Spoiler warning: I discuss the plot of the book to some degree here, but not the ending. You Have Been Warned.
Armor is an underappreciated science fiction novel by John Steakley, which was published in 1984. It is essentially a "reimagining" (without the negative connotations attached to the word by Hollywood of late) of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers; Steakley himself (in response to a questioner who asked if he'd read Starship Troopers) writes
"READ IT? Are you kidding? I stole it outright. Except for plot, characters, style of writing and dialogue - Hell, it's the same book ... if Bob could write action - the only thing he could NOT do with words - then I wouldn't have had to write ARMOR. Joey Haldeman told me the same thing. He would never have written "The Forever War" if Bob (Heinlein) wrote action. I wouldn't have written "Armor" if Joe hadn't written HIS theft."
Indeed, the two books are both stories about soldier
s in powered armor
fighting an insectoid
foe on an alien world. However, while Starship Troopers deals with the political and cultural ramifications of war
and the military
, Armor is really about human desperation
and the psychic
horror of war, and stands on its own as an exceptionally strong treatment of the "space soldier" story.
The book is actually made up of two separate stories that gradually converge. Steakley carries out this conceit relatively well; he starts out by telling long portions of the two apparently unconnected tales, and then begins shortening the length of each fragment, switching back and forth between story lines more rapidly as they converge.
The first (and probably more compelling) story arc concerns a soldier named Felix - in an ironic twist, the name means "fortunate" in Latin. Felix is a soldier in an interstellar war; we meet him just as he's dropped onto the surface of Banshee, the hellish homeworld of a hive-race called "Ants" by the troops who fight them. We learn about him bit by bit during the lulls between combat drops, while we watch him slip into despair as he's thrown into battle again and again by an uncaring war machine which loses track of him as an individual. Everyone around him dies in battle - repeatedly - but he's able to make it through; the raw desire for survival takes over and he fights like a demon to live and escape, even as his numb intellect stands by and watches, uncaring.
Felix's black scout armor becomes a prison of fear and despair that he's put into over and over, and thanks to Steakley's writing we're right there with him. The action scenes in this story are unrelenting and horrible - there is none of the detached professionalism of Heinlein's soldiers here. Instead, Felix descends into scenes of madness and carnage, the chaotic struggles of the common soldier for survival in a disorganized and inhuman environment. Just like Felix, we're introduced to side characters and watch them die in horrible or tragic ways, again and again, and the horror mounts. Steakley's writing style is refreshingly straightforward; he lets the story tell itself and resists the urge to help it along by beating us over the head with excessive verbiage. I've read articles by real-life war veterans who write that Steakley comes closer than anyone to conveying the awful sense of unreality that descends on a human mind subjected to the horrors of battle; I wouldn't know, but I can testify the effect is powerful indeed.
The second storyline revolves around the character of Jack Crow, an exceptionally cynical and unusually self-aware rogue. We're introduced to Crow as he escapes from a prison colony and falls in with a group of pirates with ethics significantly less strict than his own. Very shortly, he's coerced into infiltrating a research station on a colony planet in an attempt to steal a power cell for the pirate craft - taking with him only his reputation and a suit of black scout armor as incentives for the research staff to take him in. The armor, of course, is Felix's. Soon, Crow, the station's director, and his young lady friend are caught up in a project that has them reliving the experiences of the armor's former owner, while dealing with the conflict that arises between the station and colonists, the emotional issues that exist between them, and ultimately the problem of Crow's intended treachery.
This second plotline is definitely not as strong as the first, although reactions to it vary. Some find the characters too stereotypical and their actions inexplicable, and feel that sections of the narrative are almost unbearably dull (frequently the complaint of readers who picked up the book looking for non-stop alien bashing action.) I rather enjoyed the Crow storyline, mostly because of the character's strong characterization. Crow is portrayed as an exceptionally perceptive person who recognizes just how stereotypical everything around him is, and reacts with a kind of world-weary fatalism that is hard not to empathize with. As he stumbles onto unfamiliar ground - his unexpected relationships with the research staff, the experience of reliving Felix's struggles - his ironclad competence starts to falter, and he's thrown into an inner turmoil that I found oddly affecting. I think one's enjoyment of this part of the story hinges on how much one can identify with Crow's mindset and outlook, and the tale becomes either boring and inexplicable or almost painfully emotional depending on that factor.
In any case, the second story arc is indispensable in its framing of Felix's saga. Crow becomes something of a proxy for us as readers - we experience Felix's story from a separate but involved perspective, in bits and pieces, as do our hero and his friends. We can compare notes with the fictional characters also living out the soldier's story of war and bloodshed, contrasting our feelings with their own, and their deep emotional involvement in the saga deepens ours as well. They agonize over when and where it will end, which amplifies the same tension felt by the reader, and the problems and challenges of their outside lives that collide with and affect their immersion in Felix's story are something like our own. It's a very clever and unexpectedly deep conceit that is flawed only in that it once again depends on the reader's identification with Crow. I think that it's fair to say that when it works, it works extraordinarily well, but it doesn't work for everyone.
All in all, Armor is a very strong story, the effectiveness of which varies by individual more than most. It's quite deep for a science fiction novel - the idea of "armor" itself is interwoven with both stories, both literally and allegorically, as well as some other equally deep and interesting plot points I won't spoil here. The conclusion, where the two story lines finally collide is - if you've gotten into the story - devastatingly effective, and is truly beautifully written. If you're the right kind of person and enjoy Steakley's writing style (the two seem to go together; I suspect much of the readership here would qualify) then Armor is a satisfying and emotionally effective read. If not, it's still worth picking up, if only for the great action scenes. In any case, I heartily recommend it, and personally feel that it's right up there with its inspiration (Starship Troopers) in terms of quality.
A couple of notes about Armor:
The cover of the book was "modernized" a few years ago. The current cover shows a square-jawed (if introspective) marine in battle armor, holding a helmet and rifle. The older cover shows a single armored figure - faceless within his battle suit - wielding a (presumably depleted) rifle as a club against the first of a seemingly endless horde of insectoids swarming towards him. I think the older artwork, while it looks a bit dated, suits the tone and substance of the story much better. You can view both cover artworks here (as of Dec. 2001):
Anyone reading Armor who's familiar with the 1997 abortion of a film entitled "Starship Troopers" will recognize a number of plot points that appear to have been lifted wholesale from the book (the fortress scene, for example.) I'm not sure whether the film's "writers" (I didn't care for it, can you tell?) had the film rights for both Armor and Heinlein's masterwork, or just saw fit to borrow liberally, but the correlation is definitely there. Personally, I'd love to see (more of) Armor as a movie - maybe it'll get done right next time.
Thanks to Dave Alpern's "John Steakley Fan Appreciation Site" (http://members.aol.com/Alpern/main.htm) for the quote from the author.