Thursday, January 16, 2014

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
© 1959 Robert Heinlein
263 pages

The worlds of the Terran Federation are under constant assault by the malicious Bugs, whose hideousness drives dogs insane and who don’t even have the decency to build their civilization out of buildings that can be blown apart:  the swarming arachnoids have to be dug out of the ground.   Juan Rico didn’t join the military to save truth, justice, and the Terran way of life, however; humankind was largely at peace when he took his oath. Instead, he joined because his best friend did, and because the school  hottie was signing up to become a pilot. Juan, or Johnny, didn’t get to be a pilot, though; that program prefers women’s faster reflexes.Johnny wound up in the Mobile Infantry,  part of a literal killing machine. During his  basic training, however,  a Bug attack completely destroyed Buenos Aires, and it’s up to Johnny and his follow boots to take the war to the enemy.  Starship Troopers is half political philosophy, a third speculation on future warfare, and a fifth wartime action plot.  The best known of Robert Heinlein’s works, alongside Stranger in a Strange Land,  Starship Troopers’s fame stems from its easy-to-loathe insectoid menace and its controversial politics; it well deserves its classic status.

Starship Troopers opens with images of future spaceborne wars, though space is something traveled through, not the battlefield itself; there are no capital ship duels here, only the paratrooper-like deployment and operations of Johnny and the rest of Terra’s finest.  If mobile infantry brings to mind foot soldiers jumping from trucks and riding through the countryside, cast that out of your mind; an M.I is one man in an armored suit, weighing tons  but powered and as responsive to the slightest movement that it might as well be skinned. The suit allows every trained soldier to be a one-man army, making the tanks of ancient days look like pushovers. Every M.I. is worth more than a thousand of the enemy, and that’s no hyperbole.

            But Starship Troopers isn’t chiefly about the Bug War or how sophisticated electronics  and space will alter combat. Throughout the book, largely through reminiscences of his training days, Rico’s understanding of why he’s fighting develops, laying before readers a political philosophy which is the basis for the book's 'controversial' status. In the Federation, the voting franchise is limited to those who have paid their dues in the form of Federal Service, people who have proven that they have characters capable of engaging in self-sacrifice for the good of the nation; people whose sense of duty will keep them sober when they exercise the vote, and mitigate corruption as far as possible. Starship Troopers is paean to the highest ideals of republican soldiery, drawing on classical history, from Greece through Rome; if you've ever read Once an Eagle, it's rather like that. The main argument of Troopers is that politics requires virtue, and for Heinlein, the sacrifice required in military service is the best way of sussing out the virtuous.  The military isn't the meter by which society is run; in fact, those who apply to do their service are actively discouraged and given plenty of opportunities for second thoughts once they've begun.  Other elements of Heinlein's society which have been criticized, like the use of violence as discipline, aren't an example of the military governing civilian life; that's simply the way Heinlein thinks children ought to be raised and how criminals ought to be deal with, and are separate arguments.  The most objectionable element of the worldview developed here is the author's contention that man doesn't have a moral instinct. He views humanity as a wild animal that has to be civilized through culture every step of the way, but if we had no moral instincts such inculcation could not possibly take.

Although I started this book prepared to see in it a glorification of war and authority, it is far more thoughtful than that. The tech speculation is fascinating for a work written in 1959, though the closest we've come to realizing  any of his ideas is helmets with HUD displays, or perhaps remotely-controlled robots.  (In Heinlein's world, the powered suits are controlled with radio signals.)  This is definitely a worthy read.


  1. I read this back in my 20's and still consider it one of the best I've read for all the reasons you've stated. If you liked this you should definitely check out The Forever War by Joe Haldeman which you mentioned a while back I think. Its very similar in many ways and explores many similar issues.

    I was inevitably very disappointed with the movie but rather impressed by the CGI TV series which was much closer to the book.

  2. I'll be purchasing The Forever War tomorrow, probably, and look foward to comparing them.

    Everyone I've met who has read the book and watched the movie pan the film; is there a particular reason, beyond the Federation being cast as more a fascist villain? Is the technical aspect of their war handled well? (I know they're not in the mech-suits...a pity, because I wonder how large they are.)

  3. I don't think that the Federation was cast as a villain - fascist or otherwise (though I think the press had a 'go' at its portrayal on screen). The combat scenes where quite risible and they clearly didn't employ or didn't listen to a military adviser.

    I think that the movie too the idea of Starship Troopers and then basically did their own thing with it. I read the book 30+ years ago so I can't really debate the detail though. Maybe it needs to be one of my rare re-reads. It was definitely significant after all!

    BTW - Did you read my last Thursday book review. If not I think it might interest you being about Greco-Roman philosophy and all... [grin]

  4. I was reading through it last night; I know I've seen it on amazon a time or two, but there are so many books out there it fades out of mind. Considering how long it's been since I did any reading in classical Greek philosophy, and Stoicism in particular, that one sounds refreshing.


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