Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams

Armored is a new collection of stories from Baen Books edited by John Joseph Adams, all based around the idea of powered armor. The idea of powered exoskeletons as weapons of war is a venerable one in the science fiction genre, figuring prominently in books such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and one of my personal favorite novels, John Steakly's Armor.

This collection contains 23 stories by authors including Alastair Reynolds, Jack McDevitt, Sean Williams, Tanya Huff, and Michael Stackpole, and Dan Abnett, plus a foreword by Orson Scott Card and an introduction by John Joseph Adams

I really like this collection. It's got lots of action, some interesting speculative ideas, a few lighthearted stories that are quite fun, and some effective emotional moments, including one of the more shudder-inducing climaxes I've encountered recently (No points for guessing that it's the Alastair Reynolds story.)

Many of the stories in Armored are in the military science fiction subgenre, naturally enough, such as “The Johnson Maneuver” by Ian Douglas, “Jungle Walkers” by David Klecha and Tobias Buckell, and “Contained Vacuum” by David Sherman. However, there's quite a variety of other genres represented as well, along with settings that range from extremely near-future Earth to more distant futures among the stars to fanciful alternate histories. Beyond the common element they all share, they're also enjoyably diverse in subject matter. Aside from the obvious subject of exploring the battlefield implications of powered armor, there's also quite a bit about relationships between humans and artificial intelligences, the blurring of man and machine, and the struggle for survival in alien and inhospitable environments, among other things.

Standout stories for me include:

“Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of Great War” by Dan Abnett- One of the shortest entries in the collection, told in first person by the eponymous veteran as he recounts his life. He gave up his chance for a normal life and much of his human body to become part of an elite corp of supersodliers physically merged with powered armor “shells”- only to rapidly become obsolete as the technology marched onward and then left cruelly diminished in both body and mind when his worn-out shell- including the electronic storage containing much of his memory of his years joined to the shell- had to be removed.

This story has an excellent premise, and Abnett uses it very well. The story's description of the pitilessly rapid obsolescence and irrelevance of men who had been at the apex of human capability and given up everything to achieve it is both powerful and quite plausible. The sense of loss and sadness is palpable, and made all the more poignant by the stoically matter-of-fact way the narrator tells his story.

“Hel’s Half-Acre” by Jack Campbell- Darkly humorous story of a front-line infantry unit whose soldiers each have their own personal AI riding along in their powered armor, mostly to threaten them into line.

"Jungle Walkers" by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell- American Marines in a fairly near-future South America find themselves caught unprepared and facing down a column of powered-armored invaders when conflict erupts on the Colombian-Venezulean border.

What I found interesting is how much of it involves things going wrong. The Americans have their own armor, but are forced to fight without it because their superiors didn't anticipate the maneuverability and maintenance problems the armor faced in the Colombian jungle, and the Marines consequently resorted to doing routine patrols unarmored. The Venezuelan invaders, meanwhile, are using new military technology bought from the Chinese that they have little familiarity or experience with. It's a good action story, and it was interesting to see a story where the protagonists aren't the guys with the fearsome new technology.

“The Last Days of the Kelly Gang" by David D. Levine- Outlaws force a reclusive inventor to build a steam-powered 3,000 pound suit of powered armor in 19th century Australia. Lots of fun.

“Trauma Pod” by Alastair Reynolds- A human officer on a battlefield dominated by autonomous bipedal war machines called Mechs is badly wounded, kept alive in a survival pod that protects him and allows a military surgeon far from the battlefield to treat him remotely until he can be extracted. Frustrated as that extraction is repeatedly delayed while he sits helpless and unable to do his job while the battle rages around him, he orders the Mech sent to watch over his pod to bring him aboard.

I won't say what happens next, except that it's chillingly horrifying in a similar vein to Reynolds' other horror-oriented science fiction like “Diamond Dogs”- cold, creepy, with the more viscerally (literally or figuratively) horrifying elements being less disturbing than the minds that bring them about. Despite being a horror story, it remains science fiction in the purest sense- the scientific underpinnings of the premise are inextricable from the events, and the story could not be translated to a different genre and remain intact

“Power Armor: A Love Story” by David Barr Kirtley- Present-day (more or less) story about a time-traveling inventor from a totalitarian future who fled into our era. He's encased himself in an invulnerable suit of powered armor that he never, ever takes off, for fear of the assassins he knows the rulers of his original era have sent after him- one of whom has found him, and seeking a way to get at him through defenses no weapon can penetrate.

The premise is interesting, there's a lot of humor, and despite the light tone the story and main character also had considerable emotional power. The central metaphor of a man who's walled himself off behind a protective shell is sort of obvious, but it works, and in some ways is more subtle than it initially seems in ways that give it more emotional punch. (The protagonist comes from a particular background, the armor was built in a context related to that background and is worn because of a specific type of threat- if you stop at “this guy wears armor all the time” you're missing most of it.

“Helmet” by Daniel H. Wilson- Dark, rather chilling story where the protagonist lives with his little brother in a devastated city periodically terrorized by the central government's marauding powered-armored troop- until he finds himself carried off to be made one himself. It's very creepy, has a compelling main character, and has one of those moments that I love in science fiction where a setting element that doesn't seem to make sense suddenly fits perfectly.

I definitely recommend Armored. It will be of particular interest to military science fiction fans, but there's plenty of good stories beyond that subgenre as well that made it worthwhile for fans of science fiction in general. Also, in light of how common powered armor is in modern gaming- Warhammer 40,000, Halo, Crysis, Fallout, etc.- it might also make a good gift/gateway drug for someone who likes videogames or media franchises with science fiction settings but hasn't had much exposure to written SF.

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