Suits Of Armor

Image: U.S. Air Force

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is the Weekend Editor of io9, and has written for such places as Armchair General Magazine, Barnes and Noble, Clarkesworld Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, and others. He can be found on Twitter at @AndrewLiptak. His first anthology (co-edited with Jaym Gates), War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now available from Apex Publications. His short story, Fragmented, about the homecoming of an armored soldier, was recently featured at the Art of Future Warfare project’s website.

Where did the idea for your short story Fragmented come from?
I remember exactly when I came up with the idea: I was listening to a story on NPR about what the Army had to do in order to bring armored vehicles home from the war in Iraq.

It was an involved process: vehicles had to be disassembled and decontaminated, to avoid bringing back anything like plants, fungi, pathogens, insects, etc. The article detailed what steps had to be taken. I remember thinking as I was listening to it that you’d probably want to do something similar with a suit of power armor.

I’d started writing out something about that, but it wasn’t until I realized that the real story had to be about the person under the armor and how the transition affected them. That’s when the story really took off and became what it was.

Your narrator begins in a sense with a flawless suit of armor and you recount the physical, and emotional, toll war takes on suit and man alike. Do we risk focusing too much on the suit and not enough on the soldier — until the war is over?
I certainly think that that’s the case: the modern military is built upon this incredible technical apparatus that invents new ways to kill one another. As we pursue that, we often forget about the people operating the machines, and by extension, how they cope with the style of war that said tech invites.

At the end of the day, we’re all just a slightly more advanced type of primate, held back by a mushy bit of organic matter on a skeleton. As technology enables war to get faster or work in different ways, we haven’t advanced along with it, which has its own complications.

Suits of armor were part of warfare during the middle ages; do you expect them to return? And when?
I think we’re starting to see them now. Take a look at the equipment that a soldier was issued on September 10th, 2001, and then take a look at what they go out into the battlefield with now: there’s an incredible difference, in part due to advances in materials sciences and electronics. What soldiers wear now was only imagined in science fiction decades ago.

I don’t know that we’ll see something exactly like what I featured in my own story, but we are starting to see the earliest hints: exoskeletons to help people carry heavier loads, better helmet systems to help save soldiers’ eyes and brains, and so forth.

How will experiencing war from within a battle suit change warfare for soldiers but also militaries? Is it anything like the way drones might?
I think that the experience won’t change much for a ground soldier: you’ll require fewer of them, but at the end of the day, it’ll come down to a soldier making a decision to kill someone, or face the prospect of being killed.

I think that the use of drones is an interesting parallel, and I suspect that the impact of armor would come from outside of the armed forces. Politicians and the public will assume that they’re invulnerable, and won’t realize that that’s never the case.

What kinds of after-effects might war like you describe have on soldiers and civilians?
I mentioned before that we’re just advanced apes playing with shiny toys – as we move into an age where robotics and electronics are playing a real part of combat, people aren’t going to be able to keep up, and I think that that’ll have a huge toll. How we approach combat on an individual level really hasn’t changed all that much: it’s just faster, and we’ll have to deal with trauma that comes along with that.

Look at drone operators, for example: they are deeply affected by their jobs, and they can be just as traumatized by their experiences as someone on the ground.

When it comes to civilians, it’ll be the same as it’s always been: terrible. What’s even worse, it’s harder and harder for people on the ground to even comprehend they can be killed accidentally.

What kind of research did you do for this story, and where did you look?
I didn’t actually do any research for this story, aside from hearing that story. I suspect that a lot of it came out of seeing the constant news of veterans trying to cope with a post-deployment life as we’ve wound down the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts.

Describe your work flow and how you fit writing into your larger work responsibilities and life.
I write whenever I get a bit of time – usually later in the evening, during my lunch breaks, scribbles on receipts and nearby notepads. I tend to write a lot more non-fiction, which involves research and outlining. I’m hoping that I can set some more time aside to write fiction in the coming months.

Do you workshop your short stories, or do you use other types of peer or community review? You wrote ‘your unit is your home’ and I wondered if there was a creative analog for you?
Not really. When I first finished up this story, I sent it off to a friend, who was very encouraging, and I submitted it around. What really got it into shape though was being invited to a reading: I read it out loud and found that I’d written too much and I trimmed out about a third of the story. After that, I submitted it to Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, and it sold!

I have a small group of friends here locally that I’ll run things by, but I honestly haven’t written a lot of fiction to be able to do that.

For some of my longer researched articles, I’ve got a friend of mine who I’ll send my drafts, and she’ll give it a copyedit pass, so I can get all of my grammatical mistakes out of the way before I submit it.

What advice do you have for non-fiction writers who want to give military science fiction a try?
Basically, to figure out what type of story that you want to tell, but not to get bogged down in the technical requirements or jargon – that can come later. Figure out the character’s story, and build from there.

What are you reading, writing or playing that you can’t put down since we last interviewed you for your War Stories anthology?
There’s one trilogy that I’m absolutely hooked on: Linda Nagata’s Red trilogy, which is comprised of First Light, The Trials and Going Dark. (Editor: Read an Art of Future Warfare project review of The Red: First Light) These are hard-SF military stories that take on a ton of modern day issues: cybersecurity, cybernetics, exoskeletons, governmental surveillance, emergent AIs, and a whole lot of action. They’re really incredible books.