Sadly, for those who write introductions and forewords for anthologies, I often only glance at them in passing, then move on to the good stuff – the stories. In this instance, the first sentence of the foreword by Orson Scott Card leapt out and grabbed me, just as the first line of a good story should. I read the entire thing and enjoyed it. Card had many thought-provoking things to say about why someone wears armour and who that person is, essentially, a theme explored by many of the stories in the anthology.
I went on to read the introduction by John Joseph Adams, the editor of the anthology and also enjoyed his thoughts on the subject matter. John Adams is an accomplished anthology editor and he has pulled together a compelling selection of stories in ‘Armored’. Apparently, it’s the first anthology of its type about mechs, power armour and bio-suits. My only question was, why did they wait so long?
As always, when you read an anthology, some names will stand out and others will be unfamiliar. As always, I leapt in without prejudice and read every single story. Based on the author list alone, I had an idea which stories I would find entertaining. I did stumble across a few surprises, however, and I made a couple of new discoveries which means my pile of books to be read has grown by another approximate dozen.
The very first story, ‘The Johnson Maneuver’ by Ian Douglas, perfectly explores the idea laid out in the foreword, that regardless of how much power and how many gadgets we put inside mechanised armour, it still comes down to the man inside. From this story onward, the authors explore armour from the inside out. Some of the stories are written from the perspective of plausibly sentient AIs while others are set in a low tech settings, the armour itself little more than a collection of steam-powered joints and plates. Not all of the stories occur in a far flung future. ‘The Last Days Of The Kelly Gang’ by David Levine and ‘Don Quixote’ by Carrie Vaughn are the notable exceptions.
One of my favourite stories in the anthology was ‘The Cat’s Pajamas’ by Jack McDevitt. I have been a fan of McDevitt for years and he is one of the few authors I run out and buy hardcovers from. They make a nice line on my bookshelves, the spines of the Alex Benedict novels, the Priscilla Hutchins novels and just about everything else in between. ‘The Cat’s Pajamas’ features Priscilla Hutchins on an early mission that quickly becomes anything but routine. While it’s always great to read another ‘Hutch’ story, the stars of this story are Jake and the cat they find aboard an abandoned research vessel. In a sideway step familiar to regular readers of Jack McDevitt, Jake proves that extraordinary men and women do not necessarily need to ‘wear’ their armour in order to do great things.
A story that will haunt me for some time and send me out in search of new novels was ‘Hel’s Half-Acre’ by Jack Campbell. Author of ‘Stark’s War’ and the ‘Lost Fleet’ novels, Jack Campbell has a deft touch with military Science Fiction. He does not baffle the reader with overly technical terms and remembers that the men and women behind the guns or, in this instance, in the mechanised armour, are very human.
Jack Campbell’s combination of humour and horror caught me from the very first paragraph. The setting is an inhospitable planet and the war sounds like most wars, the rhyme and reason are lost beneath the relentless need to capture the next ridge or forward position. The soldiers are encased in armour that does everything except think for them, though it tries. After carrying out manoeuvres that strengthens their position, the unit is ordered to do something seemingly irrational. It is only afterwards that the reader finds out exactly what the mechanised armour is really capable of and it’s just damned scary.
One of the stories that truly surprised me was ‘Find Heaven And Hell In The Smallest Things’ by Simon R. Green. I have tried to read Simon Green’s fantasy and found it not to my taste. The tone of this story was bleak, however, which of course meant I liked it. The soldiers in this story are fighting plants, vicious and voracious vegetation intent on halting any attempt to colonise the planet. This theme, menacing plants, is explored just as effectively by another story in the anthology, ‘The Green’ by Lauren Beukes. In Simon Green’s story, however, the men and women inside the suits are barely trained. In fact, they’re barely there. Victims of accidents on Earth, their leftovers are piled into suits along with the voice of a loved one (as the AI) and dumped onto this new planet to pay for their medical costs. It’s macabre and, as expected, they don’t adjust well. A lot of them go missing.
Another haunting theme explored by Alistair Reynolds in ‘Trauma Pod’ and Tanya Huff in ‘You Do What You Do’, is pilots losing themselves in the machines they become integrated with. Both stories introduce the line between human and machine, then catapult the reader across it.
There are twenty-three stories in ‘Armoured’, spanning six hundred pages. I wish I could talk about them all! I cannot, but I will mention a few more.
‘Power Armor: A Love Story’ by David Barr Kirtley was a thoroughly entertaining tale about the man inside the armour. Anthony Blair vows never to leave the armour, believing himself safe. One woman is determined to see them man behind the mask however. ‘Nomad’ by Karin Lowachee is a love story of a different sort, one party being the armour itself. I found the tale and the emotion very touching. ‘Helmet’ by Daniel H. Wilson was an utterly chilling story about who exists inside the faceless armour. Hint: It’s not who you expect! At the opposite end of the spectrum, I giggled my way through ‘Sticks And Stones’ Robert Buettner.
Finally, the last story in the anthology, ‘The N-Body Solution’ by Sean Williams, read more like a novella. Tourists – not your ordinary sort, this is Science Fiction, after all – are stranded on their journey through ‘the loop’. Among them are a man and what might be a woman, her armour makes it hard to tell. The story investigates their pasts and presents, unravelling the mysteries in a very compelling way. The final reveals were unexpected, even after having read twenty-two other stories of a similar genre.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories. Any anthology can begin to feel repetitive after a while, but the variety of authors and their exploration of a simple theme – armour, powered or otherwise – kept me entertained from the first page to the last.
(Read March 2012. Review written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.com)