I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading a lot of SciFi lately. The latest book I’ve completed in the in this foray is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Now I will say this is kind of the second or third time I’ve read this book. Back when the Starship Troopers movie came out I remember trying to read the book a couple of times but I was eleven or so I won’t claim to have actually comprehended the book. Flash forward 17 years and with both The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land finished I was ready to re-tackle one of Robert Heinlein’s seminal works.
If I were to give you a short version of my thoughts on Starship Troopers it would be this: this is clearly Heinlein’s best work. To me Heinlein’s work rarely makes it past the pulp stories of their origins, whereas Troopers is a clear actualized story exploring themes and metaphors beyond the more general themes of SciFi from it’s time (SPACE MYSTERY WOOOO).
I found myself thoroughly engaged with Heinlein’s explorations of themes such as responsibility, the military, and democracy. The main character Johnnie Rico goes through a series of very believable growth throughout the story and he deals with the moral and philosophical implications of his actions in joining the Tehran Federation and what service to society means. Philosophy is engagingly discussed throughout the book in well integrated settings (unlike say, a 3 hour speech over the radio but a Mr. John Galt.) Given my that my father and grandfather were both in the military I was primed for Starship Troopers. (Though the military is also why I was forced to grow up in Oklahoma, so I do have my reasons to hate it.)
If you look past his descriptions of futuristic weaponry you’ll find a fascinating philosophical exploration of government and responsibility (and almost no actual combat). While the book is often accused of being militaristic this is a simplistic critique. All you have to do is notice that Heinlein in his little SciFi novel was well ahead of the rest of the 1960s in creating a strong criticism of the draft, and see that calling this a work of military fascism is overly simplistic. Through his exploration of a futuristic all voluntary “Federal Service” Heinlein lays out may critiques of historical military practices and explores the idea of what it means for an individual to place to good of society ahead of one’s self. In his future society only individuals who have taken and made a commitment to serving the lives of all others are given citizenship and the right to vote regardless of whether they are in combat or non-combat roles. I found this a very interesting challenge to natural rights theories of suffrage.
Heinlein’s exploration of individual responsibility in society is then taken further as he also creates the antithesis of his society and makes them the antagonists, a hive mind society of bug aliens (called the Bugs by humans). While used in the movie as nothing more than action set pieces, the Bugs in Starship Troopers are the personification of collectivist action without individual choice. Yet Heinlein doesn’t make them out to be evil, just a different social evolutionary track of civilization, one that would have a natural conflict with human civilization (as we currently do). The Bugs are characterized as born ready to serve society whereas humans must learn and make individual decisions at what serving society means to them. In this Heinlein shows his belief that the human capacity for moral philosophy sets them apart from other species and this in turn sets them up for conflict with the Bugs (this idea comes up often in his works).
I really enjoyed the book and highly recommend it.
Why Paul Verhoeven had to dislike the book so much he made the movie adaptation a satire of it is beyond me. However, I will give him a pass on this because he brought us the greatness that is RoboCop.