If there was ever a case study in how two books can topically sound similar but prove so vastly different, it would have to be between Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Steakley’s lesser known but in some ways superior Armor.
Both titles are classified as military science fiction, although the former had a large hand in popularizing the genre. They also involve power armored infantry fighting insect-like alien races for domination of a distant planet. But the similarities end there. Starship Troopers turned the conversation towards how militarism impacted all aspects of life, from the concept of rights to hold public office and vote, the administrative needs of the military and upholding its traditions. Thus, Heinlein’s work was a much more complete, fleshed out world that once understood can write itself.
Armor however was a much more psychological story.
Just before the invasion of planet Banshee, Scout Felix proves himself an exhausted burn out, a possible headcase venturing into the everlasting Antwar. But once deployed, a mental mindset he calls the Engine keeps him alive through a higher state of consciousness, even after his entire company dies and his ammo is expended. Once he reconnects with other survivors and fellow Scout Forest, we discover a little more about the nature of the military and campaign in general. With their escape cut off by the Ants and ammunition running low, they make a desperate plan to survive the next Ant assault.
The other half of the story takes place on planet Sanction. Jack Crow, an infamous pirate, manages a prison escape thanks to Antwar deserter Borglyn. The two strike a deal where Jack will infiltrate and weaken the defenses of planet Sanction, allowing Borglyn to raid it for a valuable power source. But during his mission Jack finds himself taken in by the research of Director Hollis, who uses Jack as a volunteer to review recordings from an aging suit of scout armor.
Through these recordings, more truths are uncovered of the Antwar, including Felix’s fate and destiny. The military’s eventual success in establishing a base on Banshee, their real reason for doing so and the disturbing impact of war on Felix, who comes to fear removing his armor. That the man shuns disarmament from facing the whetstone so often is… telling, of his nature. Of who he becomes.
While Starship Troopers was more tactical and re-envisioning of culture as a whole, Armor was more brutal, personal and didn’t open the door to politics until the very end. Fight scenes quickly devolved from gunfights to hand-to-hand battles, the story wrought with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. While Felix’s parts are told from the third person perspective, Jack Crow’s are delivered in the first, further reminding us that the plot thread is ultimately the present-telling-us-the-past type tale and leaving no promises as to Felix’s survival.
Themes of fate and destiny sprout from Steakley’s tale, such that with its conclusion, something stays with you. A cloying sense of truth that supersedes the science fiction theoretical. A grimness that that doesn’t stick to one’s soul but rather emerges from it. While most science fictions hold knowledge and reason in high esteem to appeal to the mind, Armor tugs at the brain’s base, at the roots of who we are. There may never again be a story quite like it.