jack is to go to Sanction, meet Borglyn's contacts, made buddy-buddy with the military folk so that he can lower the shields for Borglyn to gas up and go.
As payment for his help, Borglyn gives Jack an abandoned ship he found, as well as some cash. On the ship however, Jack finds a suit of black scout armor, which he gives to the head military scientist, Holly, as he works to make buddy-buddy. Holly becomes obsessed with finding the secrets of this armor, and finally, he finds a way to link himself, his girlfriend, and Jack into the armor's archives. It should be a surprise to no one that this was once indeed Felix's armor.
This brings us to part 3, which shoots us back to Banshee and Felix. The Earth forces are getting confident now, and have gone so far as to create a bunker type base of operations on Banshee. Also, a ghost from Felix's past arrives, and we finally learn his backstory. In the end, overconfidence on the part of the Earth Forces and a crop of new recruits and scientists start poking around in places they shouldn't touch, and guess what happens. Part 3 ends as Felix's suit recording ends.
Part 4 brings us back to Sanction. Jack & Co. are understandably psychologically numb, they've been living Felix's memories through the suit. It affects every facet of their day to day lives. Finally, in the end, Jack has to help resolve issues with Borglyn, who is still hovering outside of Sanction with his plans. All the loose ends are wrapped up nice and tidy, and concluding with a few of the corniest lines I have ever seen in print.
But is it good? Yes, well, part by part, I'd say it's great, very good, very good and good.
Criticisms: Felix's backstory, first and foremost. The man you are reading about in part one is someone you can relate to. You feel his pain, his fear, his hesitance to connect to others, the notion that instinct takes over in horrid situations. After they shoehorn his backstory in, it turns him from a sympathetic character into an action figure. Big fumble. Second, the edition I got has a lot of typos, so not Steakley's fault, it's just annoying. Plus, if you like extensive backgrounds and explanations, look elsewhere. When they say the lakes on Banshee are acid, that's it. No reason, no contributing factors, nada. That's acid, don't swim there.
Overall: Like I said before, Steakley can write. The verbal exchanges are believable never corny or forced. People are flawed and fucked-up. They are scared, insecure, just like real people in wartime. Jack Crow is a hoot. Over the course of the book, his personal regard for different characters changes, and Steakley keeps his perspective constant. It just works. Like most said, a better ending would've been nice. Actually, I think the ending worked, except for the last few lines. You decide for yourself.
Armor. One suit of armor unites two different story threads.
For what it is: 3.5 out of 5 stars ***1/2
Here's what it is: The military sci-fi book that coulda' been a contender. If only Steakley hadn't dropped the ball with Felix's history. Still a solid read with some of the most jarring battle scenes I have ever read. R.I.P. Mr. Steakley.
I know I am being a bit harsh with that, but the low points of Part 3, some corny dialogue, and even the typos took their toll.
There are at least three covers for Armor that I have seen floating around. The original fashions the suit like a medieval knight about to bash an ant. I like that one. The most recent is more stylized, and in tune with today's technique. The one I got (pictured above), was from that awkward stage when cover artists hadn't mastered drawing tough military types without making them into 'roided monstrosities. This picture of Felix looks more like Guile from Street Fighter after a few too many trips to the Chinese buffet. The suit looks more like an astronaut suit, and the gun is an ungainly beast that is even a stretch as a design for a 99-cent store water gun.
Cover Final Score: