Retro Review: Starship Troopers

People who try to pigeonhole Robert A. Heinlein have a difficult time of it. Heinlein wrote a book that might be considered the bible of the right and, also, a book that might be the bible of the left. Readers who liked and admired Starship Troopers often, at least in my estimate, disliked Stranger in a Strange Land. It is worthy of respect, as even most of Heinlein’s weaker novels are, but it suffers from being too many things to too many people. Stranger may not have remained as admired as it once was, but Starship Troopers is. The movies, thankfully, have not managed to ruin the brand.

Starship Troopers, like its counterpart, is difficult to categorise. Is it a military SF story? Is it a polemic? Is it for war? Or against war? A condemnation of fascism or a pro-fascist statement? Or …?

At its core, in my opinion, Starship Troopers is two things. First, it is the story of a young man coming of age, joining the military and maturing into a seasoned officer. Second, it is an argument in favour of military preparedness, and, perhaps more importantly, a reasoned and logical approach to society. Indeed, the world of Starship Troopers is both freer and unfreer than ours; on one hand, personal liberty is at an all-time high; on the other, there are harsh punishments for criminals and voting rights are only given to those who volunteer for Federal Service (which can be anything from two years in the military to two years working as a ditch-digger.) But more of this later.

Juan Rico, the main character, is introduced to us (chronologically speaking – the book jumps around in the manner of a recruitment movie) as a teenage boy approaching adulthood, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the breed. Discovering that his closest male friend and female crush are signing up for Federal Service, Juan joins up too. An aptitude test puts him in the Mobile Infantry and he is promptly shipped off for training. Heinlein details basic training (USMC training, in many ways) very well; Juan admits, to himself, that he came very close to quitting several times before finally being assigned to a platoon. Unluckily for him, a war has just started and the book follows him through his growth into an officer and eventual command of his own.

Indeed, for all that he is a walking trope, Juan is a very likeable character. He is understandable, even when he is unsympathetic. (He isn’t very impressed with his father, even though he is quite the lucky child.) His slow growth is very readable and very familiar to anyone who went through basic. One may argue that his story isn’t a genuine MIL-SF adventure, but I don’t think that’s the point. The story is about Juan growing into a young man.

And, once Juan is firmly established as a likeable character, Heinlein casually informs us that he’s Filipino. But more on this later too.

The second aspect of the book is presented to us though a series of classes Juan was forced to take in High School; History and Moral Philosophy, taught by Colonel Dubois. (We and Juan learn, during the Boot Camp section, that Colonel Dubois was actually a Mobile Infantryman himself.) Heinlein takes full advantage of this format to put forward a series of propositions, some of them that still resonate to this day. Indeed, this includes:

“My mother said violence never solves anything.” “So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”

And he continues:

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 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.”

And he is right.

The single most controversial idea in the novel is that the franchise should not be given, but earned. The reasoning is simple enough – we tend to value what we have to fight to obtain more than that which we are given freely. And, done properly, it might well produce a class of voters who take it seriously. It’s made clear in the book that the government has to take anyone who wants to serve (regardless of little details like physical condition), something that neatly counters the idea that this is a war-mongering society with a fascistic government. Indeed, the war with the bugs is one fought reluctantly, against a foe who is seemingly implacable and inscrutably alien. (A concept that David Weber and Steve White would follow up on in their Starfire novels.) But it is also a war that has to be fought. We cannot negotiate with an enemy who can’t or won’t talk to us.

At base, Dubois – and through him Heinlein – ask if we have a right to survive. And it is a pertinent question. Human history is shaped by war – and by the strong crushing the weak, a fact reflected in everything from the rise and fall of Rome to the destruction of the Native American civilisations and the atrocities committed by the Taliban and Islamic State. It may not be moral to destroy an entire society, but it has happened – and, perhaps, it will happen again. Heinlein wrote to warn against complacency and, frankly, it is a lesson we would do well to heed. The world is red in tooth and claw and those who lower the defences risk everything.

