This is going on THE shelf.
That shelf where you proudly display that rare group of books you consider to be dear to your soul.
Before this book, I hadn’t had a good run with anthologies. This was because of the anthologies I was forced to read during college and other fiction-related academic programs I had taken, and they tended to be in the realistic fiction genre. Let me tell you, there is such thing as reading too much realistic fiction. For me, at least.
But not for science fiction.
Oh no, my dear readers, I quickly learned that, for me, there is no such thing as reading too much science fiction. This book has restored my faith in anthologies. And there is not a single story in there that I disliked. Were some better than others? Or rather, appealed to me more than others? Certainly. But I enjoyed each and every story.
Part Human. Part Machine. All Soldier.
The entirety of this collection revolves around the idea of armor in a science fiction context. A fair lot of them are also what I would describe as military science fiction, as the armor is almost always used in a militarized context. The fact that the book revolves around armor, does, in fact, allow for a lot of creative freedom. Some stories are about heavy infantry with mechanized armor as their most prized weapon on the battlefield, depicting armor as a tool, or a means to an end, while other stories describe sentient armor, some acting as AI aids to their soldiers, others beings all their own. A wide range of possibilities are explored within this book.
I’d love to review all of the stories, but that’s a bit impractical. Let’s give you a table of contents, to at least skim the titles and imagine what kind of story might be contained within, and then I’ll move on to pick a couple of my favorites to review.
There’s an amazing Foreword by Orson Scott Card (an author I revere for his work in Ender’s Game), and of course an Introduction by John Jospeh Adams himself, and then we launch into a rich collection of stories: “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 of 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 Buekes, “Sticks and Stones” by Robert Beuttner, “Helmet” by Daniel H. Wilson, and “The N-Body Solution” by Sean Williams.
Yes. That’s quite a list.
Let’s start with honorable mentions. “Transfer of Ownership”, “The Poacher”, and “Helmet” certainly deserve theirs. And again, there isn’t a story in here that I didn’t at least like, so it’s hard to whittle it down to my top favorites.
The ones I’d like to review are “Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest of Things”, “Trauma Pod”, “Nomad”, and “The Green”. However, due to the length in which I’d like to discuss them, I’ll stick to the first two for now. I’ll keep it brief to just spark your interest. “Nomad”, “The Green”, and the honorable mentions will probably be discussed in a later post. So let’s begin.
“Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest of Things” by Simon R. Green
This has one of my favorite opening lines of all time. ALL TIME.
They threw me into Space and then dropped me into Hell, with just a dead woman’s voice to comfort me.
They should have known better. They should have known what would happen.
*kisses fingertips* Perfection.
Our main character was put into his super-advanced mech suit against his will as a “second chance”, or “mercy”, and as payment he’s forced to carry out hellish missions. He’s currently being deployed with eleven others just like him to a planet named Abaddon–just another name for Hell.
They’re tasked with guard duty while the terra-forming equipment is being put together to turn this hellish plane into something habitable. And everything wants to kill them. It’s as if the whole planet is alive, and enraged. The planetary surface is a thick jungle filled with plants that seem to contain some sort of sentience, or enough of an awareness to attack these soldiers with a frightening vengeance born out of pure hatred. Green does a wonderful job of describing how everything hates them. Even as they enter the atmosphere, during their initial arrival:
I could hear the wind howling outside the ship, screeching like a living thing, hating the new arrival that pierced its atmosphere like a knife. The Captain was right. We’d come to a world that hated us.
What’s more is that they’re going to Base Three. Three. Yes, that implies failure in the first two. Base One was solely comprised up of machines, and the jungle overtook it. Base Two had a human crew, most of them encased in mechs like our main character, but one day Command lost contact with them. They all vanished.
The environment is so hostile that three of our main character’s squad die on the two-mile trek from the landing pad to Base Three. The way the jungle comes alive to try and tear them apart, and how easily the main character rips the jungle apart in turn with its enhanced strength due to its armor, is brilliantly described.
However, the main character starts asking questions as to why the jungle is on a rage-fueled mission to obliterate them from the planetary surface, and what happened to the human crew of Base Two. The answers he finds change his view of the world forever.
I love everything about it. The description of Abaddon, and how Abaddon in itself is really a character, the dehumanized nature of the mechanized soldiers, the mystery of the previous Bases, the AI voice and the main character’s slowly-revealed backstory, all of it. It’s beautifully written, and satisfying. It occupies a special place in my writer’s heart.
“Trauma Pod” by Alastair Reynolds
Sergeant Mike Kane wakes up inside of a trauma pod with an amputated right leg and a brain bleed. There’s a real-time connection with a surgeon back at Tango Oscar base named Doctor Annabel Lyze, who uses the trauma pod to interact with him and fix him the best that she can till an extraction team can come and rescue him. Most of the battlefield has been mechanized, and few human soldiers are used. So why is he here? Here’s the extremely interesting and plot-relevant reason:
Ah, yes. Deep recon squad. I remember the others’ names now. Me, Rorvik, Lomax. Robotics specialists, tasked to observe the behavior of our Mechs, and our enemy’s units, under real-time combat conditions. The reason? No one was saying. But the rumors weren’t hard to pick up. Some of our units were going rogue. It was said to be happening to the enemy machines as well. No one had a clue why.
Actually, we had some theories. We cram our Mechs with sufficient autonomy to make them independent of human control. We give them wits and smarts, and then wonder why they start doing stuff we didn’t ask them to.
Not my problem now, though.
After long hours with Doctor Anna Lyze, some complications with his brain bleed, and the theatre around him becoming more volatile by the second, Mike decides to take control of the trauma pod’s field medical unit (a robot outfitted with enough weapons for me to assure you that it should not be trifled with) in order to move to a more stable location.
After Annabel fixes Mike’s an out-of-body sensation that there was another body in the pod despite being its only occupant, more complications begin to occur. The narration–and the way this was executed was not only pure genius but a pleasure to read, despite how confusing it sounds–starts to blur the lines between Mike and the trauma pod as he uses its sensors to navigate through the battlefield.
MINOR SPOILER: Annabel has a secret, and Mike’s encounter with his extraction team does not proceed as you would expect. END MINOR SPOILER
The narration really makes this story. The way the point of view is muddled is incredibly intriguing, and leaves you guessing. I’ve reread it several times, and hope to someday have the privilege of utilizing this writing technique.
I’ll continue my discussion of the other stories on a later date. For now, I hope these two stories might have sparked your interest. If not, take a look at the list of titles and see if those do. Like I said, this book explores the idea of powered armor in numerous ways. I’m sure you’ll find something more suited to your taste within this book. Provided you like science fiction and the concept of power armor, of course.
till next time,