You may think you know all the best the sci-fi soldier stuff out there, but unless you’ve read Armor (John Steakley), you don’t.
I read a lot. Seriously, if I don’t have at least one book going at all times, I feel a bit lost. Usually, it’s more like two or three at a time, representing different genres. As many books as I consume, you might think I’ll read most anything, but, in truth, it’s just the opposite. I’m incredibly picky about what I read because I want it to be worth my time. I’m not a speed reader, though I do possess that skill. I read for many reasons, but I want to get the most from each book. Fiction is the genre about which I’m most discerning.
As a historian, I have to read what I have to read, even if it’s dry as dust. That’s an acquired skill too. But fiction is strictly for escape and enjoyment, so I don’t want to waste my time on garbage. This review deals with a book I picked up on a whim and have now read four times in the intervening years. It’s been worth my time, and I think it’s worth yours. Author John Steakley, unfortunately, wrote only two novels. One, Vampire$, was a big hit and made into a pretty good movie starring James Woods. The other, Armor John Steakley’s dystopian military science fiction story of a soldier named Felix who is uncommonly good at, and uncommonly horrified by, what he does.
John Steakley’s Armor
Military Sci-Fi Gem
Set in the late twenty-first century, Armor recounts one man’s view of what is called “The Antwar.” It is so named by humankind because the enemy is a race of nine-foot-tall insectoid creatures that resemble gargantuan ants walking on their hind legs. They are incredibly strong and fast and, working from a hive mentality, absolutely relentless. Steakley provides no details about the wider war or how it began, though it is noted in passing that the Ants attacked Earth, specifically South America, just as in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. We are not told which side attacked the other first. We also learn that the war is controversial among humankind in terms of how and why it is being fought, the high casualty rate, and unexplored political concerns. Honestly, as a military historian, it reminds me of the Vietnam era in that respect. The book was published in 1984, and though Steakley himself did not serve in the military, he reached his majority, age-wise, in 1969, at the height of the war, so there may be something to that perception.
The combat narrative is restricted to the planet Banshee, which seems to be the Ants’ homeworld. Banshee is a nightmarish hellscape of bitter cold, poison atmosphere, and acid oceans. Constant winds blow the endless sands into weird, contorted mazes in a constant state of flux. Even after fighting on Banshee for six months, Felix never recognizes the terrain from drop to drop. And drop he does. Banshee is so inhospitable to humans that only short hit and run operations, reminiscent of the “search and destroy” concept from Vietnam, are possible. Banshee’s fluctuating magnetic field makes high tech options like missiles or guided bombs, much less aircraft, unusable. Only the soldiers, “warriors,” as they’re called, can do what supposedly needs to be done.
I say “supposedly” because the officers of the Earth force, simply called “Fleet,” are invariably portrayed as incompetent. They are sometimes cowardly, often political, and some are just naïve. Most are varying degrees of arrogant. Again, I’m reminded of some of the popular notions of Vietnam, despite the fact that many fine officers served there. But the officers in Armor have little in common with Hal Moore or John Ripley.
Another shade of Vietnam, and swipe at the officers, is the revelation that most of the warriors who dropped on Banshee had roughly six months in service and were mostly green. This is personified by Felix, whose first-ever drop was also the first Fleet drop on Banshee, where he is assigned to be a Scout, whose survival chances are much lower than an ordinary warrior. Finally, Felix’s first drop culminates in the battle of “The Knuckle,” which is, in many ways, reminiscent of 1965s Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. But, again, there is no Hal Moore there.
But I don’t want to give away the plot, because it’s quite good and keeps the reader guessing. The action is engaging and even brutal. We are treated to Felix’s intimate thoughts as he becomes the most fearsome fighting man on Banshee, though the entire process sickens him. Felix is seemingly unique in his ability to compartmentalize the horrors of combat against a truly alien enemy by relying on a survival mechanism he calls “The Engine.” It comes when it will, and he has no control over it. It’s described as a sort of detachment that allows him to function at a high level when others cannot. Felix as The Engine is quite the compelling character.
I do, however, have some small criticisms I think may help if you decide to pick up Armor. The writing is occasionally vague, like the author expects the reader to know what he is thinking without actually saying it. It’s nothing major and doesn’t take away from the story, but sometimes you momentarily wonder what the character is doing or thinking and why. It usually clears itself up quickly, but I find it mildly annoying.
The book is seemingly laid out rather strangely, at least at first. It all comes together at the end and is really pretty clever, but it’s kind of confusing the first time through. There are three main sections. The first deals with Felix and his early experiences on Banshee. Intense, but pretty straightforward. The second section is where you initially think “WTF is going on and WTH does this have to do with the story?”
