Thursday, June 30, 2011

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Title: Starship Troopers
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (1959)

Michael (who, unlike me, is not taking a wee break from the digital world and so continues to fill It Rains... You Get Wet with wonderful content) and I are serving up another sci-fi pair this month and, just as in the case of Jurassic Park, this one goes way back as one that I enjoy. My appreciation has morphed over the years, and not one re-read has captured again the blowing of my little teenage mind, but since it's a book chock full of philosophy I think I'd be a little disappointed in myself if my views on a philosophy didn't change as I did. Now, the movie is a different beast entirely and I leave it in Michael's capable hands.

Starship Troopers opens as Juan Rico is about to drop for a raid on a planet inhabited by "skinnies" who are, at that time, allied with the Bugs. The first chapter outlines the tactics of a squad, gives you a great look at the suits worn by the infantry, and describes some really fantastic distribution of ordnance. After that first chapter it jumps back in time to how/why Rico joins the military and what boot camp was like. This is the backdrop for sharing a philosophy of how a military ought to function and what its place is within a nation. The responsibility of non-military is also nicely described.

Rico is a perfect sponge for the lessons the military wants him to learn. He rather reminds me of me when I was younger and thought that these were some pretty nifty and new ideas. I have no idea if they were new or not (I'm guessing not because new philosophies are thin on the ground these days) but they were new to me, as they were to Rico, and we both lapped them up with the excitement of youth encountering new knowledge. In fact, it's such a complete and impassioned philosophy that some of Heinlein's more irksome qualities aren't quite so obvious and irksome. I think this philosophy works much better if you're an idealist but, no matter, it's interesting and brings up some cool ideas. I particularly like some of the arguments regarding responsibility and authority. This is why I think it's one of the sci-fi greats. This is what science fiction is meant to do. Science fiction is meant to express the human condition in almost unimaginable scenarios. That's the beauty and appeal of it.

Even with its boundless imagination and futuristic ideas, it’s firmly grounded in the origins and socialization of Heinlein. This brings us to the main and recurring drawback in scifi for me. No matter the scope, the prejudices and the socialization of the author are lurking in the background. Pages can go by when you don’t notice but it can’t be completely ignored. I don’t know if there’s one work of scifi that transcends this problem (and if you can think of one please let me know) but it would be an amazing thing. Because, see, that’s the thing, you can’t escape human nature! And, see, that’s the thing, the beauty of scifi, it can’t escape human nature. And it shouldn’t. That’s the point. And that point is underlined in Starship Troopers. You may have to ignore some of Heinlein’s socialization but, if you can, you will find a satisfying portrait of human nature in extraordinary circumstances. And don't underestimate how cool the combat scenes are even if they crop up less often than one would expect in a book with "troopers" in the title.
rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson and its movie adaptation Somewhere in Time

Links to previous joint posts:
Jurassic Park
Free Fall
Jack's Return Home
Devil in a Blue Dress
Falling Angel
The Lathe of Heaven
The Princess Bride
A Scanner Darkly
The Children of Men
The Minority Report


  1. As usual, another excellent book review that makes me look at the book from another perspective, Rachel. It brings up much to discuss!

    First, I think if I'd read this book at a younger age I would have had more of a connection with Rico (btw, this was the first Filipino lead protagonist I encountered ever in a book). However, your point that he's a sponge to the ideas he's absorbing is spot-on, and that what's coming down the pike is going to be new and enlightening, even if they may not be either.

    Second, for material written in the late-50s, it's remarkable that it predicted a more ethnically diverse state and military system, one made up of only volunteers. Along with a mechanized mobile infantry, the novel's concepts were forward thinking enough our military embraces a good portion of it today.

    Third, certainly author Heinlein was reactive to the time around him (the Cold War fears does seep through the work much like the old sci-fi/monster movies of that decade). Most critics see Heinlein speaking his own thoughts and ideology through the lectures of the History and Philosophy teachers and Mobile Infantry officers in the novel. I guess, it shouldn't be surprising this draws the most criticism from some for its point of view, which is decidedly anti-Communist and less liberal.

    The more authoritarian meritocracy the novelist presupposes in STARSHIP TROOPERS (almost utopian in nature) I'm sure splits the readership. You either see its ideal value or shake your head wistfully that human society just doesn't work that way. I've read that in any discussion of this book, Godwin's Law will quickly rear its head. It seems whenever Communism is brought up, its opposite number is the counter. Probably, this is why the film adaptation by Paul Verhoeven made Fascism the undertone.

    Still, it's an exceptional sci-fi novel whether one agrees with Robert Heinlein, or not (I'm more the latter). Another great selection for this series, Rachel. Thanks for bringing it up for this series.

  2. heya lp13! Great thoughts! My responses below:

    Point the First - As someone who did read this book for the first time at quite a young age I think you are very right. It's not only my view of the philosophy that as changed as I've gotten older but my thoughts on Rico, as well. My thoughts on Rico are irrelevant to his purpose which is to be the transmitter of the philosophy and in that regard he does quite well. :)

    Point the Second - I would agree (and I would assert that it's remarkable that Heinlein presented this fairly well as his strong point is not writing persons of color well - or women but let's try not to get me starting down that road... it's one of the nice things about this book that these weaknesses are less obvious) and I would go so far as to say it does a better job of seeing this as the makeup of the military than we do today. Our poster-child view of the military is still "jaw-jutting" Caucasians (as you mentioned in the movie review) but if you look at demographic statistics the per capita per race volunteering for the military is higher in many racial groups other than Caucasians.

    Point the Cubed - I also figured this was a platform for Heinlein but I didn't go into that. It's his book and if that's what he wants to use it for then I'm not going to quibble. I don't mind unpopular ideas because they get people thinking and talking. You can't dislike an idea if you can't articulate why (well, you can't dislike an idea and be taken seriously anyway) and being able to do that is a good thing. Sometimes a philosophy that gets your back up helps you to see more clearly what it is you do think and sometimes it's not quite what you would have thought! That is cool stuff indeed.

    I also found the book Utopian in scope and it drives me nuts that it doesn't seem to realize it. Portions of the sermons go so far as to say that this set-up is based on the reality of how people act and that just seems preposterous. I think the whole theme would make a much better argument if it had more perspective...

    Great discussion! Books are awesome. :)

    btw, didn't know the Godwin's Law thing but I love it! I don't know that I've used it as a point in an internet discussion but I use the blanket Nazi phrase in real life all the time as a jokey way of immediately indicating that something is wrong. Tee hee.