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Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein, Berkley, 1981, 208 pp. (originally published 1959)

The first time I read this book, many years ago, I felt remarkably little about it. It didn't strike me as much of a book, nor did it affect me. The second time I read it, earlier this year when I heard a movie of it was in the making, my reaction was quite clear: what a vile, offensive, useless piece of fascist, militaristic propaganda! I saw the movie (see my review following), and then read the book again, to give it a fair chance. I've revised my opinion, and it's considerably more nuanced, although still quite critical of Heinlein.

First of all, the characters. The question being, what characters? Heinlein has often been accused of writing cardboard, two dimensional characters, serving only as mouthpieces for his philosophy. He's in good company with this actually, because G.B. Shaw had the same criticism levelled at him continually. Both authors had a fondness for setting up a fictional situation that would prove their point -- I would venture to say every author does this, but most are not quite as blatant. If you ever have the misfortune to read or see the Shaw play, In Good King Charles's Golden Days, you'll have encountered the best example of Shaw's didactic tendencies. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is well-known for the same elements, and Starship Troopers is the book Heinlein wrote immediately previous to Stranger.

Here, Johnnie Rico is the main character, narrating in first-person. He's the ordinary guy, who is supposed to suck in our sympathies, suck us into the plot. Heinlein pulls a fast one by putting an exciting combat drop as the first chapter. And we're supposed to sympathize with the humans, of course, because we are being told all this by Johnnie Rico, regular guy. Who tries to humanise what's happening -- after a near miss: "Things like that make you pause to wonder why you ever took up soldiering -- only I was too busy to pause for anything." (16) -- but unfortunately, the reader can pause and think about it. I immediately start to wonder why everyone assumes the 'skinnies' are evil. Why no one wonders about the 'justness' (should such a concept exist) of this war. Why no one wonders what military training is doing to them. I'm getting ahead of myself, but I'm trying to demonstrate why the 'Johnnie-Rico-regular-guy' ploy doesn't work. Johnnie Rico doesn't think, and this creates an enormous vacuum at the centre of the book. One which none of the other stock characters can fill.

Nor can the plot fill it. After the combat drop, the rest of the book deals with Rico's experiences in training camp. As might be guessed, he makes it through basic training. He advances through the ranks. They make a combat drop at the end of the book, and that's it. That's the end. We get a lot of heavy militaristic philosophy during the middle section of the book (which, in fact, makes up almost the whole book), and a few things like the court martial in chapter V. Unfortunately, Heinlein must not have seen Paths of Glory, Kubrick's masterpiece from 1957, and its savage intellectual attack on war through the circumstances of a court-martial. Everything about what happens in Starship Troopers makes logical sense, including the court-martial, if you grant the military structure, and the purpose behind its actions. Heinlein never questions the deeper layer of logic -- in fact, he spends most of his time building it up. If you go even one step in Kubrick's direction, and question even one thing, the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. Kubrick gives us no concrete answers, but even ambiguity is enough to refute Heinlein. The whole plot of Heinlein's novel can be read as a Chinese finger puzzle -- the harder the humans fight, the more 'warriors' the 'bugs' hatch. Not one effort on the part of the humans that I could discern went towards understanding the bugs as other than evil (i.e., seeing if other actions would cause a different kind of bug to hatch). As a piece of didacticism, Starship Troopers failed miserably in convincing me of the necessity of militarism.

Which brings me to a final point. I've read many opinions lately, calling the book (and the movie more so) fascist. I even thought so once myself. While I still think the book is an empty, manipulative piece of militaristic propaganda, I've come to realize Starship Troopers has nothing to do with fascism. The side of Heinlein represented here is individualism, and fascism, in practice, has little regard for the individual. I think that the book carries forward arguments for meritocracy here, which is subtler than the triumphing of the will (generally a dictator's) that happens in the fascist nation. In the Starship Troopers society, only those who have served a successful term in the military (combat or otherwise -- all of the ancillary services are clearly under the aegis of the military) get the right to vote. Only those who have proved their worth have the franchise. Heinlein has said elsewhere that both democracy and autocracy are fundamentally flawed (in the sayings of Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love), and here he supplies his own answer. I don't pass judgment on his idea, because science fiction gives us interesting thought experiments about society and humanity like no other genre can. However, I think it's unfortunate that the only meritocracy that Heinlein can conceive of is a militaristic one. It's also unfortunate that the structure of the military meritocracy in Starship Troopers reminds me of nothing so much as a moment in another thought experiment, Orwell's 1984, the moment when Winston discovers the rationale behind the society in which he suffers: the perpetuation of power, pure and simple. The people in the power structure of Starship Troopers rest easy that theirs is a natural right, and what's more, a kind of ongoing social Darwinism, and this rhetoric is seductive and myopic. In Chapter 12, Major Reid asks why their system of rule has never suffered any revolutions and the answer comes back that anyone capable of such a thing has already joined the army. I suppose this is the heart of my objection to the book: here, so many elements of humanity are devalued, other kinds of courage or service de-valorized. And the conclusion about resistance being the sole province of aggressiveness channeled into the military is plain wrong. Heinlein wrote this book a few years before the civil rights movement began in the U.S., but there were other examples he should have heeded.

Here's a thought experiment. To write a story, where the people who get the vote are those who have proved in some way, whether it be by clearing land mines, fighting child poverty, or marching against some injustice, that they understand the necessity of seeing past their own selfish interests. Ridiculous perhaps (and some of my objections against the system of Heinlein's book would stand just as firmly). But it makes you think, doesn't it? Makes you think how human actions could be skewed towards destructive behavior, or towards constructive. I don't espouse meritocracy, but even within such an idea, there are different stories here to be told than Heinlein's.


Also see the review of the movie based on this book.


First posted: December 11, 1997; Last modified: April 28, 2001

Copyright © 1997, 2001 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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