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Clothes Make the Man (or Woman):
Techwear and character in scifi

The ‘muscles,’ the pseudo-musculature, get all the publicity but it’s the control of all that power which merits it. The real genius in the design is that you don’t have to control the suit; you just wear it… Two thousand pounds of it, maybe, in full kit – yet the very first time you are fitted into one you can immediately walk, run, lie down, pick up an egg without breaking it (takes a trifle of practice, but anything improves with practice), dance a jig (if you can dance a jig, that is, without a suit) – and jump right over the house next door and come down to a feather landing.
The secret lies with negative feedback and amplification….The suit has feedback which causes it to match any move you make, but with great force….You jump, that heavy suit jumps, but higher than you can jump in your skin….
And that is the beauty of a powered suit: you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it; you just wear it and it takes orders directly from your muscles and does for you what your muscles are trying to do. This leaves you with your whole mind free to handle your weapons and notice what is going on around you… which is supremely important to an infantryman who wants to die in bed.” (ch. 7, pp.79-83)

Makes you want to go pick up a copy now and read the parts I left out, doesn’t it?

Now what I tend to dislike in most of Heinlein’s writing is that he’ll draw you into a great character and describe a wonderfully imagined world – providing you with engaging exposition and suspenseful rising action for seven-eighths of the novel – and then he’ll rush the climax, pretty much skip over the falling action, and jump straight to a mere page or two of denouement. It just seems as if Heinlein suddenly hit his publisher’s word quota and just decided to stop writing. It happens in Troopers, and it happens in many (most?) of his other novels. And it drives me crazy every time. But in a way, this complaint I have in fact winds up being a compliment, because what I’m really saying is that after I’ve put down one of Heinlein’s books I’m always left wanting more.

But back to the suit.

Like Brenner’s bomb suit in Hurt Locker, Rico’s powered suit was not just a major part of the story, it played a major part in defining the character. The opening chapter is as gripping as the initial sequence of Saving Private Ryan, and in it you first learn about Rico through watching what he does with his suit. If you didn’t see the world through his helmet, you wouldn’t understand what it means to him to be M.I.

Such wearable technology often plays a significant role in characterization in scifi. Heinlein’s vision of powered armor obviously inspired similar powered suits in later science fiction, including Ripley’s wearable forklift in Aliens, scads of Battletech material, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and John Steakley’s Armor. In Armor (1986), the “title character” almost takes on a life of its own.

Steakley’s novel is clearly an homage to Starship Troopers. His power-suited protagonist, Felix, fires a “blazer” instead of a flamer, and fights “Ants” instead of Bugs, and deploys via a Transit beacon instead of a drop capsule, but in both novels an interstellar war begins when arthropodic aliens bomb South America, and Earth’s retaliatory strike against the enemy’s home planet is fubared. But Steakley does something quite different with his military scifi novel than Heinlein does with his. Rather than glorifying war and providing sociopolitical and philosophical arguments for why war is an unavoidable and even necessary aspect of any civilized society, Armor instead focuses on the horrors of war and its psychological effect on the combatants.

Steakley’s novel includes two separate yet inseparable storylines. Felix is the hero of the first, who in the tragicomical spirit of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is doomed by a paperwork snafu to be forever sent right back into the thick of combat after each mission. The antihero of the second story is Jack Crow, a legendary space pirate who might well have been the source for Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. What ties the two tales together is a black suit of powered armor.

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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jo Thomas, Michael Ray – Editor. Michael Ray – Editor said: "Clothes Make the Man (or Woman):Techwear and character in scifi" – an excellent essay by Henry Cribbs in Redstone SF #3. http://is.gd/e0AnG […]

2 Redstone Science Fiction #3, August 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 08.13.10 at 7:25 pm }

[…] Clothes Make the Man (or Woman):Techwear and Character in SciFi by Henry […]

3 Ezra { 08.31.10 at 8:52 am }

A quibble: Hideo isn’t blind when Molly gets captured–he isn’t blinded until later–and in fact they never fight at all. It’s really Riviera, the illusionist, who defeats her, as you mention.