Armor by John Steakley (book review).

An interesting little fact is the blurb on the back cover of the ‘Armor’ paperback has the title ‘Universal Soldier’ although this 2010 re-released book has nothing to do with the 1992 Hollywood film of the same name starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In fact, this book precedes the film by eight years making it very nearly thirty years old. The back cover tells us it is the story of Felix, a scout with the commando forces. He is equipped with powered, self-contained armour that gives the wearer exceptional strength and speed. I’m using the English spelling of ‘armour’ here to stop the spell checker flagging the US spelling of ‘armor’ and underlining it with a red wavy line. The scout’s armour isn’t as strong or as powerful as the commando’s as speed is the primary requirement.


Felix is about to undertake his first drop into a combat zone although he feels woefully unprepared for active military duty given the little amount of training he has received. He not only fears for himself but for all the other personnel on the drop. The sense of foreboding and fatalism is prevalent throughout part one of the novel which is itself titled ‘Felix’. It should not be a surprise as Felix is subject to drop after drop and is either the sole or one of the very few survivors to make it. Apart from his knack of surviving, there is something rather strange about Felix. We don’t know who he is or where he came from as no back story is provided. We do know his personality becomes home to what Felix calls the Engine. This initially takes over in extreme situations allowing Felix’s personality to cower while the carnage unfolds. The Engine seems to engage when Felix dons his powered armour as though it is part of his body and is slowly coming to dominate him.

‘Armor’ is divided into five parts with only parts one and four specifically about Felix. Parts two and three and most of part five are about Jack Crow which came as something of a surprise as there’s no mention of a Jack Crow in the text on the back of the novel. It specifically states that this is Felix’s story. To be fair, we do eventually get Felix’s story but from page 93 to page 261, Jack Crow dominates. The thing is Jack Crow is also a very strange character and is himself an exceptional killing machine. As parts two and three unfold, we do get some of hints into Crow’s past but by no means do we get the full story.

Crow’s story starts with him breaking out from an alien prison to take refuge on a pirate vessel. He is then tasked by the captain of said vessel to infiltrate a scientific outpost and render its defences useless. In common with Felix, Crow spends a lot of time in introspection. Some of this is done well, while other bits not so well. As the author Steakley make it difficult for himself with the Jack Crow character as he’s almost completely emotionally detached from the characters around him. He also seems to be surprised by the situations he finds himself in and people’s reactions to him.

The final part of the book titled ‘Armor’ brings the disparate story threads together with just a very short epilogue required to round off the sharp edges of an otherwise complete story. The issue I have with ‘Armor’ is probably due to me as I like to immerse myself in the story and the main character. Just as things begin to reach a critical point with Felix, he goes on holiday and I get immersed with Crow and what seems to be a different story. Crow sticks around for what seems a lot longer before Felix and the original story elbows him out of the way for another session.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this story is very nearly thirty years old but it has certainly stood the test of time. Even reading it now, it’s a futuristic grim reality but there are a couple of things which are clearly a sign of the time when the book was written in. Firstly, both Felix and Crow are heavy smokers. If the current trend continues then smoking may be a banned activity in the near future. Soldiers drinking heavily before an engagement may also become a thing of the past, especially when they have to wear armoured suits that monitor their vital signs. Another thing which is completely missing that I found amusing is aerial drones. They just weren’t on the average person’s radar (pun intended) in the 1980s.

The combat sections are well-written but what may put readers off is that in the thirty years since the book was written many of the ideas have been popularised in feature films, like ‘Iron Man’ and waves of hostile insect aliens in ‘Starship Troopers’. Apart from the mental turmoil combat can inflict on the soldiers, there’s very little here which hasn’t been covered somewhere else.

Andy Whitaker

July 2014

(pub: DAW Books. 426 page paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK), $ 7.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-88677-368-7)

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