That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

The Stark Realities of John Steakley’s Military SF Novel Armor

When I was a kid, John Steakley was an author I was immediately interested in for two reasons. He wrote cool, pulpy genre fiction with an emphasis on character dynamics … and he was actually from my home town, Cleburne, TX. In fact, his second novel Vampire$ was partially set in Cleburne, which was even more rad (to use a term from back then). He published that book in 1990, when I was in high school. Buildings that featured in the story, like the Santa Fe railroad depot, took on a new relevance in this place that, honestly, didn’t particularly interest me at the time. And as a wannabe sci-fi writer in rural Texas, knowing someone else from my neck of the woods had made that journey was inspiring. I kind of became fixated on Steakley.

Vampire$ was Steakley’s second novel, and, as it turned out, his last. He disappeared from public view shortly after, and he died in 2010 from liver cancer. It’s also probably Steakley’s more well known book because of the John Carpenter film adaptation (which didn’t really live up to the book’s adaptation potential).

But the novel that stuck with me the most was his first work, Armor (1984): a book clearly influenced by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, yet differentiated by a two-part, two-character narrative, and an uptick in the military-technology angle. Even so, it makes no attempt to hide its affinity for Heinlein’s work.

For instance, in Armor, humanity is at war with an alien race simply called the “ants” by the soldiers that fight them, and Steakley establishes that South America is the first place attacked by the creatures. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein’s war begins when the Arachnids invade Buenos Aires.

At the beginning of Armor, the main character is Felix, a “greener” (or new recruit) about to do his first combat drop into battle as a scout. The planet in question is Banshee, a desolate wasteland, where the air is unbreathable and the water is poisonous, and the initial melee we witness is a travesty of epic proportions that only Felix survives. And it’s not due to luck.

It’s the “Engine,” Felix’s name for a sort of psychological trance that allows him to become “a wartime creature […] a surviving creature.” Basically, a part of Felix’s psyche that takes over to deal with all the horror surrounding him.

Felix is a pretty interesting character. He is the POV character for the beginning of the book (before we switch to a different character’s POV for the rest), with the third-person perspective keeping him at a distance. Felix is quiet and resentful, lamenting the futility of war, especially on an intergalactic scale. He’s fearful but relents to the Engine, allowing it to take charge with little resistance… a decision we can relate to, because we’d all probably wish to just surrender to some stronger part of our psyche if we had to live through this kind of nightmarish scenario day in and day out.

Books like Joe Haldeman’s Forever War do a good job of putting you in the midst of a futile, unending conflict, whose rules of engagement are nonsensical at best, but Armor adds to all of that with one amazing, haunting moment.

It comes at the very end of Felix’s part of the book, where he’s just returned from his first combat drop as the only survivor, exhausted and in pain, stunned by the horror and the violence he’s witnessed.

Back on the ship he hears the alarm tone that signals another combat drop is imminent, a desperate attempt by the military forces to try and repair the terrible loss they’ve just suffered on the planet below by throwing more soldiers into the meat grinder. Felix hides the tremendous relief he feels at knowing he won’t have to go back, at least not yet, and steps into the infirmary. They treat his wounds and wrap him in a thin body suit and he lets himself relax, which is when he figures out that the body suit is exactly the same kind he wears when operating his powered combat armor, or Black Suits.

It’s then that we—both Felix and the readers—figure out he’s not getting a respite at all. He’s going back to Banshee. Right now. Without any rest or down time. In spite of his wounds and exhaustion and horror, because—and this is the more horrifying realization—no one cares about any of that…

In the cubicle, the Black Suit embraced him. Dully, he made Connection and watched the dials respond. Then he sat and wept openly.

Heedless, uncaring, Banshee awaits.

He is a tool. A cog in a giant machine, where human lives become numbers thrown dispassionately into a conflict with nothing but the simple hope that a victory might somehow haphazardly manifest itself. Felix is human, he thinks and he feels … and no one cares. And so he turns to the Engine to survive…

This moment, for me, is awesome because you are totally in Felix’s POV, getting his thoughts in Steakley’s fragmented style as they happen almost in real time. You feel shock (as Felix does) when he is told he’s the only survivor of his combat drop. You feel relief (as Felix does) when he thinks he can rest now and recover and get a reprieve from the nightmare happening on the planet below. And you feel horror (as Felix does) when he realizes in spite of everything, he’s going right back down. That he is trapped in a reality where he will be sent back down over and over again, no matter what he says or does.

It’s like a prose kick in the balls, and it sticks with you.

Steakley had a penchant for characters, and his voice was a unique one. It’s a shame he wasn’t more recognized while he was alive. I’d always heard he was working on the sequel to Armor when he died. It would have been interesting to see how he would have followed up this story so many years later. Either way, his stark vision and commentary in Armor stands the test of time, and is something you should check out if you’re a fan of military sci-fi.

J. Barton Mitchell is an author and screenwriter living somewhere between Austin, TX and Santa Fe, NM. His new novel The Razor (whose genre he describes as “science fiction, prison-planet, action adventure”) is published by Tor Books. It was chosen by Amazon as one of the Best Sci-Fi Books of 2018. Connect with him at: www.jbartonmitchell.com

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