My life, as of late, has consisted primarily of working, playing videogames, and…well, reading on occasion, though I just had to give up the book I was reading because the writing wasn’t very good. It was the second time I’d tried this writer. The first time it was one of his early novels, so I thought I’d give him another shot, but no joy; again, the awkward, stilted writing confounded me. I won’t name the author in the incredibly unlikely event that I ever make it in the industry, but I doubt I’ll be trying him again anytime soon.
I did recently read a novel that I enjoyed immensely: Armor by John Steakley. It’s loosely based on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with the same set-up (humanity is in an intergalactic war with a race of spacefaring giant insects, and the plot battles are fought with soldiers wearing powered armor).
Unlike Heinlein’s novel, which is heavy on the philosophy and light on action and plot (though no less a classic for those reasons), Armor features that incredible rarity that is well-written action. Many writers—especially sf and fantasy writers—haven’t the slightest idea how to convey exciting action scenes in prose. I suspect this may be due to the fact that visual mediums such as movies and comics have taken over most of the action-oriented fare, so there aren’t a lot of examples of good action writing these days. Any writer who intends to write an action-oriented novel should skip the action flicks and study the work of Dashiell Hammett or
Too many writers get caught up in trying to describe every single second of the action. Every movement, every weapon, every moment of the scene is described in excruciating detail. The aforementioned writer whose novel I had to put aside was a particularly good example of this. I’ve heard James Bond creator Ian Fleming was a major perpretator of this as well, but I’ve never read any of the Bond books so don’t take my word for it.
In prose, action is often more effective when it is implied rather than described. A few years ago I wrote “One of a Hundred”, in which the biggest action scene isn’t even shown on-page—the reader only gets to see the aftermath. Anyone who’s read that story has thought it was one of my best, and they liked that particular aspect of it.
Of course, sometimes you have to describe the action, and this is where Steakley shines—as do a few other masters of the genre, such as Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the barbarian). In my experience, there are two rules for writing good action-oriented prose:
Getting back to my main point, Armor contains some of the best action writing I’ve read in years. It was such a breath of fresh air, I realized I’d almost forgotten what good action writing looks like.
But there’s much more to Armor than that. It describes the same situation as Starship Troopers but fleshes it out far more. The first part of the book is told entirely from the perspective of Felix, a soldier in the war against what the humans call the “Ants.” As the book begins, Felix is being dropped onto the Ants homeworld of Banshee. However, unlike the relatively orderly operations described in Starship Troopers, the Banshee operation is FUBAR within seconds.
But Felix’s trials on Banshee only take up part of the novel. There’s a sudden switch to another perspective a hundred pages in. I don’t want to give away too much of what’s going on, but suffice to say that fans of Pirates of the Caribbean may find something familiar in the character who takes over the story at this point. But the plot ties back to Felix by the end, and what’s more, the book has one of the best and most satisfying endings I’ve read in some time.
What’s great about the book is that although it is science fiction, and brings in a good number of sf concepts, it’s still very readable. I’m sure even someone who never reads sf could pick it up and enjoy it.
So, I can’t recommend Armor enough. Anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction—or is just a fan of the Halo videogames or movies like Aliens—should give this book a shot.
Somewhat surprisingly, Steakley has only written two novels—Armor (1984) and Vampire$ (1991), which was adapted into a so-so movie starring James Woods in ’98. He’s reportedly writing a sequel to Armor.
I also read Joe Haldeman’s excellent The Forever War (I’ve been on a military sf kick), but that’s another post.