Saturday, July 09, 2016

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic that should be on everyone’s sci-fi reading list.

It was, I have to admit, very different from what I expected—and so much better. I suppose I had the horrible 90s film with the same title too much in my head, but that monstrosity basically just steals the title, some character names, and the idea of a war against alien bugs.

The story telling is masterful. There isn’t a lot of action—especially for a book about war—but there is a lot to chew on as we see Rico develop and think about the different themes of the book. Also, I realized that from Gundam to many well-known sci-fi books about space wars in the future, this book was the progenitor.

I don’t quite understand why it is considered so controversial. Some claim it is ‘fascistic;’ a criticism that makes little sense unless you confuse the movie for the book. But this is pretty silly since the movie isn’t in any real sense an adaption. (According to the Wikipedia article about the book, the director of the movie admits to not being able to read the book because it was “boring” and that he hated it; also the title of the book and other superficial details from the book were grafted onto to a pre-existing script for marketing reasons).

In the book itself there is nothing resembling fascism—the government is explicitly a representative democracy (though with a limited franchise). We don’t see one-party rule or evidence of authoritarianism. We don’t see much of civilian life, but from what we do see it seems relatively free and unhindered. Military service is completely voluntary and the recruiters try to deter enlistment. There’s nothing to suggest a corporatist fascism like in Firefly (i.e. Blue Sun). There’s also nothing to suggest the racist fascism of the Nazis either. The idea that this book is at all fascist is utterly groundless.

Another criticism is that it is militaristic or pro-military. In many ways, this is true (though I am not sure that this in itself is a criticism). The soldiers in the book are portrayed positively. We don’t come across crooked or incompetent soldiers or officers (at least not ones that make through training). No loafing soldiers whining about their situation or officers redirecting supplies for sale on the black market. There are a few things to consider here. First, this is an all-voluntary army, even amidst a war. There are many intentional points along the way designed to weed out bad characters or those with the wrong motives for joining up. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some loafers or crooks that make it through, but you are not going to have many Hawkeyes or Klingers hanging around the mess.

Second, the units we see through Rico’s eyes are the elite of the elite—this is not a full view of the entire Federation military. There are lots of indications that the military as a whole is run differently than the Mobile Infantry. And by the time we really see these guys in action, there is a full blown war going on. So it makes sense that Heinlein portrays them as he does Heinlein did indicate that book was a paean to infantry soldiers who he viewed as having done the toughest job in wars. The book makes several historical connections to older wars and the infantry solider throughout time. It is in these ways that it is pro-solider.

But if this is all that was behind this ‘controversial’ claim, that’s pretty weak sauce. The deeper issues are the issues raised in the discussions of “History and Moral Philosophy” class. I didn’t agree with all of the ideas presented for sure, but that’s beside the point. These classroom discussion are what makes the book so great. It asks you to think about these issues: Who should have the voting franchise? Who should rule and why? What is the point of war? What institutional arrangements can lead to a more stable and prosperous society? The characters in the book have answers, and there is some reason to think Heinlein is sympathetic to these, but that’s not the point. The point is that the question are posed, and in a philosophy class no less. The instructor (and the author) wants you to think about these questions.

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