Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Review: 'Armor' by John Steakley

2 / 5 Stars

‘Armor’ (426 pp) was published in December, 1984 as DAW Book No. 605, with cover art by James Gurney.

At the time, the genre of military sf was just beginning to take shape and was hardly the highly successful sub-genre it is today. Indeed, prior to ‘Armor’, the only military sf novels in existence were (arguably) ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘The Forever War’.

‘Armor’ sold extremely well, going through 44 printings at last count, and remains one of the best-selling entries of the entire DAW catalog.

Despite its status as one of the foundational novels for the modern military sf genre, it’s actually a very mediocre book..........

For all practical purposes, the novel can be divided into thirds.

In the first third, we are introduced to G. Felix, a seeming everyman who is recruited as a Scout in the interstellar war between the Federation and the insect-like ‘Ants’. Every foot soldier is issued one form or another of the eponymous armor, a high-tech battle suit that protects the wearer from all but the most lethal of attacks.

Felix is teleported (‘Dropped’) onto the planet Banshee as part of the Federation’s first assault on an ant homeworld. The high hopes for a Federation victory soon are dashed by the realization that the ants, which are 8 feet tall and protected by a strong exoskeleton, attack in relentless waves, straight out of the 1997 movie Starship Troopers. As Federation casualties mount, it is Felix who emerges as an effective warrior, due in part to his ability to involuntarily enter into a kind of depersonalized, fugue state that makes him temporarily fearless.

The book then embarks on its second segment, which shifts its focus entirely away from Felix, and onto the first-person adventures of one Jack Crow, a notorious interstellar pirate. This shift is so abrupt and awkwardly managed – it’s utterly devoid of any attempt to give the reader any sort of framing exposition - that it leads me to believe that author Steakley may have decided, in the writing of the book, to take another, unpublished manuscript he was working on, and to graft it onto the ‘Felix’ narrative.

The second segment relates how Jack Crow, fleeing a certain death sentence in a harsh alien prison, takes refuge on the remote planet of Sanction, whose less fortunate inhabitants dwell in the single slum village of Sanction City. The luckier residents of Sanction are workers at the top-secret Federation research station located a short distance from the City.

Relying on his notoriety and personal charm, Crow befriends the research station director and most of his staff, and soon becomes involved in an unusual project, one that is tangentially involved with the armor worn by Felix.

The third segment returns to Felix, who has attained legendary status for his ability to survive Drop after Drop onto Banshee. As this third segment opens, Felix makes yet another Drop, this time as part of a special operation to erect an impregnable fortress, one that will attrit the Ants into oblivion by sheer firepower. But as formidable as the base’s firepower is, Felix can’t help feeling that something, somewhere has been overlooked…..

This segment also features some awkwardly managed revelations about who Felix is, and how he came to be enrolled in the Federation army.

In the closing chapters, the two storylines – Felix and Jack Crow – come together, albeit in a contrived way. The book ends on a note of ambiguity.

Author Steakley’s prose style is the major weakness to ‘Armor’. It relies heavily on lengthy conversations that are written in what can only be termed a ‘wooden’ style. 

Then there are copious internal monologues that are intended to provide the reader with Deep Insight into the post-traumatic stress that wracks both Felix, and later, Jack Crow. These monologues are overwrought, crammed with stilted prose, and burden, rather than support, the narrative.

While the combat scenes, when they do take place, are reasonably exciting, the fact is, the narrative in ‘Armor’ is meant to serve as a platform upon which author Steakley endeavors to demonstrate that his book is not a War Novel, but rather, a profound examination of the effects of modern combat on the human psyche…..

My verdict ? ‘Armor’ gained a lot of its commercial success from being in the right time, at the right place, when publishing was just beginning to embrace the military SF genre. In the years since its release, more deserving military sf novels have been published (Christopher Rowley’s The Vang trilogy comes readily to mind) than ‘Armor’.

1 comment:

William said...

Armor is one of those military sci-fi novels that simply needed to stay focused on the primary storyline and not confuse the reader with space pirate. When I met the author in 2003, he told me that he would have written it differently, but he planned on using more Crow in the sequel that never happened. Still, I like this novel more than the 1959 Starship Troopers novel