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John Scalzi and John Steakley

I just finished reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a nominee for the 2006 Hugo award, and found myself comparing it to John Steakley’s Armor, published in 1984, which I read a few months ago.

Scalzi’s work is an entertaining read very much in the Heinlein tradition, as noted in the cover blurb by Publisher’s Weekly. The novel’s view of combat is rather blithe; despite relentless battles against aliens on all fronts, an apparently unwinnable war that will span generations, the beheading and maiming and death of various comrades, and the considerable physical damage done to the first-person narrator-soldier, that soldier, Perry, remains psychologically healthy. (The closest he comes to a crisis is feeling like an “inhumane monster” for a few pages, but that feeling is dispensed with easily.) Though he has the option of easier assignments, he asks to return to combat, which he acknowledges himself to be “strangely good” at (311). He is honored for his exploits, and the book ends with the promise of love and a good life tending fields of grain after his eventual retirement.

In contrast, Steakley’s work is far more unsettling. Like Old Man’s War, Armor features endless battles against deadly aliens, and the warrior Felix is likewise strangely good at combat, but Steakley depicts the psychological consequences of war far less blithely, showing how Felix becomes “The Engine” in order to survive. Felix fears, he expects to die, he weeps, he hates, as over and over again he is thrust back into combat by a glitch in the system—and he faces it, encased in a black suit of battle armor. Comrades die, friends die; in battle, he fights on, and after the battle, he reacts. And at the end of the book, well, I can’t spoil the ending, but I’ll take a quote from the final page: “There is no protection from what you want” (426).

I am not a habitual reader of military science fiction, and I’ve never fought in a war, but Felix reminds me of the one Vietnam War veteran I knew well, and Armor affects me more deeply and seems more layered than Old Man’s War.