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:

  • Use swift, brisk diction. Do not get bogged down trying to describe exactly how your hero rolled on the ground and brought his gun up to fire at the top of each arc. Just say he hit the ground shooting. Please.
  • Use onomatopoeic language. This doesn’t mean you should use Batman-esque words like “biff!” and “zuff!” (kudos to anyone who gets that reference). Rather, you should use quick, “tough” phrases instead of longer, Latinate expressions. Here’s an extreme example: “He pommeled the miscreant, then surveyed the domicile,” versus “He punched out the crook, then looked around the house.” Writers often become enamoured of their large vocabulary (and I speak from experience here, as Ed will tell you), but if there’s any place in your writing to stow that crap, it’s action scenes.
  • 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.

    1. Funny, when I first saw Starship Troopers, I immediately thought of the X-O Manowar and Armorines from Valiant Comics in the early nineties. I didn’t know at that time that the movie was based on a novel published some 30 years prior, so now I wonder if those two books, which follow a fight against Spider aliens by humans (with armor technology taken from those same aliens).

      Now I learn of this Armor book and also wonder if it also inspired those comics. Too bad Valiant died off the way they did. They were doing some really good stuff there.

    2. “…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.”
      Sooooo, Captain Barbossa shows up to save the day. Nice!!!

      Also, in regards to writers flaunting their large vocab, I feel the need to clarify. There is no shame in possessing and exercising a large change purse of the ten-cent-ers. But it all comes down to time and place. Whip those puppies out for the essays and dissertations. When writing for a mass audience keeps things at a 14 year-old reading level. That’s the golden rule in the newspaper biz and I think it applies elsewhere, too. Nothing kills my momentum in reading a piece than having to pop over to to decipher what it is I just read. And this is coming from a guy with a Journalism degree who has a sizeable vocab of his own (although I’m not in the Heavyweight class by any stretch.)

      Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t mean to knock you for tossing the big words around, I’m just looking to apply some friendly constructive criticism. If you want your readers to stay engaged, you’ve got to coddle them a bit.

      For what it’s worth, I have had to make far fewer trips to the dictionary over the past several months. Either you’ve made some changes in your prose or… you’re getting Dumber!!! : )

    3. For what it’s worth, I have had to make far fewer trips to the dictionary over the past several months. Either you’ve made some changes in your prose or… you’re getting Dumber!!! : )

      A little from column A, a little from column B…

      @Sean—I’d forgotten about X-O Manowar, but from what I know of it, it does sound rather inspired by Starship Troopers and possibly Armor. When you play Halo, you’re playing with a character wearing powered armor inspired by both those books (according to Bungie themselves).

      That said, one of the many, many disappointing things about the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers (aside from the misplaced fascist satire) is the complete lack of powered armor, which is probably the original novel’s most lasting contribution to spec fiction. This may be at least partially due to the fact that originally the movie’s script wasn’t based on Starship Troopers; it was just called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine or something, and the filmmakers bought the rights to Heinlein’s novel late into pre-production. Also, apparently Paul Verhoeven (who peaked with Robocop and Total Recall, then began a long slide into irrelevance with Basic Instinct, Showgirls and this movie) didn’t even finish reading the Heinlein novel because he found it “depressing.”

      The theme of the novel—from my reading anyway—is the value of civil service. It’s not a jingoistic book, though it does downplay some of the negative elements of the military experience. But it’s definitely not espousing the “fascist” philosophy the movie tries to satirize.

    4. Kate left a comment on February 28, 2007 at 10:19 am

      Well said! I’m currently reading the latest Stephen King, and while I have been/always will be a fan (although a fan who wholeheartedly believes later SK could really benefit from a good editor and fewer folksy turns of phrase, which he used to use to great effect but are now a crutch), I’m having the same problem: IT TAKES FREAKING FOREVER. It’s hard to notice because the book reads so quickly, but it reads so quicky because he describes every single freaking second instead of getting to the point–you can skip over entire paragraphs and not lose your footing. It’s a suspense novel, for crying out loud–stop stalling! And it’s really good, actually, but could have been briliant if someone at his publishing house had sat down and said, “Mr. King, sir, um…you can lose approximately thirty percent of the text. No, seriously. Just CUT IT OUT.” He had the same problem with Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower (though I liked Song of Susannah because it didn’t feel as padded, so I know he still can write lean if he wants to). It’s like he knows where he wants to go and is dangling it in front of us, marking time with paragraphs that don’t do anything except mark time.

    5. Yeah, if you remember, the X-O Manowar class armor was actually alive/sentient/symbiotic/whatever, which added a good dimension to differentiate it from something like Iron Man… sort of like a Venom /Iron Man mashup (ugh, I can’t believe I just used that term). Anyway, it was a good book and the one that got me started on Valiant as a whole. I think my favorite book from them turned out to be Harbinger.

      Now I have to go look up jingoistic…

    6. Ed left a comment on March 1, 2007 at 8:10 am

      @Kate: If you get the chance, check out my article on the DT series (and where I think King went astray) over at my site and let me know what you think. It’s titled ‘Leaning Tower’ and you can find it on the Home Page by scrolling down to the Recent Entries list.

      Incidentally, King spoke at New York Comic Con last weekend and referenced the DT series as a ‘first draft’ that he may like to rewrite at some point. I’d agree that those last three books could use a fresh coat of paint (and a new engine, and some spark plugs, a nose job, Botox, etc…)

    7. Kate left a comment on March 1, 2007 at 10:28 am

      @ Ed – excellent Tower dissection! And I agree completely: the second I found out he’d written himself into the last book, I cursed the heavens–because The Dark Tower, ironically enough, is when it all really went to shit. I rather enjoyed the stuff with the Breakers and Ted, et. al., honestly didn’t have a problem with Randall buying it via spider baby, but by the time Roland and crew get to the three Stephen Kings effing with their heads? Save me jeebus, was that a wankfest or what?

    8. Big Guy left a comment on March 1, 2007 at 11:44 am

      I just finished and recommened

      Shoeless Joe
      Mysteries of Pittsburgh

      Anyone have anything I should I pick up?

    9. Ed left a comment on March 1, 2007 at 5:07 pm

      @Kate: I, too, found Ted’s inclusion in DT as one of the ‘highlights’ of the last book. I LOVED Hearts in Atlantis and found Brautigan to be a fantastic character. When the Low Men grabbed him at the end of ‘Low Men in Yellow Coats’, they grabbed me too. It was nice to catch up with him and see him help Roland’s cause a bit. Tis a shame Ted never got a chance to meet Pere Callahan. I think they would have got along famously.

      I think the biggest problem I have is that it used to be a real thrill to see King weave the DT mythos into his other ‘stand-alone’ books. The painting in Rose Madder. The clinic battle in Insomnia. The Low Men in Hearts. And of course Randall Flagg in all his greatest hits appearances from The Stand on down through Eyes of the Dragon and of course, DT. King did a good job expanding his universe while tying everything together.

      In contrast, the last few DT books read like one of those cheap parody flicks (ex. Epic Movie) where they sprinkle in as many pop-culture references with no actual joke or reason for the reference to be there other than “Hey, look!!! That guy looks like Borat. And he just said “It’s NIIIIICE!!!” just like the real Borat. That’s so frakkin’ funny!!!”

      King just kept name-dropping characters without cohesively tying it all together.

      So sad!!! (And Yes – this post has been brought to you by the Symbol ‘!’)

    Comments are closed.