Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Armor, by John Steakley

One-line summary: Starship Troopers without the politics.


Amazon: Average: 4.3. Mode: 5 stars (68%)
Goodreads: Average 4.06. Mode: 5 stars (41%)

The planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water poisonous. It is the home of the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected not only by his custom-fitted body armor, the culmination of 10,000 years of the armorers' craft, but also by an odd being which seems to live with him, a cold killing machine he calls "the Engine."

The moment the armored warriors about to drop on Banshee are told, "This is practically a sightseeing mission, there's no activity at all where you're going," you know they are unbelievably screwed.

"War is hell" is pretty much the tone of the rest of the book. It's full of action, mayhem, mutual genocide, and a bit of reflection on just how hellish war is. Oh, except for the entire tedious, boring middle half of the book about a second character I didn't care about.

Say what you like about Robert A. Heinlein (and I have plenty to say about the skeevy old man), he was a craftsman and a storyteller. Starship Troopers, one of his most famous novels, was also one of the most controversial. Some say it's just a war story; others accuse it of promoting militarism, nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism. There were lots of political ideas packed into that little novel that sat right on the edge between his juvenile series and his adult fiction, and it's also an endless source of debate and wankery over how much of the views presumed to be expressed by the novel were actually held by the author. One thing it was not, however, was a sci-fi adventure about guys in armor fighting bugs. If you think that's what Starship Troopers was about, you're kind of missing the point.

Many have called John Steakley's Armor a new sci-fi classic by someone standing on the shoulders of a giant. Well, Steakley may have stood on Heinlein's shoulders, but I don't think he reached as high.

That's not to say that Armor isn't entertaining, or a good book. I just don't think it's a great book, and if Heinlein hadn't plowed this field decades earlier, Armor would be a more or less forgettable military SF novel about guys in armor fighting bugs.

Armor is not just a vaguely similar story that gets compared to Starship Troopers because of incidental similarities like powered armor and insectoid aliens. Everything about Steakley's book pays deliberate homage to Heinlein's. The armored troopers are nearly identical. The aliens are nearly identical (Steakley's are known as the "Ants," as opposed to Heinlein's "Bugs.") The technology and the warfare is nearly identical. (There is even a reference to the Ants bombing South America, one of the more subtle hat tips to Starship Troopers.) What is different is the plot and the characters, and here is where Steakley did do some interesting things, things that make it worth reading as a story in its own right, yet leave it less compelling than the true sci-fi classic whose glory it reflects.

First of all, Armor has two main POV characters. The first part of the book is told in third-person with Armored Scout Felix as the POV character. The middle is told from the first-person POV of the notorious pirate Jack Crow. The last part of the book brings their storylines together, but I felt that while the parts with Felix were full of action and occasionally thought-provoking, Jack Crow was far less interesting than his reputation (we're never told exactly why he has such a reputation as the galaxy's Most Wanted bad-ass, though he admits himself that it's completely unwarranted), and his character development consisted mostly of wangsting about what a miserable black-hearted bastard he is and how occasionally he feels bad about this. While Felix is fighting Ants on Banshee, Crow is plotting to steal something on the planet Sanction, but rather than this part of the book being a thrilling heist full of action and double-crosses, it's mostly Crow getting drunk and getting laid while he tries to figure out how to get what he wants.

Felix, on the other hand, is a man who has slowly turned into a survival machine, "the Engine," forced to go into battle so many times that he's forgotten what it's like to think about anything other than killing Ants. While this makes for a somewhat monodimensional narrative, his blunt, laconic responses and occasionally baffled and disbelieving reactions to other soldiers, from the bright-eyed green recruits eager to see "real action" to the clueless brass who visit Banshee like tourists, shows us far better than Crow's internal monologues the psychic damage Felix has suffered, and how difficult it is for him to regain his humanity.

Here, of course, is where Armor really differs from Starship Troopers. I think it's false to say that Heinlein glorified war, but Starship Troopers presented patriotism and military service as essentially good things, and the war against the Bugs was unmistakeably a "good war": they're implacably alien, they're completely genocidal, it's clearly Us or Them.

Although the Ants are equally alien, Armor (rather deliberately, I think) never actually makes clear why and how the war between Ants and humanity began. All we see is human warriors dropping onto Banshee again and again to engage the Ants in battle, both sides slaughtering each other endlessly and pointlessly.

If Heinlein's Bug war was World War II (never mind the sketchy connotations that implies; others have covered this ground in far more depth if you want to go looking for Heinlein crits), Steakley's Ant war is Vietnam. (Yes, equally sketchy connotations.) The armored warriors vastly outpower the Ants on an individual level, but the Ants have seemingly endless numbers to throw at the humans. The warriors are never told what their objectives are, and it turns out that more often than not, strategy is either non-existent or based on complete ignorance of the actual situation on the ground. They establish a fortified bunker on Banshee, and then are told to go out and kill Ants just for the sake of increasing their body counts.

(At this point, I'd be remiss in not also mentioning Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, another novel which is often regarded as both a response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers and a Vietnam War allegory. I can't comment more intelligently on this, however, because frankly, The Forever War is another one of those sci-fi classics that's never quite gotten off my TBR shelf.)

This makes Armor a rather more brutal novel -- there is nothing uplifting or character-affirming about Felix's experiences, unlike Starship Troopers' more introspective and philosophical Johnny Rico. It may well be that this is why so many people love Armor; according to Wikipedia (that infallible, ever-reliable source of information), Steakley wrote it because he thought Starship Troopers didn't have enough combat.

There are enough SF readers who list Armor among their favorites that I think Steakley might well have become a much more popular writer had he been more productive. Sadly, John Steakley passed away just a few days ago. The only novels he published, to my knowledge, were Armor and Vampire$ (on which the John Carpenter movie was based). Apparently he was working on a sequel to Armor.

Armor didn't wow me, but it was entertaining enough that I've added Vampire$ to my TBR list.

Verdict: Good but not brilliant military SF. It's certainly worth reading for anyone who enjoys the genre. However, it seems to be very much a YMMV book, as looking at the reviews, it's clear that a lot of sci-fi fans absolutely love it. I didn't, but I probably would have if I'd read it when I was younger.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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