Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams

Sunday, 06 May 2012 07:23 Joe Giddings

Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams
(Baen, April 2012)

"The Johnson Maneuver" by Ian Douglas
"Hel’s Half-Acre" by Jack Campbell
"Jungle Walkers" by David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell
"The Last Run of the Coppelia" by Genevieve Valentine
"Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of Great War" by Dan Abnett
"The Cat’s Pajamas" by Jack McDevitt
"Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things" by Simon R. Green
"Power Armor: A Love Story" by David Barr Kirtley
"The Last Days of the Kelly Gang" by David D. Levine
"Field Test" by Michael A. Stackpole
"Trauma Pod" by Alastair Reynolds
"Contained Vacuum" by David Sherman
"You Do What You Do" by Tanya Huff
"Nomad" by Karin Lowachee
"Human Error" by John Jackson Miller
"Transfer of Ownership" by Christie Yant
"Heuristic Algorithm and Reasoning Response Engine" by  Ethan Skarstedt & Brandon Sanderson
"Don Quixote" by Carrie Vaughn
"The Poacher" by Wendy N. Wagner & Jak Wagner
"The Green" by Lauren Beukes
"Sticks and Stones" by Robert Buettner
"Helmet" by Daniel H. Wilson
"The N-Body Solution" by Sean Williams

Reviewed by Joseph Giddings

Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams, brings us twenty-three new stories from authors, some well-known and others not so much.  The concept of armored soldiers and mechanized troops isn't an old one, but this anthology hopes to bring new ideas to the genre, casting off the shackles of standard mechs and power armored soldiers.

The collection begins with "The Johnson Maneuver" by Ian Douglas. Marines on an alien world have an uneasy "peace" with the locals, but the ambassador doesn't want the Marines to do anything about the aliens who are threatening to take down their gates over a male-territory dispute.  However, one man takes a note from history, and does something to take a stand.  A well written and interesting story that makes the future seem more real when it incorporates something from the real world that we know.

"Hel’s Half-Acre" by Jack Campbell shows us a future where soldiers go into battle wearing full armor, and the suit can even sustain life for a severely wounded soldier.  However, what happens if after customizing it, the AI within learns its occupant so well that it can make decisions for him?  A disturbing tale of how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Worth reading, especially for the ending that doesn't even occur to you until too late.

"Jungle Walkers" by David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell doesn't do much to lend itself to being different, except that the military is using mechs in a jungle setting and having to deal with the facts of heat and humidity on precision equipment.  Matter of fact, for most of the story the only mechs we encounter are enemy mechs.  However, the root of the story here is what matters, and that is despite technology, humans will find ways to overcome overwhelming odds, even when the enemy is decked out in full battle armor and the good guys are just in uniform.

"The Last Run of the Coppelia" by Genevieve Valentine. This time we journey beneath the waves into the depths of an alien ocean, where a salvage ship is looking for marine life that may be of use on other worlds, as medicine and other applications.  As the crew realizes that some marauders are looking to stop their enterprise the battle begins, to save their own lives as well as preserve the ship they need to get home.  Action packed and fast to read, but a little too dry in spots to hold interest.

"Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of Great War" by Dan Abnett is the account of the final days of the last survivor of a Great War, where he and his comrades were placed in special suits that would make them super soldiers.  Of course, it extended their lives to tremendous lengths, and we see how the world changes to them, rendering them obsolete, trapped in the shells that keep them alive.  At the end, peace is welcomed by the veteran, as well as the reader.  Thought provoking and intelligent, a good all around story.

In "The Cat’s Pajamas" by Jack McDevitt a ship arrives at a pulsar, finding the science team left behind in another ship dead and gone.  As the occupants of the ship explore the empty ship, fear sets in as they find a life form on board.  Of course, it's the ship's cat, somehow still alive.  What follows is an amusing story about the lengths they go through to save this cat from certain death.  I enjoyed reading it, as it stood out from the rest of the stories in this book.

"Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things" by Simon R. Green is a dark story, starting with twelve people in hard suits being deployed to a hostile world.  They are nearly impervious, and tote vicious weaponry, all used to fight back the monstrous plants that inhabit the world.  As they work on repairing the terraforming equipment, and try to settle into a long tour of endless and mindless slaughter, we learn that these people were once regular people who were injured in some way; the only way to keep them alive being to place them in what amounts to walking coffins.  As our main character desires release, the planet offers it to him.  I found the story disturbing and sad.  And, at the end when we learn how he will gain transcendance, I found it all very lackluster.  Skip this one if you are just picking and choosing stories at random.

"Power Armor: A Love Story" by David Barr Kirtley.  Again, we are presented with another kind of mech story, where a man who to the rest of the world seems to be a genius, is actually from the future.  He vows never to remove his armor, for if he does it would leave him vulnerable to assassins from his own time.  However, when he meets one directly, he attempts to win her over, and in time they fall in love.  An ending that is sure to keep you guessing wraps this one up.  I feel this is one of the better stories in the volume, and I highly recommend it.

"The Last Days of the Kelly Gang" by David D. Levine brings us a great Steampunk story set in the Old West.  A gang of outlaws comes across a pile of scrap metal, and they bully a well known inventor to build them a machine to help them take over a town and fend off the marshals who will come to stop them.  He builds their device, but knows in the end that he will be doing a bad thing if he lets them get away with their plans.  In a satisfying ending to a well told tale, the inventor gets his due, and through his machine, a new lease on his career.  This is Steampunk done right.

