Starship Troopers by Heinlein, Robert, 1959

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In the annals of military science fiction, one book has always stood apart in my mind as the epitome of excellence. That book is Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. A controversial book to say the least, its also one of the best coming-of-age novels that SF has to offer. It may also be one of the most storied novels in the history of our genre as well; the controversy surrounding its submission by Heinlein to Scribner's is legendary. So legendary in fact that it would be a horrible waste of time for me to go over it yet again here. But the debate over the purpose of this book has raged quietly since it was first published in 1959. Most readers take this book as an exercise in jingoistic excellence, as full of the polemic of military virtue as a book of three hundred odd pages can possibly be. One thing though that it is actually surprisingly light on, at least by today's standards, is blood and gore, which is odd for a military-themed work. The reality of war is presented well: Dead civilians, crippled infrastructure, nuclear blast craters and dead comrades are sprinkled liberally throughout the book, and topics such as terrorism and the targeting of noncombatants are presented without the amorality being questioned at all. But by far the bulk of the text is dedicated to deep discussions of what it means to be an adult, and the ways that real men and women care for society, and make decisions about the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy. Without ever sounding preachy or descending to pandering or nagging, Heinlein did an excellent job of describing exactly what that meant within the framework of a military dominated government. If you ask me this book is clearly focused on the military and sociological themes, but what the book became in the end was nothing short of a utopia tale. It is definitely another one of those ambiguous utopias, but Heinlein presented a society here that chose to focus on a military way of life to avoid certain problems that crop up in a society like our own where freedom is a birthright and rights are granted before people have a chance to consider the burdens of citizenship. As it happened, after that particular course was chosen for the ship of state an interstellar war broke out, so throughout the story the military government was just doing what it was designed originally to do; make war on an enemy.

The basic social theory of this novel is this: Human beings have no inherent moral compass. There is nothing inborn that teaches people how to be good citizens, but humans do develop a framework of morals to help them survive. Since that framework typically benefits the individual more than the herd, the result is often selfish and tends to play havoc with society. In order to guarantee that adults who were in power were capable of making decisions that were good for society and not totally selfish, the government devised a scientific theory of morals that was based on logic, then reinforced those moral schemes through military training, indoctrinating each child early in life with a sense of duty. The rights and burdens of society were used as as the carrot and the switch. Each person was given a chance to become a full citizen through military service. Those who did not go into the service were not punished, but they were not allowed to participate in government and decision making. Those who did go into the military were given the opportunity to prove their worth and earn a "franchise," or the right to vote. The government had implemented a military based set of controls, then devised a form of behavioral conditioning that imbued worthy individuals with a respect for the herd that greatly outstripped the instinct for self preservation. Those who made the grade generally were promoted no farther than lieutenant. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the government presented in this book was the near complete lack of dominating military brass or other type of civil leadership. The civilian leadership here were entirely retired soldiers. The soldiers were loyal to the service, which insisted that they adhere to their training for life, and be good citizens.

There can be circumstances when it's just as foolish to hit an enemy with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an ax. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government's decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him.

I think that the military and combat aspects of this novel really throw people off, and the fact that the film adaptation focuses almost entirely on the war imagery increases that confusion. The fact is, there is very little ambiguity in Heinlein's text. This is not a benevolent military society that occasionally makes mistakes, then uses its power to cover them up. Nor is it an interstellar banana republic that serves the needs of a military cadre which controls money, power and politics. Those of you who have read the novel understand that the society in Starship Troopers was focused on the greater public welfare. It followed after the embers of a revolution that came after a series of catastrophes and wars had rocked the world into submission. There was a power gap after a social collapse that the military government just stepped into and filled. After they lay down the basics of a global military society the people of Earth looked to colonization of other planets, and after mankind ventured out to the stars it discovered how useful a military outlook could be. The conflict in this story was between human beings and a hive-mind race of sentient insects called the Klendathu. The book tells the story of Juanito "Johnnie" Rico as he grew from his late teenage years to manhood in the Mobile Infantry, a powerful and aggressive yet highly disciplined military force of warriors in mechanized combat suits. Were they a bit more sophisticated they would have been warrior-poets or warrior-philosophers. As it were, most of them were just average Joes with no college. The war started over colony worlds, but stayed cool until the Klendathu destroyed Buenos Aires with a kinetic energy weapon. Following that Earth forces attacked the Klendathu homeworld and lost big, then devised new tactics to fight and destroy the new enemy. Interspersed with the story of the war were long flashbacks which told the story of Juan's education and training in the Mobile Infantry.

I really think that Heinlein was trying to present us with a utopia. At least...a modern understanding of how a utopia would function. Sure, there were some problems. The war led to the loss of lots of good men and opportunity, not to mention the tremendous expenditure of waging an interstellar war. But the military government was put into place long before the war with the Bugs came along. The society had long ago answered many of its own questions, and had devised a way of life that treated everyone fairly and equally, and protected members of society from tyranny. What Heinlein was trying to tell us is that the wages of freedom are high, but only certain people have to pay them. To some this may sound like prejudice, but nobody was prevented from trying, and nobody was given any chances that others weren't. Like many other of Heinlein's books, Starship Troopers reads like SF if Hemingway had written it. It is a story of individual power and wisdom; of men working together, fearlessly, in fearsome situations. Most of the social rhetoric in Starship Troopers comes in the form of long-winded and meaningful classroom exchanges between teacher and young student. The following is not meant to explain what Heinlein was trying to say with this book. It's meant only to open the discussion:

"Anyone who clings to the historically untrue - and thoroughly immoral - doctrine that 'violence never settles anything,' I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms."

He sighed. "Another year, another class - and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think." Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. "You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?"

"The difference," I answered carefully, "lies in the field of civic virtue. A solder accepts personal responsibly for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not."

"The exact world of the book," he said scornfully. "But do you understand it? Do you believe it?"

"Uh, I don't know, sir."

"Of course you don't. I doubt if any of you here would recognize 'civic virtue' if it came up and barked in your face!" He glanced at his watch. "And that is all, a final all. Perhaps we shall meet again under happier circumstances. Dismissed."

Heinlein did not miss a step with this book. For what he was trying to do, I think he succeeded on a level that really has been equaled by very few other SF authors. In other words, this book seems to me to be a perfect realization of the thematic vision that he had. That I think is the real reason that this book is still discussed today, fifty years after original publication; because it is one of the most competently crafted tales out there. The controversy certainly did keep it in people's minds and on their tongues for years, but the way that Heinlein dealt with his themes is so good that the book is almost in a class with itself. Ignore the controversy and just pick this book up immediately.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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