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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More Book Sale Madness

I love book sales. I love being able to search through piles of books and pick out the treasures, and sometimes find treasures for other people.

This past weekend I managed to hit part of the Children’s Hospital Book Sale–which is a bonus, because all profits go to a good cause as well. And you know something? As much as I like reading classic SF, I can’t always bring myself to shell out the $11 per book that it costs. I am a cheap person, and looking back at some of these book prices… I mean, for god’s sake not much more than twenty years ago, paperback books were still under three dollars! Talk about craziness, eh?

Of course, I managed to pull out some treasures this time around: two novels by James Tiptree, Jr. which I am sure are out of print, a pile of Leigh Brackett, a not-quite-so-battered copy of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Clarke’s Childhood’s End since I have always managed to miss it, the second and third books following Kate Elliott’s Jaran, an omnibus of the first three books in Diane Duane’s Wizard series, and a copy of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself for $4 in trade paperback. I suppose given that I now have Abercrombie’s first book, I’ll be able to find out what all the fuss and bother is about.

One of the other things I love about book sales is looking at all the different covers over time for certain books. Stranger in a Strange Land is particularly good for this, but it’s neat to see how design ideas change (or don’t) over time. And sometimes finding odd notes in the books used as bookmarks. I once found a letter apologizing to a lover after an argument; but I commonly find more prosaic things like grocery lists, or classified clippings from the automotive section. I always wonder about the people who read the books. Did they ever finish, or did they just stop?

And just a reminder: if your book smells like vomit, please don’t give it to a book sale. I don’t care if it’s immaculate and has never been touched by projectile body fluids. If it smells like someone puked on it, I will not buy it. Not even if it was a first edition of some extremely famous literature. Not even if I could auction it off for a small fortune (a large fortune I may consider in special cases, and while using a hazmat suit).

Anyhow, largely I enjoy the smell of books. But, you know… there are limits.

If you’re wondering what’s up next, I’m currently reading Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars and Grimspace by Ann Aguirre.