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Starship Troopers

by Robert A. Heinlein


This was the 6th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1960 at the 18th Worldcon, Pittcon, in Pittsburgh, PA.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in June 2019.



By sheer coincidence, I found myself presenting on the Paul Verhoeven movie adaptation of this famous novel at Phoenix Fan Fusion in late May, as one of my fellow Awesomelys picked it for one of our sets. I'd just read the book afresh for my run-through of the Hugo Award winners for Best Novel and it was fascinating to compare the two, not least because the book has garnered many accusations of being fascist but the film is far more overt on that front, its philosophy being a clear 'kill everything that isn't like us'.

What surprised me most about the book, especially after watching the movie, was how the central war with the Bugs from Klendathu really isn't important. In fact, with the sole exception of the opening chapter, they aren't even mentioned for fully half the page count. Even during the war, we spend a majority of our time on this spaceship or that one getting from A to B with only hints of what's going on elsewhere being picked up at waystations.

I should mention that I've read Starship Troopers before but it's been a surprising long time since I read it last. I devoured everything Heinlein wrote as part of my childhood introduction to science fiction and he was the first sf author whose every book I read. However, when I come back to his works, as I do periodically, it's usually to his juveniles or to my personal favourites, like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This book tends not to be included among his juveniles, even though it was originally aimed to be one; its rejection by Scribner led to him writing it as an adult novel instead. It is, however, generally regarded as the last of the 'early Heinlein novels'. It marks the point at which the author stopped writing for children and started to write for adults.

The book aims to do two things and it does them both very well.

Initially, it explores what it means to sign up for the infantry (here the futuristic Mobile Infantry of the Terran Federation) and endure training and service. Our protagonist is Johnny Rico, one of those all-American sort of boys whom Heinlein gradually lets slip isn't, once we've sympathised and identified with them, as a subtle attack on racism. He's actually Juan Rico from the Philippines, and we're with him throughout boot camp, initial deployment and officer training. When he returns to lead Rico's Roughnecks in battle against the Bugs, the novel promptly ends.

The other is a concept clearly aimed at being a discussion point, in which citizenship, which primarily means the rights to vote and stand for office, is restricted to those who have served. Now, this doesn't just mean in the armed forces, as first responders and other professions count as well; the point is that nobody can become a citizen until they have demonstrated that they can and do put their country first, even before their own life. These are the people, Heinlein suggests, who are most able to make decisions as to how their country should be governed.

There are a couple of points where this is hammered home, but the novel is not overtly preachy. There's certainly value in this proposition but there are drawbacks to it too, most obviously the complete lack of PTSD anywhere in the book. Given that there's an active war against the Bugs, there's no mention of how this logic would fly during peacetime. It has been argued by some that Heinlein's ideas tie to a frontier mentality in which territorial expansion is key and mankind will therefore suffer during peacetime.

Little of this is in the movie, of course, not least because Paul Verhoeven only read a couple of chapters before deciding that it was a bad book that he had no interest in reading. He had others read it instead and craft the script for him. I'm sure he would have hated every moment of what comes out of Rico's History and Moral Philosophy classes in school.

In fact, most of the key moments in the film either don't happen at all in the book or are combinations of different events. Happily, none of the plot conveniences that I despise the most about the film are present here. In fact, the only moment in the book that seems like a convenience emphatically isn't; in other words, when two important characters meet, it's a) not remotely by accident and b) at the worst possible time rather than the best.

Some ideas from the film do stem from the book, such as the fact that most starship captains are female, but the reasons are never explained. In the book, it's because women are recognised as having better reactions. This is countered as a progressive idea by the fact that women can't serve in the Mobile Infantry, whose members see women as one reason to fight. It's odd to see a single novel acknowledge the superiority of women in at least one way, only to then reduce them to mere objects to fight for.

The best thing about the book is the coming of age story of Johnny Rico, an impressive arc masterfully controlled. As much as I enjoy all of Heinlein's juveniles, most of which were also coming of age stories, this one has them beat in terms of detail and character flow. I also can't fail to mention the influence that this novel has had on the world of science fiction. Arguably the entire military sf subgenre owes its existence to this one book, which includes a number of other winners of the Hugo for Best Novel.

The worst thing about the book isn't its many sections which argue for both corporal and capital punishment; it's the general lack of a plot. Those who read the book under the assumption that it's a thrilling account of a space war will be sorely disappointed. The war is a MacGuffin here and the Arachnids serve mostly as an analogy to Communists. The plot is Juan Rico, pure and simple.

Heinlein certainly threw a lot of himself into this book, not least his own experiences in the military, and it's fair to assume that many of the views proposed are his own. However, if I've learned anything from Heinlein over the years, it's that sometimes both sides of an argument contain validity. I see this book partly as a coming of age story and partly as a magnificent starting point for discussions in a whole slew of directions. Like much of Heinlein's work, I find that I can agree with a lot of it, disagree with a part of it and still thoroughly appreciate the whole.

Starship Troopers won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1960, becoming only the sixth winner, as this award was not given in 1954 or 1957. Its competitors were as thoroughly varied in style as they have been remembered differently. Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai! and Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan are books on my shelves, albeit very different ones, but I don't believe I've ever heard of Murray Leinster's The Pirates of Ersatz and I'm sure that I've never heard of Mark Phillips's That Sweet Little Old Lady. Any which way, Starship Troopers is surely the safest winner of the Hugo for Best Novel up to that point. Even its naysayers seem to agree with that.


A Case of Conscience | A Canticle for Leibowitz

Next month: another classic that I read when I was younger, Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, about which I have only vague memories.

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Last update: 17th November, 2019