Powered Armor in Science Fiction (Books)

As some of you may have guessed from reading my stories, I’m a fan of advanced armor for soldiers in science fiction. I’m talking today about the types of armor, specifically strength-augmenting armor. There are four major types to be found in science fiction, specifically books. These have shown up in movies and video games, but I’m focusing on origins in fiction. Which is not to say I won’t mention a game, movie, or comic if it is appropriate.

Soft Armor. These are essentially tight fitting spacesuits that have some degree of strength augmentation, usually in the form of reflex plastics or, in older works, hydraulic exoskeletons. The skin of these suits is usually something like Kevlar, flexible metal mesh, or reflex plastics with piezo-electric sensors designed to harden the material under impact. The strength augmentation is usually very low, mainly just enough to compensate for the weight of the suit. These are mostly found in near-future science fiction.

Open-Air Powered Armor. These are essentially just a hydraulic exoskeleton worn over conventional ballistic armor or even just clothes or uniforms. While not really armor itself, it is still a staple of near future science fiction. I felt it warranted a mention here, because it does augment the wearer’s strength.

Piloted Suits (Mecha). Some authors have written about armor that is actually just a small walker talk instead of something worn. These are usually called mechs. The pilot sits in the torso of the vehicle and controls it in various ways, from mind-impulse to levers and pedals. The smallest of these stand only four or five meters, while the largest are sometimes as large as skyscrapers. Personally, I like the smaller ones. The larger ones just seem to vulnerable to heavy weapons, missiles, and nukes.

Cybernetic Powered Armor. These suits of armor are worn like a second skin by the user. Familiar to most people from the Iron Man movies, these have been a part of science fiction for far longer than people usually think. I use the term cybernetic because these suits are really just an extension of the of the soldier when worn. They augment the capabilities of the wearer with heightened strength, speed, protection, and senses.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll now talk a little about the history of powered armor in books, at least as I was exposed to and inspired by them. I highly recommend all of the following books if you haven’t read them. If you have, read them again. You’ll get different things from them at different points in your life, trust me.

The Lensman Series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. While the series as a whole has armored space suits, it is actually not until the fourth book Grey Lensman (originally serialized in Astounding in 1939) that we see the first cybernetic powered armor in science fiction. While somewhat primitive by modern standards, the armor that Kinnison wears really is astounding. It heavily armored, no vulnerable faceplate, strength augmented, and carries energy shields and heavy weapons. It is direct ancestor of powered armor in fiction and pre-dates Iron Man (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963) by twenty-four years! The story has psionics, wormholes (hyperspatial tubes), and other dimensions.  It influenced Robert A. Heinlein and many others, including myself.

Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein. The APE suits in this book are described as somewhere between powered armor and a piloted suit. These are arguably the origin of mecha in science fiction as it predates the first appearance in Japanese anime by four years and had a profound impact on science fiction as a whole. The story follows a members of the mobile infantry through his life and several battles. The suits carry a frightening array of weapons, up to and including Davy Crocket scale tactical nuclear weapons. Planet fall is made through orbital drop pods (a first) and the suits have heads-up displays (another first), and jump jets. The story is nothing like the terrible movie and well-worth reading. It also has a few characters with low-level psionics. It is worth noting that the armor of the video game Fallout 4 is very close to the APE suits as described in Starship Troopers.

The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman. This classic story is more about the effects of war on people and societies than about the war itself. That is not to say that it doesn’t have some very good combat sequences, it does. The powered armor of the novel is well thought out. In the novel it is not so much about armor, as strength amplification. The suits are armored plastic (plasteel), designed to be space suits that are more sturdy that the fabric ones today. The primary weapon is the laser finger, a built-in system that can be tuned to different levels of power and is used as both a weapon and a building tool. The story is unusual in that the ship are limited to light speed, but do use black holes (collapsars) to shortcut vast distances. Relativity is still a major problem, and the characters live thousands of objective years while only living through several subjective years. Drawing heavily on Haldeman’s experiences from the Vietnam War, The Forever War is an essential read for anyone who likes military science fiction for more than just war stories.

Armor (1984) by John Steakley. The author was asked if he had been inspired by Starship Troopers and responded “Borrowed hell, I outright stole it.” I don’t think that is a fair view of the novel. It owes much in the early part of the novel to Heinlein’s novel, but other then one scene, which I took as an homage, it is a brilliant war novel in its own right. The armor in the story is powerful, fusion-powered, with high strength augmentation. While the first half of the novel is non-stop action, it is more about the people fighting, than the war. It is a study on the effects of combat on people. The second half of the novel is really more about people who want to know about war stories. It is about how people try to live through other peoples memories. Granted, being science fiction, it is a little more literal than people asking inane questions like “how many people have you killed?” to soldiers. It also has a bit of the “be careful what you wish for” when asking questions. Also, I really love the original cover art.