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.

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The Outback Stars
April 26, 2008, 2344
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

The Outback StarsThe Outback Stars has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen for a long time on a science fiction book. However, while good artwork sells books, good story sells them better, and that’s something Sandra McDonald understands. In fact, she wrote a solid enough debut novel that it warranted a nomination for the Compton Crook award. She also understands what she’s doing with her book: the tag-line she uses is “Love. Duty. Really big spaceships.” Which is probably a decent summation of some of the big ticket items in the book, if a very brief one.

Made up of military science fiction and space opera genre-wise, The Outback Stars is the story of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Sergeant Terry Myell. There’s a lot going on in this book, but if you expect space battles you won’t find them here. Jodenny has won a medal of honour for her conduct on her last ship, which ended in a fiery blaze. She escapes from her recovery period by forcing her posting on the Aral Sea as a supply officer. She gets the dubious honour of “reforming” Underway Stores, where what she doesn’t know can hurt her. With possible smugglers on board, she must deal with surviving her last ship and navigate alien transportation systems not designed for human use.

While the novel begins slowly, the pace builds with numerous subplots juggled together, scaffolding effectively into higher tension. McDonald excels in looking at the valour found in the everyday military actions during peacetime, and the ship politics that result from it. The ordinary becomes oddly fascinating, mostly because the writing makes it that way. Word choice is deft, and character portrayal is both consistent and complex. Jodenny is no cardboard cutout, and she certainly isn’t perfect.

For Jodenny and Terry, space is not the final frontier. Maybe it’s love in this particular book, or possibly the mysterious and alien Wondjina technology. Either way you slice it, the mixture of larger themes balanced with details of prose and story work well together. Terry’s intermittent gecko, Koo, was probably one of my favourite characters in the book. The details of supporting characters made for a nuanced balance, especially when Jodenny deals with some of the malcontents in her division in, er, creative ways. The interactions between characters are where McDonald shines; sometimes the unspoken is more important than what was actually said:

“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She was thinking there was no such thing as easy sex, no matter what people said. Not on a spaceship and not when the person was someone you worked with.
“I’m thinking this is just what the doctor ordered,” she lied.
Rokutan eased her back and began unbuttoning her blouse. “Is that all I am to you? A prescription?”
Jodenny touched his jaw. “A panacea.”
“A substitute for the real thing?”
“That’s a placebo,” she said (p. 250).

The mixture of alien and Aboriginal culture in The Outback Stars is fascinating, and a welcome change from the norm. Tying these two themes together bridges into the colonial nature of space, and I’m interested to see where this part of the story goes in future volumes. While this volume focuses mainly on interpersonal politics, my hope is McDonald’s next installment, The Stars Down Under, will take a broader political view and add depth to Jodenny’s world. More back story would satisfy my curiosity of how Australia became a major player in space, but it was also nice not to have the requisite info-dump when it really wasn’t required to understand the story.

One of the few weaknesses I noted was a lack of description of surroundings: it was difficult to know whether I was imagining what the author had in mind visually. Much of the Underway Stores department used specific equipment (the DNGO retrieval units were a particular highlight though I was waiting for a baby-eating joke that never came), but I wasn’t really sure what they looked like mentally. Sometimes I found myself getting distracted from the story because it was frustrating trying to situate things, and I was a little uncertain of the ship’s actual structure.

However, these are minor complaints, and overall The Outback Stars worked for me as a reader on a very basic level. These are characters who are everyday people dealing with their lives and their careers in ways that make sense to them, and the grounded nature of the story pulls the speculative into a reality that is all too rare in science fiction. I’m definitely looking forward to more from Sandra McDonald, and getting my hands on The Stars Down Under.

McDonald, Sandra. The Outback Stars. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 376 pages. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: Fantasy Debut’s coverage, plus Tia’s interview with Sandra McDonald, and Sci-Fi Weekly’s review.