on 19 December 2002
The field of military science fiction is a very limited one, with only a very few excellent examples, mainly Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, and Dickson's Soldier, Ask Not. Armor attempts to meld some of the great characteristics of these works, from Heinlein's powered armor to Haldeman's anti-war message, but it is only partially successful.
The first section of this book deals with Felix, a new recruit on his first battle drop. We are not given any background to this man, but is rather a blank slate that we watch as he and his powered armor scout suit turn into an impossibly efficient killing machine, becoming the sole survivor of his battle group after being faced with an opposition of literally thousands of human-sized Ants. We see a man of action and few words, whose interior mental state is oddly split between the fighting, survive at all costs, totally unemotional 'Engine' and a terrified, confused, and very fatalistic 'other'. When the 'Engine' is not in command, we see Felix have some interaction with other soldiers on the drop, from finding out what the survival percentage is for scouts on their first, second, etc major drop from some experienced veterans, to who their military idol is, a man named Kent, supposedly impossible to defeat in hand-to-hand suit combat, and a quickly burgeoning love interest in a extremely capable scout from another battle group. This is the best section of the book, as we see by their actions what molds a military group together, what values soldiers must have if they are to survive as a group, how emotions become a riotous tangle under the demands of battle.
Abruptly, the book leaves Felix and picks up a new character, Jack Crow, cynical, worldly, known for impossible (and marginally illegal) exploits, fighting his way out of a prison and onto a mutineer space ship run by master pirate Borglyn. When Borglyn presents a plan to refuel his ship at a Fleet science base on the planet Sanctity, owned by the eccentric alcoholic Lewis, and offers as prize to Crow a beautiful little ship and a de-activated scout suit for defeating the science base defenses from the inside, all the pieces are in place. From this point on (about page 130) I found the book to be totally predictable, from just who Felix and Lewis really are, to what actions each character would take leading to the final battle.
The characterization of Crow is not very well done, as we are only given hints of his past, a rather murky inside look at his emotional triggers and defenses, and a constant mannerism of lighting a cigarette at every available opportunity, mention of which I found quite irritating after the thirteenth repetition. Unlike Felix, whose past must remain a blank for several reasons, Crow's past should have had far greater explication to make us really believe in him as a person, to where his final actions would be more believable and not just a predictable stereotype. Roger Zelazny was known for building characters like Crow in works like This Immortal, but Zelazny's were believable, three dimensional people. Crow is not. This is unfortunate, as the characters of Crow, Felix, Kent, and Holly (the scientist in charge of the Sanctity base, and also very much a stereotype) form a group of different looks at just what it is that makes a hero, which is really Steakley's theme.
As a theme, it is distinct from the earlier cited works, and could have made this work into something excellent. But it is marred by several additional factors:
1. The shown high level military strategy/personnel are absurd. Any military consistently run in this fashion would quickly lose all respect by the lower level soldiers. The 'grunts' are famous for always bitching about just how screwed up the 'brass' are, but if they truly believed that, you would see Russia in 1917 all over again.
2. The Ants are equally impossible, seeming to have only one strategy, overwhelm through sheer mindless force of numbers, though they are supposedly a technologically advanced, star travelling culture. This attribute could have been worked into a strong sub-theme, but it wasn't.
3. The human society outside of the military is never really shown, nor is there really any reason given for the Ant War itself.
Thus the hero theme is forced to exist in an almost total vacuum from the normal societal factors that help define just what a hero is. And without strong character definition, it just didn't carry the emotional freighting that would have made this an excellent work.
Read this one for the opening highly action oriented first section, which is excellent. Then close the book.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)