Armor by John SteakleyReview: Armor by John Steakley (DW, 1984)

I’ll get this out of the way right at the beginning. When you pick up Armor it will be approximately ten pages before you start asking yourself “Why am I reading the novelisation of the Starship Troopers movie?” Yes, I know the movie was based on Robert Heinlein’s novel but the two bore only a passing resemblance. Armor, on the other hand, has it all: the attack on South America; the inhospitable planet; the relentless insectoid army; the lone survivor. However, Armor is far more than the source material for a mediocre sci-fi movie.

Split into two overlapping tales, the first concerns Felix, a raw recruit into the futuristic military. Designated as a Scout, an exceedingly low-survival-rate position, Felix is sent on his first drop to Banshee. Due to military blunders his unit are transported right into the heart of an enemy horde. These foes resemble nothing less than 8-foot tall humanoid ant creatures capable of ripping humans limb from limb. Felix’s forces level the playing field with their key asset, the titular armor – all-enclosing survival suits bestowing superhuman speed and strength and boasting ferocious firepower.

Despite the armor his unit is quickly annihilated, leaving him stranded. On his rescue an unfortunate computer error results in him being recalled for drop after drop after drop with little or no respite. Despite his statistical odds of surviving being more or less zero he continues to pull through, relying on a kind of split personality he dubs The Engine to take over, turning him into a killing machine. As a character Felix is remarkably blank, it’s as if his psyche has been gutted, torched clean by the horrors he has experienced, leaving barely able to comprehend events unfolding around him. Author John Steakley compensates for this with some of the most visceral and literally gut-wrenching battle scenes put to paper. It takes quite a mind to make the gruelling carnage so palatable, simultaneously decrying and revelling in the monotonous banality of evil.

With no warning Steakley wrenches us from Felix’s world and moves the clock forward a few years. The focus switches to Jack Crow, a space pirate who has escaped from a penal colony and is seeking true freedom. To this end he strikes a bargain with a crime boss, accepting a mission to a planet off the Space Fleet’s radar. The mission, an elaborate energy heist, requires that he take a military artefact as a gift for a collector. A suit of armor. Guess whose? And for the record, if the name seems familiar then substitute Crow for a somewhat smaller bird. You’ll find precious few differences between this pirate and one more renowned for Caribbean escapades.

The Jack Crow section of Armor couldn’t be more different. Suddenly we’re dealing with a cast of genuine characters, several conflicting motives and psychological and political maneuvering. In fact for a while you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an entirely different novel, until Jack and his acquaintances discover that they can ‘plug in’ to the suit and experience its memories. Thus the plot is deftly woven together with that of Felix whom we soon rejoin for one of the novel’s big reveals.

So if this novel contains source material for two major movie franchises then why isn’t it more widely known? Well, Armor certainly isn’t without its flaws. Felix’s story can sometimes feel overbearing, almost claustrophobic. His isolation and fatalism serve to distance the reader, while the action around him is resoundingly grim. Everyone dies, everyone but Felix. All the time. It’s a lot to take. There’s a lot more levity to be found in Crow’s story but this has its own issues. While the characters are more fully developed they often fail to make any kind of sense whatsoever. I had to backtrack in the story several times to see if I had missed some crucial event which would explain the actions of Jack and his marks. None was to be found, often their motivation is entirely inexplicable.

That said I simply could not stop reading. My copy of the book was a terribly corrupted epub, riddled with bad punctuation (every apostrophe and inverted comma was replaced with a square) and spelling errors, normally a distraction which leads me to hit ‘Delete’ and find a new book. However, Armor was different. Something about Felix’s steadfast determination despite his growing fear and a desire to see Crow redeem himself for his heinous betrayal kept me turning pages until the book was over before I knew it. The effort was worth it with a rather obvious twist ending turning into a poignant finale, lending serious weight to all which had come before.

What is Armor all about? To be honest I have no idea. John Steakley was clearly trying to say something important and deeply personal. Two things in fact, both of which seem entirely contradictory. The characters of Felix and Jack were entirely at odds with each other, making deciphering the message more a case of guesswork than anything else. I will say this though – for me to burn through a book this quickly and still have it prodding my grey matter so long afterwards is enough to earn it a special place on the digital bookshelf. It may not be a perfect read but there certainly aren’t many reading experiences quite like Armor and that is a damn shame.


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