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A few years ago, Marvel Comics approached me about writing for them. They suggested I might want to work on Iron Man.

Now, I was no fan of superhero comics—my taste, as a kid, had been more along the lines of Classics Illustrated and Scrooge McDuck, with a bit of Superboy thrown in because he was actually a kid with a real life.

But Iron Man? He didn’t even have any extraordinary powers—he just wore a really talented suit. Admittedly, he designed the suit himself, and funded it. But why not make a thousand of them and get other guys to wear them? Why did he have to wear the suit himself?

Now, I’d been studying military history ever since I became fascinated with the U.S. Civil War when I was eight years old. I was quite aware of the constant see-sawing of advantages between assault weapons and fortifications.

Enemies come and attack your village, overwhelming you by their greater numbers and better weapons. When you gather the survivors to rebuild the city, you put it on a hill and you build a wall around it.

The next time the enemy comes, they ride around and around your walled city on their chariots while you throw rocks or shoot arrows at them. They outnumber you ten to one—but they can’t get inside to harm you. Eventually, they go away and raid some village that doesn’t have walls.

Next time they come with catapults. Or they dig a tunnel under your walls. Or they run up with hundreds of ladders.

Next time you build your walls higher and thicker, and surround them with a deep moat to foil tunnels.

Then cannons knock down the walls and a whole new kind of fortification in depth has to be invented, using miles of trenches. Bombers fly over the trenches; antiaircraft artillery and fighters and ground-to-air missiles bring down the bombers. And on and on.

Right along with the see-saw of armies and fortified cities, there’s another game going on. A personal one.

Combat isn’t just between armies. Even older than war is the contest between two alpha males for supremacy. It can be relatively peaceful: cocks displaying their plumage; other birds building attractive nests.

Two stags butt their heads together. Two gorillas tear up saplings and beat the ground with them to intimidate their opponent with their strength.

A man with two cutlasses displays his ferocious and skillful swordwork. Indiana Jones pulls out a pistol and shoots him.

Ah, yes—the blade! The projectile weapon! A way to overcome the other man’s advantage. You’re stronger than I am—but are your fists able to damage me as much as this cudgel of mine will damage you?

You have a cudgel? I’ll throw a stone from this sling of mine. You have a spear? I’ll shoot you with this arrow.

The goal is to damage the other fellow far more than he can damage you. To accomplish this, we develop deadlier weapons that magnify our strength, or weapons that we can use from farther away.

So the smaller, weaker man can, with craft and practiced skill, overmatch the stronger, larger one.

But the stronger man does not have to stand there helpless. Next time he carries a heavy shield on one arm and a sword even heavier than yours with the other. Now, little fellow, beat on my shield all you want—it won’t hurt me, and meanwhile my sword will hack yours out of the way.

As for stones and arrows, the stronger man covers himself with thick cloth and leather; then he plates it with armor, or wears flexible metal mail. Your projectile weapons bounce harmlessly off as he comes close enough to break you in pieces. Turn and run, little man! You can’t hurt him now.

Armor is personal and portable. Wearing it, an individual can get close enough to let his greater strength and skill overpower the enemy. Armor is a moving castle.

There are other ways of achieving the same end: stealth, speed, trickery, treachery. As many walled cities fell to bribery and betrayal as to sappers or climbers or catapults or cannon. The duel becomes moot if your enemy manages to poison you the day before, or slit your throat while you sleep.

Armor, by contrast, is hard to conceal. When the internal combustion engine achieved enough power to carry an armor-plated cannon-house on wheels and treads, trench warfare and machine guns lost their advantage, just as armor-plated ships were already able to rip wooden ships to shreds without sustaining any damage themselves. But it’s hard to sneak a tank behind enemy lines.

It all comes down to the men inside the tin cans, whether they float or are borne by horses or automobiles or carried on the backs or arms of the men they protect. It’s still personal.

Or is it? The remote-controlled drone now fires a missile while the operator is ten thousand miles away, controlling it by a combination of satellite and computer.

But such projectile weapons only work as long as your communication satellites remain in orbit and your radio signals can be transmitted and received. Jammers and satellite-killers become another kind of armor, potentially making drones as useless as stones thrown against metal plating.

Ultimately, though, these are all contests of will. What propels these tin cans forward are the men inside; shields, mail, suits of armor, tanks, and other personal enhancements are merely decorative until the will of a human being causes them to move close enough to an enemy for the contest to begin.

This book is a collection of stories about people who armor themselves in order to reduce the risk of coming near enough for someone else to cause them harm.

There is enough military history for every reader to recognize that however fanciful the weapons and armor might seem, it is only realistic to say that there will always be someone devising armor to defeat a weapon, and a weapon to defeat the armor.

Most of us, though, will never don any kind of shield or wear any kind of armor, because most of us avoid combat for our entire lives.

Or do we? The power of a story about armor comes, not just from its roots in the real world of physical combat, but also from the fact that all humans are constantly searching for ways to armor themselves against another kind of weapon.

We build up an image, a reputation, in order to armor ourselves against lies and slanders—or against inconvenient revelation of our secrets.

When we have been damaged by personal treachery, we often armor ourselves emotionally by creating a thick emotionless shell which, though invisible, can be impenetrable.

We surround ourselves with a wall of friends to protect ourselves from the deep javelin of loneliness.

We try to control our children, building walls and fences, rules and an umbrella of constant vigilance to keep them from the consequences of their own foolish choices as well as from outside forces than endanger them.

And always, always we find that there is no such thing as armor that is impervious to all risk; or if there is, it is so heavy that we cannot move.

I think of the powerful scene near the end of The Lion in Winter, when Queen Eleanor’s personal guard overpowers the armored knight who stands watch in front of the prison where her sons are being held.

His armor protected him until he stumbled and fell; then the same armor prevented him from escaping as the queen’s man came close enough to insert a thin dagger into the helpless knight’s brain through the gaps in his faceplate.

I can think of few metaphors for our ultimate defenselessness as good as that one. Whatever armor we put on to protect ourselves from risk can be turned against us.

As I began to write my series of Ultimate Iron Man comics for Marvel, the question I had to answer was what vulnerability in the man Stark made it imperative for him, not to invent armor, but to put it on his own body and wear it into combat himself. Why does he hate vulnerability so much that he must shield himself and then constantly test the shield against the deadliest of foes?

The armor is Iron Man’s kryptonite, as well as the source of all his power.

The soldiers inside a tank cannot escape the hand grenade or Molotov cocktail dropped through the hatch. The sailors in the submarine are trapped by their thick hull when a depth charge or undersea obstacle pierces it and lets the water in.

And the person who has armored himself against emotional risk is utterly unprepared when that barrier is unexpectedly pierced. And if it is not pierced, the person wearing it finds that his armor has kept him from living his life. In the end, complete safety means complete immobility; armor is eventually overcome, or leaves us helpless.

Behind their high walls, the people of the city can only watch as the enemy ravages all the lands that supply them. There is always the possibility of terrible loss, despite or because of the thickest of defenses.

And yet we would be fools to expose ourselves to the risks of life without some kind of defense. Or else we must be prepared to sustain and bear and try, somehow, to survive the wounds that will inevitably pierce and break the thinly-covered skin, the unbraced bone, the trusting heart.

—Orson Scott Card, October 2011

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