Interview: Robert Buettner

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Sticks and Stones” is about a green intel ops lieutenant, routinely dropped off alone from orbit onto a planet inhabited by Iron Age humans. His job, as his orbiting controller reminds him, is simply to assess cultural development. But, treated as an armored god, and caught between a local warlord and a rag-tag rebellion, the young man has to decide not only what the right thing to do is, but whether to do it.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I created a universe in the five books of the Jason Wander/Orphanage and further developed it in the two books, Overkill and Undercurrents, of the Orphan’s Legacy series. “Sticks and Stones” let me turn loose new characters in that universe.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

My challenge? The format. “Sticks and Stones” is the first short story I’ve written since the sixth grade. SF writers commonly “break in” by writing short stories in a workshop environment and gradually work up to novel-length fiction. Stephen King collected seven hundred rejections before he sold his first short. I didn’t know that, and just blundered straight into novel-writing- and collected my share of rejections. Fortunately, the style I developed, short, cynical first person, yields a lively short story.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Lt. Schwartz is a pretty ordinary young person trying to do the right thing and very uncertain that he’s succeeding. He finds Sgt. Barclay wise but a bit out of it. That’s a story I identify with from both sides. I think most readers will identify with it from at least one side.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I know the world in which Schwartz and Barclay operate pretty well, since I’ve lived in it for seven novels. I know what Eternad armor looks like, why it works and why it breaks, and what it can do. I did have to brush up on ancient human history, and on Iron Age war fighting. But “Sticks and Stones” is character-driven, not tech-driven.

What is the appeal of power armor/mecha? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do you think readers/viewers/gamers love it so much?

My inner thirteen year old thinks powered armor is way cool. But as a writer I don’t love the gorilla suits. Good fiction tells the truth, and the truth about being a GI is that under fire you feel naked, not bulletproof.

The GIs in my first novel, Orphanage, hit the alien beaches in heated parkas. But when the manuscript reached cover design, the art department suggested hard shell armor. Apparently our inner thirteen year old buys the books. But that’s not why I rewrote the story with hard shell armor. During the year the book was in edit, GIs in Afghanistan began surviving chest hits from AK-47s, so improved personal armor became a logical extrapolation.

What are some of your favorite examples of power armor/mecha (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

The literary high water mark for me remains Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry armor in Starship Troopers. He handles the concept, from drop capsules to fire pills, with a thoroughness and authorial economy that’s never been matched.

The non-literary high-water is the King Kong-sized suits in Avatar. They may not be credible in any conceivable operations role or defense budget, but seeing is believing and nobody’s ever seen powered armor better.