Armor: A novel about suffering

John Steakley ArmorJohn Steakley ArmorArmor by John Steakley

…everything you were hiding from was in there with you. That’s the trouble with armor. It won’t protect you from what you are.

Felix is a loner, a broken man with a mysterious past. When he’s dropped with thousands of fellow soldiers on a toxic planet nicknamed “Banshee,” he’s the only survivor of the battle with the 8-foot tall “Ants” that live there. That’s partly because of the special armor he wears — his black nuclear-powered scout suit — and partly because of the emotional armor he wears — what he calls “The Engine” — his lack of fear and compassion in dangerous situations. Because he doesn’t really care if he dies, he is able to make quick detached decisions, and it’s this armor, ironically, that keeps him alive.

After the battle, the computer assumes Felix is dead, and this glitch means that he’s never assigned to R&R. Instead, he keeps getting dropped into the hordes of Ants on Banshee, and he continues to survive while everyone else dies. Prone to be solitary anyway, the fact that nobody around him lasts long means that Felix becomes more experienced than his leaders (though few people realize this), that he doesn’t form any human bonds, and that his situation progressively gets more lonely, desperate, and tragic.

Felix is so emotionless and inaccessible, his environment is so bleak, and his situation is so grim, that I nearly quit reading Armor. It was just painful and hopeless. Then suddenly we leave Felix, jump several years into the future, and join up with Jack Crow, a notorious criminal who has escaped from prison and partnered with a space pirate. The two of them plan to infiltrate a research lab on a frontier planet. Jack is fascinated by a black scout suit he finds and he carries it to the research lab as a gift to Hollis, the scientist who runs the lab. Also intrigued, Hollis manages to hook into it so that they can relive Felix’s experiences in the Antwar.

And they are horrified — devastated by Felix’s physical pain and mental suffering. But most of all, they’re awed at his strength and his ability to go on in the face of such complete devastation and hopelessness, especially when they find out how Felix got his “armor” — how he became this emotionless killing machine. Felix refuses to die and it affects them profoundly.

It affected me profoundly, too. After nearly quitting Armor because of its lack of emotion, I was surprised to eventually find myself stressed out and sobbing. You won’t believe it at the beginning, but Armor becomes intensely emotional, especially for what’s considered a “military SF” novel. This is not merely “military SF” — it’s a novel about suffering, compassion, love, and the human survival instinct. It just takes a while to get there, which makes it even more gratifying when it finally shows itself.

I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of Armor, narrated by Tom Weiner. His deep voice was perfect for a story with a bunch of rough men in it, but he did a great job with the female characters, too. I unhesitatingly recommend the audio version.

Armor isn’t the perfect novel — it’s hard to believe in the Antwar because we never understand why humans want to be on this toxic planet, it’s hard to believe in a computer glitch that can’t be fixed, and there’s some psychobabble that doesn’t hold up to 21st century psychology (Armor was published in 1984), yet this is a powerful, character-focused, deeply emotional novel about human suffering and the will to survive.

The ending of Armor is both devastatingly glorious and agonizingly inconclusive. John Steakley was writing a sequel when he died in November 2010. An excerpt of the sequel, which I believe was not finished, can be found at this fan website. But I don’t need a sequel — I like the way Armor ended.

Are you there Felix? Are you there?

Armor — (1984) Publisher: The military sci-fi classic in a striking new package. Felix is an Earth soldier, encased in special body armor designed to withstand Earth’s most implacable enemy — a bioengineered, insectoid alien horde. But Felix is also equipped with internal mechanisms that enable him, and his fellow soldiers, to survive battle situations that would destroy a man’s mind. This is a remarkable novel of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat — and how the strength of the human spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

 


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

View all posts by Kat Hooper

5 comments

  1. Hmm, thought I left a comment on Friday–oh, well, it sounds like we lost Steakley too soon.

  2. Yes, too soon.

    I’m so surprised that I liked Armor as much as I did. I only read it because it was on a $5 sale at Audible.com.

  3. WOW Kat!Your review has really intrigued me. Not sure when the last time I read something that moved me emotionally. There were some parts of Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes that did, but not as intense as what you described with this book.

  4. I’m sure you’d like it, Greg. I kept thinking how you should be reading it.

  5. Now, I’m even more intrigued.

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