Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersFor a first exposure to Robert A. Heinlein, I sure picked a doozy. Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of Heinlein’s “juvenile” science fiction era and garners a fair amount of controversy to this day. Do a cursory search online and you’ll see what I mean–there’s a lot out there. This book also helped to kick off military science fiction as a subgenre, along with placing powered armour in the spotlight. Let’s not forget it also won the 1960 Hugo Award, which Heinlein followed up with Stranger in a Strange Land, leading to another Hugo.

Starship Troopers is a densely-packed, brisk-paced novel narrated by Johnnie Rico, who enlists in Earth’s military as a member of the Mobile Infantry upon his graduation. The book follows him through basic training with the MI, into combat with the alien “Skinnies” and “Bugs”, and officer training. Johnnie’s training and his own thoughts on the military are in the forefront, with only brief instances of combat scattered throughout the story.

The story itself is simple, but Heinlein’s writing drew me in. However, I finished the book and was left thinking that not all that much really happened. Outside the military aspects of the story, there really isn’t all that much other than dialogues regarding moral and philosophical issues, which is interesting and provoking, but doesn’t do terribly much for character development. The relationships seem oddly skewed: there is no romance despite a date, and Johnnie’s father ends up as his platoon sergeant–which in and of itself seems inappropriate within a chain of command.

The political and moral philosophies espoused in the book are polemic, and the centre of many a debate. Heinlein held many controversial opinions about communism, nuclear weapons, and so on, but he isn’t really the focus of this specific review since he isn’t the book (if you are interested though, see these links where Michael Moorcock and Spider Robinson take different views on the man and his philosophy). The book itself is based in a world where to earn the vote and full citizenship one must serve in the military, where corporal punishment is accepted as a means to teach moral behaviour, and where aliens are all uniformly enemies. I seem to recall sometimes they are also the enemy of Earth’s enemy–that is, other aliens. Starship Troopers takes a strong us vs. them position and certainly the imagery is there to see “the Bugs” as a representation of a hive-mind communist society, circa America’s cold-war.

Unfortunately there’s so much background in the world left open to interpretation that it confuses the context of the philosophical arguments; we don’t have any evidence as to what sort of government Earth has, what its policy or motives are for space expansion (reacting to attack, or attacking first?), or anything else beyond Johnnie’s limited viewpoint. In fact, at times his vantage of his world is so narrow that I wondered if he really knew much of anything upon graduation.
In this respect, the construction of the future Earth in Starship Troopers is both thought-provoking and frustrating because of the obvious holes left in the story. Because of this, it’s difficult to build a well-structured argument about the book without relying on information about Heinlein himself, which is a questionable practice regardless.

I noted some interesting conflicts in the writing in terms of portraying gender and ethnicity. Women in the military mostly end up as Navy captains, reportedly in part because of their superior math skills which puts them in a position of power. However, they are almost completely absent from the infantry and seem to exist within cocoons of military protection for the most part. Ethnicity seems to be implied by name and what language the person speaks, which seems a little presumptuous to me. But if you accept that along with minor stereotyping of minor characters the book has a multi-ethnic cast, with the implication that since Johnnie speaks Tagalog he is Filipino.

It seems as though Heinlein perhaps was wanting to break out of the thought patterns of 1950s America, but couldn’t quite set his existing ideas aside. Or who knows, perhaps there was an editorial hand in this somewhere that made the book more “acceptable” for mass consumption, whichever direction the stereotypes were pushed towards. I doubt the political aspects of the book were massaged, as they are pretty explicit. Taken in context of the human-alien conflict, Heinlein makes an interesting commentary on conceptualizations of “the other” between cultural groups of one species and differing species, and certainly one influenced by when it was published.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good read, and should not be missed due to its controversial nature and its influence on the military sci-fi subgenre (including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero). Regardless of the flaws in this novel, I found I enjoyed it quite a bit and had lots to chew over in my head, which if nothing else, I’m sure Heinlein had fully intended.

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959 [1968]. 208 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), used.

7 Comments so far
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Nice thought-provoking review. I remember enjoying it quite a bit while reading it in high school (Yikes! Thats about 30 years ago now!) and you’ve made me very interested in taking another look. Thanks.

Comment by Tim

Great to see you back Sara…and with unabated quality!

Comment by uroš

Nice review! Heinlein is one of those I need to get around to reading 🙂 I’ve heard it said that his “juvenile” stuff is very good — often better than his adult, so I’ll give both a go…

My normal solution: read everything! 😉

The Book Swede

Comment by Chris (The Book Swede)

I’m glad to see you back in the Blogosphere too, Sara J. Awesome review, as always.

Comment by kimber an

Sara, thanks so much for adding The Galaxy Express to your site. I really appreciate it.

I read STARSHIP TROOPERS so very long ago that it’s time to revisit it. Seems like this is a case of read the book *and* watch the movie. Well, not at the same time. I thought the film was very subversive in its own way.

Thanks again and I can’t wait to hang around a lot more! (Kimber knows some cool peeps!)

Comment by Heather

[…] | aa.cai Starship Troopers | solomon[CD] …゛o○_S〇Rry – http://835878384.qzone.qq.com|||Starship Troopers2008年5月20日 投稿者: admin Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of […]

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Tim: Glad to hear it! It’s always interesting to go back and reread books you haven’t seen in a while–it’s almost like a new book sometimes depending on how much change has gone on in your life…

Heather: I dunno, the film almost has nothing to do with the actual book, or so it seemed to me. I actually saw the film before knowing much about the book and expected something different from what I got (though much happier for the difference in the book, let me tell you!). I’ve heard tell through i09 that there’s a third Starship Troopers movie in the works that may actually have the armour, and is supposedly following the book much more closely in terms of spirit.

Thanks everyone for all the compliments, they haven’t gone unheard, and they are very much appreciated! Scheduling lately is an uphill battle, but it’ll get ironed out eventually 🙂


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