Here we meet Jack Crow, who is apparently a famous folk-hero criminal type. A modern-day Captain Jack Sparrow, just way more cynical. We first encounter Jack as he’s breaking out of an alien prison, though the aliens are not the dreaded Ants. As with Felix in the first section, Jack is the main protagonist in the second. As might be expected, Jack isn’t quite the legendary outlaw his reputation makes him out to be.
Anyway, without giving too much away, Jack finds himself in possession of an apparently abandoned suit of black Scout armor, which, in some ways, is actually the main protagonist and a metaphor for Felix as he flees his past. But I can’t say anymore without blowing a major plot line.
As part of a caper, Jack hooks up with a scientific type in a far-flung research facility on a backwater planet. There, they find a way to access and immerse themselves in the memory recordings of the suit, which turns out to have belonged to some guy named Felix. The technology on how that is done is glossed over. There’s a fairly vague explanation but that’s it, which suits me just fine. It’s science fiction. They’re supposed to be doing stuff I don’t understand.
Jack and the scientist, Dr. Hollis “Holly” Ware, relive Felix’s combat experiences through the Scout’s own eyes and they can even access his thoughts and emotions. Felix then retakes center stage as the last two of his twenty-one drops on Banshee are recounted in detail. I feel the need to be tangential for just a minute. Whenever I read Dr. Ware’s name, I think of Slim Pickens as Hollis “Holly” Wood. One of the bright spots in the not-as-funny-as-it-should-have-been movie, 1941. I do get a chuckle out of that. I should also note that the main vampire hunter in 1990’s Vampire$ is named Jack Crow and his top shooter is named Felix. The characters are very similar in both books. But there is no connection other than Steakley’s giving a nod to his earlier novel. Steakley even says so in the author’s notes in the later book. I like to think of them as alternate universe versions of each other.
The appalling end of Felix’s combat memories marks the end of the second section. The third cleverly brings all the plot lines together and I won’t say anything else about them. I will say, though, that comparisons of Armor John Steakley’s classic to Robert A. Heinlein’s more than classic Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s equally timeless The Forever War are inevitable. That can be good and bad. It takes balls to write a novel that you know will draw comparisons to literal giants of the genre.
I’m happy to report that Steakley was up to the challenge. In some ways, I think it’s better. Haldeman shined at making his alien race, the “Taurans” seem utterly “other.” His reliance on his own experiences in Vietnam are also very clear. Heinlein’s “Bugs” (actually giant spiders) were also scary. But I find Steakley’s Ants to be more terrifying than either, despite my innate revulsion to spiders. The Ants are faceless and relentless. There is no communication between the humans and the Ants and, as far as we know, no attempt at any. They have one goal: to kill as many humans as they possibly can regardless of the cost to themselves.
That, of course, is a literary device and it’s well-executed in Armor. The waves of Ants, when they appear are nothing short of nightmarish, but the strong suit of the story is the oppressive dread that hangs over everything that happens on Banshee. It’s a bad place and no human in his right mind would go there voluntarily. Felix is aghast at those who do. Creating that overpowering feeling of dread is where Steakley surpasses Heinlein and Haldeman, and he is masterful at building it up to a hair-raising crescendo.
Steakley, and Haldeman, depart from Heinlein with their emphasis on the futility of war. Heinlein was part of the World War II generation and Starship Troopers hit the racks in 1959. His can-do Mobile Infantry are long gone from the post-Vietnam novels of Haldeman and Steakley. More than once, Felix reflects on the nature of war, interstellar or not, and those who prosecute it, always returning to the conclusion that it is sheer madness.
Felix, as the main character, compares favorably to Heinlein’s Juan Rico and Haldeman’s William Mandella. Rico’s rational moralism and Mandella’s cynicism are matched and balanced by Felix’s fatalism. The other characters, particularly Jack Crow, are well-executed and we can see where they fit in Steakley’s wider universe, though most of that universe is kind of vague. I wish he had written other books to fill it out since he obviously had it in his mind, but he did not. Reportedly there was a sequel in progress to Armor John Steakley supposedly worked for years, but nothing ever came of it before his passing in 2010.
But John Steakley did leave what I think is one of the best military sci-fi novels out there. Definitely top five for me. Starship Troopers and The Forever War are there too, though I’d have to give some thought to the other two. Armor is still in print and recently became available as an audiobook. It’s raw, intense, and often incredibly sad. But the ending isn’t all doom and gloom. The Antwar continues, but, as in the best stories, there is some redemption to be had.
Armor John Steakley on Amazon.
VampireS John Steakley on Amazon.
Postscript: For those of you who have seen the movie version of Starship Troopers, but haven’t read the book, you don’t know Starship Troopers. Not even close. The movie is an abomination to the memory of Robert Anson Heinlein. My opinion, I know, but that’s how it is.