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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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Old Man’s War

Old Man's War by John ScalziReview: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Tor, 2004)

They say the best songs often already have a tinge of familiarity to them on the first listen and this phenomenon is certainly not unique to the music industry. It’s impossible to review John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War without also mentioning the classics The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. Let’s get it out of the way now – yes, it does mix Haldeman’s ponderings on ageing in an uncaring universe with Heinlein’s militaristic musings and uberviolence. Fear not though, Old Man’s War manages to be far more than the sum of its influences.

The action gets moving on Earth a few hundred years from now. John Perry is an ageing citizen of a galactically isolated planet. Dearly missing his late wife he takes the plunge and signs up to join the CDF – Colonial Defence Force. In this era humanity has shaken off the shackles of gravity and begun to spread throughout the galaxy, colonising resource-rich planets wherever they can. For reasons not fully divulged in this book there is little to no contact between Earth and her daughter colonies. One thing is known however – these newly inhabited planets are under constant threat of destruction, enslavement or ingestion by the countless hostile races with which our region seems to be populated.

The obvious question is “Why on Earth would a pensioner defend a planet he has never set eyes on, and what possible use would he be?”. The answer forms the core of Old Man’s War, the introductory chapter to an ongoing series. The CDF, through centuries of contact with alien races, has amassed some remarkable new technology. When an Earth citizen feels they are approaching their inevitable end they are promised a new lease of life if they sign away their lives to the protection of their fellow man. Perry is swiftly whisked off-planet where he is presented with the stunning truth.

The CDF will literally grant him and all new recruits a new body – young, physically augmented, technologically enhanced and, erm, green. Should he survive 10 years of service (and 75% do not) he will be allowed to transfer once more to a more standard human frame with a full lifespan ahead of him and a guaranteed space in one of the colonies he faithfully guarded. The odds of survival initially seem grim but on the other hand these recruits were already doomed on Earth and will certainly go out in far more spectacular fashion than lying in bed, covered in their own fluids.

Scalzi wastes little time in cutting to the chase with Old Man’s War, lending the novel the feel of an effects-laden blockbuster movie. We’re treated to the usual routine of recruitment, boot camp (replete with insane drill instructor), first assignments and the inevitable transition from (literally) fresh-faced rookie to grizzled veteran. It’s not all glory though, and the story makes a point of not shying away from the horrors and losses of war; Perry spends a great deal of time in the book’s opening chapters forming close bonds with like-minded rookies, only to have them snatched into the jaws of death one by one as the story progresses. These well-timed moments of tragedy managed to keep my feet firmly on the ground through the duration.

While the story itself may tread some well-worn ground it still manages to somehow feel entirely fresh and original. Once your inner monologue stops asking “Haven’t I seen this movie before?” you’ll start being drawn in by Scalzi’s incredible talent with words. The serious aspect of the book is handled very skillfully, without allowing the action to become bogged down in emotion. At the same time this is counterbalanced with a riotously funny mood the rest of the time, as well as with a liberal smattering of hardcore space marine action. He also has a lot of fun with the science aspect, one memorable scene almost mocking the reader as during a conversation regarding the ship’s ability to skip instantaneously between points in the galaxy a knowledgeable recruit attempts to elucidate the technology for his cohort but is repeatedly forced to fall back on the mantra “…but you probably don’t have the math to understand it.” Such episodes never seem condescending, instead being reminiscent of Douglas Adams’s tongue-in-cheek attempts to explain the inexplicable.

I have to admit that I almost felt guilty at several points during Old Man’s War, mostly because you shouldn’t be able to enjoy something so effortlessly. Was I reading some kind of trash without realising it? Some kind of dressed-up airport fiction? Thankfully the answer was no, John Scalzi is not afraid to tackle big questions but is just too damn good at writing to let his audience realise that there is a lot of weight hiding behind the star wars veneer. After reading his latest novel, Redshirts (which I reviewed for Mountains Of Instead), I was afraid I would be let down by going back to his debut novel. Instead I’m struck by just how good he can be. Now to get stuck into the next three installments…

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