"Field Test" by Michael A. Stackpole shows us modern warfare, if we had mechs to go into hostile territory and rescue captured non-combatants.  Back at HQ two soldiers survey the battlefield and control a drone while the pilot of a new piece of equipment surfaces in enemy territory and starts to go get what is ours.  Politics intervene, of course, but our heroes stay the course and make a daring rescue, while in the process of scaring the wits out of the enemy and successfully field testing a new mech.  Great story with a satisfying ending, which I highly recommend.

"Trauma Pod" by Alastair Reynolds is a dark story about how, on the battlefields of the future, wounded soldiers can be contained in pods that provide emergency surgery and support.  However, when the man who invented the AI that controls the soldiers on the field is wounded and trapped in hostile territory, he learns the horrible truth about the AI he has created.  After joining his mind to the computer in his trauma pod in an effort to escape the battlefield, he learns too late that the AI’s newly gained sentience is only a single misstep away, still imperfect.  Good story with a disturbing ending that will leave you uncomfortable.

"Contained Vacuum" by David Sherman is standard fare, soldiers moving in to check out a derelict ship and discover what happened to its crew and cargo.  While action packed, entertaining, and showing off some cool technology and new tactics, it really didn't bring anything new to the genre that this anthology supports.  A fun read, nothing more.

"You Do What You Do" by Tanya Huff is about doing what it takes to succeed, even if it means connecting yourself to a tank-like machine to get your team out of danger.  A fast moving, action-packed story that again shows the dangers of connecting the human brain and its accompanying senses to a machine.  While not the dark story Alastair Reynolds gave us in "Trauma Pod," with that story fresh in mind you may expect this one to turn that general direction.  However, this one is more positive, and worth a read.

Karin Lowachee 's "Nomad" describes a world where a human and a machine are joined early in life, so they can grow together, learn together, and adapt together in a dangerous world.  However, what happens when the mech and human are separated by the death of the human, and how does the AI cope with that loss of half of its self?  Can it join with another being and be as happy?  A strange tale about loss and how an AI may deal with it.

Once again, "Human Error" by John Jackson Miller is more of an action story than anything else, again showing the ingenuity of humans over overwhelming odds.  However, this time they have powered armor and weapons at their disposal.  Problem is, they are designed for an alien species.  They have to figure out how to overcome this major limitation and save their base.  A decent enough story, if a little predictable.

"Transfer of Ownership" by Christie Yant is another take on the separation of man and machine.  When a human kills a sentient mech's occupant and attempts to claim it for himself, it finds the suit to be willful and unwilling to cooperate.  Mourning the loss of its companion, the suit fights back, and at the end, gains its freedom.  This is a unique story, written from the perspective of the machine.

"Heuristic Algorithm and Reasoning Response Engine" by  Ethan Skarstedt & Brandon Sanderson takes us to a world where sentient machines are the invaders.  Our characters are paired up, one in a mech and the other in a support aircraft.  We follow them as they determine how advanced the invaders are (they follow a routine progression, which allows the humans to determine the risk) and try to save the people of the planet.  A story of heroism and sacrifice, even in the face of certain death.  In my opinion, the best story in the anthology.

"Don Quixote" by Carrie Vaughn takes us back to the Spanish Civil war.  Franco has all but won the war, but a group of soldiers try to make their way back to friendlier lands.  They run across some men who have constructed a massive machine that can lay waste to anything in its path.  The reporter with them gets pictures and a story, but not before they decide that something has to be done to ensure that this device isn't duplicated.  An interesting story, but nothing spectacular.

"The Poacher" by Wendy N. Wagner & Jak Wagner features a woman who has returned to Earth to help preserve it, as it is now a wildlife preserve and humans live elsewhere in the galaxy.  Since she is used to the lack of gravity on the Moon, she wears a special suit to protect her from what would be Earth’s crushing gravity.  It also keeps her alive as she pursues what at first she thinks to be a poacher, but instead finds out is something entirely different.  I found this story fun and exciting, but in the end had nothing to recommend itself beyond that.

"The Green" by Lauren Beukes is probably one of the more disturbing stories in the book, as it involves a plant native to the world the scientists are exploring.  This plant bonds with a dead human, making it walk around and move almost as if alive.  However, when the scientists encounter more unusual plants, these being hostile and extremely dangerous, we learn that their suits can not only be a help, but also a hindrance.  A well written story that I found interesting and different than the rest of the stories in the book.

"Sticks and Stones" by Robert Buettner is one of the better stories in the collection.  On a world seeded with human life, more advanced humans decide to visit, determining how far along the path of civilization and technology the people have progressed.  When the dominant humans are about to eliminate an entire society of their lessers, the humans observing intervene, but in a way that allows them all to realize the need to talk, not just destroy each other.  An interesting twist on "David and Goliath."

"Helmet" by Daniel H. Wilson will disturb and at the same time keep you turning pages, as we experience the horror of an oppressive world where people live in fear of a triumvirate of rulers who use large robotic men to quell dissent.  As one of the oppressed is captured and converted into one of these machines, we feel the horror he feels at being unable to control his body as he performs horrible deeds.  His constant companion is a female machine, whom we are horrified to meet in the end.  However, the ending satisfies as justice is done to those who deserve it.

"The N-Body Solution" by Sean Williams closes the book with a very confusing albeit deep story that seems to require a little more knowledge of the universe than even I possess.  While I found the story to be very engrossing, at the end I found myself scratching my head, wondering what had just happened.  Maybe a little more explanation was needed, or perhaps I needed to be in a different mindset when reading it.  Regardless, it's a good end to a great anthology and at the same time, also makes the book feel complete, like a journey has ended.

Overall, I found Armored to be exciting and refreshing.  Having a deep love for the type of stories featured in this vollection, I couldn't wait for it to be released.  I wasn't disappointed, and neither will anyone else who loves a good science fiction story about people and the armor they wear, be it in combat or peace.