The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers
On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.
Modern video games owe this book so much
In the future, after the collapse of every other form of democracy, a new type of government has arisen. In order to be a voting citizen, one must be a military veteran, to prove that he or she is altrustic enough to risk life itself in defense of civilization. The Federal Service is entirely voluntary, of course, and only a select few have what it takes. Enter Juan "Johnny" Rico, the first of his family to join up, subverting the expectations of his family and the predictions of his friends as he eagerly takes an oath and is shipped off to a particularly brutal bootcamp for the Mobile Infantry. As he grows accustomed to military life, war breaks out between humanity and a hive-minded alien race of bugs, and it is up to men like Rico to protect the human race.
Starship Troopers marks a significant turning point in the career of Robert Heinlein, a coming-of-age not just for Johnny Rico but for the author himself. No longer content to just write for young audiences, Heinlein branched out into something a bit more adult and a lot more controversial. This novel exploded onto the scene, with Heinlein genuinely surprised by how well it was received when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960. Of course, it had--and continues to have--very vocal detractors, who accuse it of being crass militaristic propaganda if not outright fascism. (One such critic would go on to direct the film adaptation we'll talk about next week.)
Let me address these criticisms directly, forcefully, and as unequivocally as I can: Heinlein is being deliberately provocative. While I do not doubt this novel springs from some of his own opinions, it is a gross charicature intended to draw a visceral, emotional reaction from the reader, not a political manifesto. It's true the novel was conceived as a reaction to the halting of American nuclear testing and the growing anti-military mood of the late fifties and early sixties, written by a veteran of the United States Navy. The post-WWII era of prosperity and patriotism was on the decline when Heinlein wrote his novel, and his writing is direct enough to conclude that this is, indeed, trying to elicit a wake-up call about the importance of military service and the dangers of a growing disrespect for such things.
This cover makes it look kinda stupid
If this were any writer but Heinlein, I'm not sure he'd earn the benefit of the doubt, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with his work should know to never, never take his writing at face value. I'm not sure he ever penned a single word without his cheek bulging. Given his well-known, well-established, and oft-repeated anti-establishment views and distrust of government, it would be strange, if not utterly ludicrous, to conclude that he genuinely yearns for a militant future where citizenship is only bestowed upon those who fight for their country. That would be like accusing John Lennon of jingoism.
Then again, Starship Troopers is not a dystopia, at least not by any competent definition of the term. Heinlein writes convincingly from the perspective of someone who has totally embraced the astonishingly detailed military ethos of his universe. No character offers a contrary viewpoint, not even Johnny's father, who eventually joins up himself after the war breaks out. This lack of a counterpoint gives the story an unsettling sense of inevitability, and that is precisely what Heinlein was going for. He is inviting readers to rebut the arguments expressed by his characters, but what frustrates so many is that those arguments are disturbingly compelling.
Still, it's not exactly a fun read. Heinlein's dialogue is as clever and snappy as ever, but what little plot there is is buried beneath mountains of obtuse philosophy, long descriptions of military life, and not particularly exciting details about how Johnny can shuffle all his responsibilities in order to inch his way up the heirarchy. There are places in the novel where it is straight-up exhausting, a chore to push through.
Dark Helmet with a blunderbuss in the Kingdom of the Spiders
The action scenes, when they happen, are mostly entertaining. However, even these are bogged down by too much arcane jargon--some real, a lot fictional--with the climax standing out as borderline incomprehensible. The best thing about the action has got to be the powered mech suits, a modern staple of militaristic sci-fi that was unheard of before Starship Troopers. Indeed, military sci-fi, as its own subgenre, can point to this novel as one of its primary sources of inspiration. I daresay that, without Starship Troopers, there would be no Aliens.
Frustratingly, though, the perspective of the novel resists describing the big picture. The Bug War is very thinly described, and though it seems like an interesting topic to explore, it's treated as background noise, with Johnny instead describing the essays he must write for his History and Moral Philosophy officer training course. The bulk of the novel reads like the memoirs of a fairly unremarkable grunt who is more interested in learning how to take orders than in how the actual war is going, and there are only so many pages of that a casual reader can be expected to take. (This exact formula--even down to the Bugs themselves--would later be borrowed by Orson Scott Card for Ender's Game, though Card manages to make it more entertaining by making Ender a much more important character than Johnny Rico could ever hope to be.)
Ultimately, then, this is an important and influential novel, but it's really only for those well-versed in Heinlein and know what to expect from him. Others are liable to find it obtuse, to find the untraditional narrative infuriating, and to find the politics downright offensive. Far be it for me to tell people how to "read right," but I fear a lot of readers--especially modern ones--are likely to read Starship Troopers wrong. ...It does have some of Heinlein's trademark sexism, though. There's no defending that.
-e. magill 7/18/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: