Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.
This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.
The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!
Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.
I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.
The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.
You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?
Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.
Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.
It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.
A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.