Heinlein was not, I think, a lover of war. Starship Troopers is not a pro-war book. Indeed, many of the civilian characters dismiss the military prior to the war. (Juan’s father is rather sour on the military until after the war starts, whereupon he joins up to defend his world.) But Heinlein also understood that some wars had to be fought and that some enemies, the communist world in particular, had to be stopped. It is easy to forget, nowadays, just how threatening the Soviet Bear appeared in 1959, particularly after the horrors of World War Two. Heinlein feared what would happen if America let down its guard and allowed itself to be seduced into complacency … and rightly too, I think. International Communism, like Islamism, was a lethal threat. Better to nip a problem in the bud than risk allowing it to flower.

Perhaps more strikingly, for its era, Heinlein’s society was non-racist and, to some extent, non-sexist. This may not be easy to see, as Heinlein tended to portray Middle America as the ideal, whatever colour the Americans happened to be. And yet, Juan is hardly the only POC in the book – there are recruits from Africa, Turkey, Japan and many other nations. Furthermore, almost every naval officer we meet is female – the book states that women handle starship flying better than men. True or not, it was a radical idea for its era.

It’s easy for me to write about a black girl in magic school, or a mixed-race woman commanding a starship, but Heinlein lived and wrote in a very different time. Publishers would probably have declined to publish a book that featured, right from the start, an explicitly black character. Even Heinlein – who wasn’t considered the grand master of SF when he wrote Starship Troopers – couldn’t break the colour bar openly. But he could – and he did – introduce us to the idea that people, of whatever colour, are human … simply by getting us to like them first or showing them as equals. The multitude of POC in the background of Starship Troopers – and Star Trek – is more important, perhaps, than the main character who is branded as the first black man or woman or whatever who takes the lead. The people who argue that Heinlein was a racist are either unfamiliar with the greater body of his work – someone who only read Sixth Column might be excused, although even that book drew lines between good and bad guys that weren’t always based on colour – or unaware of the constraints under which Heinlein wrote. Heinlein liked needling the preconceptions of the time – he mischievously told the readers of Podkayne Of Mars (reviewed here) that Poddy’s parents were considered superior sorts, despite being mixed-race – but there were limits. This, alas, is often forgotten in our rush to condemn figures from our past.

Heinlein also touched on other ideas that don’t get mentioned so often today. He openly admits that mistakes happen and sometimes the consequences can be disastrous. One operation fails, either through political interference or military incompetence – either way, it failed and there is no point in constant recriminations. He openly advocates a form of ‘broken windows’ policing, stating (probably correctly) that corporal punishment would cut down on crime. His characters reflect on a time when scientists (intellectuals) ran chunks of the world, only to watch their utopias (communism and socialism, in his day) fall apart when their ideals clashed with the real world. And, most importantly of all, he discusses the need to maintain superior military force. Heinlein would have remembered the Soviet invasion of Finland. He knew that weakness could – and did – invite attack.

Starship Troopers is also remarkably clean. (Certainly when compared to many modern-day books.) Juan might have signed up because of his crush – and he goes on a couple of dates with her during the novel – but there are no moments of the male-gaze and no sex scenes. Indeed, the dates are practically platonic. In some ways, there is an older paternalistic attitude running through the book – men fight to protect women – and yet, it also fits. A society that is unwilling to protect its people is doomed. On the other hand, the book was originally written as a juvenile novel (what we would call a YA book) and Heinlein was under a number of serious constraints when writing.

Stranger in a Strange Land does not resonate down the ages, at least partly because of just how silly parts of it is. The main character is superhuman, fantastically good at everything – and no amount of practicing his religion will, in the real world, turn you into a superhuman too. Indeed, as radical as it was at the time, it is small beer now. Starship Troopers, on the other hand, resonates because it speaks to truths that were as important in Heinlein’s time as they are now. On one hand, there is the slow growth into maturity; on the other, there is the timeless truth that we must fight to survive or die out.

And now, with our civilization under threat from within and without, it is something we really should bear in mind.

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  1. Excellent review. Read the book over 50 years ago. Thought then many of Heinlein’s insights were applicable to other challenges we face today. One of my all time favourite SF volumes. I believe Heinlein came from a military background, graduate of one of USA service academies. Gives him some added insight into his subject matter.

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