My Love/Hate Relationship: Starship Troopers

So, here’s the thing, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein was the first science fiction book I ever read and in all honesty, it had a huge influence on me. I was all of fifteen years of age and heavily into a role-playing game called Traveller and was cruising my high school library for a book to give me ideas for gameplay. The title caught my attention as a book likely to inspire space adventure ideas so I checked it out.

Mind meet blown.

Now, keep in mind, I was just fifteen. This was also my first experience with a challenging novel that wasn’t part of an English class assignment. Heinlein was a master of the genre and at the hight of his form when he wrote Starship Troopers, and it is easily one of the top five examples of his work (The Cat Who Walked Through Walls…not so much). Within these pages, I learned that science fiction is more than hardware and alien locals. I learned that science fiction is meant to challenge one’s notions about society and the individual’s place within it. In this task, Heinlein succeeded as I would never again take my societal point of view entirely for granted. But, on other levels, he failed, and any honest critique must reflect on those failures as well.

Before I dive into the book, however, I need to mention the 1997 movie of the same title. The two only bare a passing resemblance to one another…and the movie sucks. Now, back to our regularly scheduled book.

The book chronicles the military career of young Johnny Rico who joins the military after having a falling out with his parents. The military, in this future age, is THE public institution after which all others come in a distant second at best. Only veterans can vote, work as teachers, be policemen or become elected officials. In this society, anybody can join the military as a matter of right, but only the honorably discharged can call themselves “citizens.”

We follow young Johnny through basic training, first combat deployment, second combat deployment, officer training school and then another combat deployment. The book ends (spoiler alert) with Johnny’s chance meeting with his father in a spaceport bar. His dad is now a soldier too, having joined after Johnny’s mother died in an alien attack. As father and son “reconcile” the spaceport’s PA system announces that their separate ships are soon to depart and father and son say goodbye–the end.

As a kid, I loved this book and it would remain on my list of “best books ever” for quite some time. I especially thought that Heinlein’s concept of a “Mobil Infantry” that shot out of starships in capsules to raid alien planets in power armored suits was particularly awesome (and why they left that part out of the movie I will never understand). Then, I re-read it in my 30s as I was attending an advanced US Army school. That’s right, I became a soldier myself. Possibly due to Starship Troopers‘ influence, and possibly for a host of other reasons. I joined the service–two of ’em actually, Navy and Army in that order. However, reading this book as both an adult and as a soldier, I found to be quite a different experience from reading it as just a kid and a gamer.

For one thing, I found the book EXTREMELY one sided. Heinlein gives us one point of view character who is essentially a blank slate. Johnny Rico accepts everything the army tells him and never questions the necessity of military regulations or customs. In fact, except for his parents, all the characters in this book support the military’s influence on society and obediently march along. And as for his parents’ objections to the military, well mom’s death at the hands of aliens and dad’s enlistment seems to indicate the end of that argument without further debate or even nuance.

As a man who has served in the military, I can attest that MANY divergent opinions exist within the ranks of any formation. The military is far from a flawless institution and is full of contradictions. Soldiers understand this and often struggle to do their duty in such a chaotic environment. In retrospect, I think Heinlein did his troopers a grave disservice by painting them with such a monochromatic brush. Thinking about all the brave, flawed, humorous and insightful soldiers I’ve served with, I can imagine how Starship Troopers could have been a much stronger story with a little less military perfection and a bit more diversity jammed in.

But thinking about Robert A. Heinlein’s actual military career, one can see why he stuck to such a ridged point of view. As a young man, Heinlein attended the US Navy Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He lived that spit and polish life for four years with other young men of his social class during the 1920s. He then served honorably until he was forced to leave due to health reasons prior to World War II. Thus, never having served in wartime, he could only imagine the stresses a guy like young Johnny Rico would have gone through and it shows.

In the end, Starship Troopers is an idealized concept of what the military “should” be like according to a guy who never got shot at. It is also a work of “tour guide” science fiction, by which I mean that the book’s purpose is to show the reader this perfect world–and not to tell the reader a good story. I will grant that many of Heinlein’s ideas are worth discussing; such as the concept of earned citizenship. However, the one-sided arguments he gives makes his point rather dully in the end.

As a work of science fiction anthropology, however, I do recommend Starship Troopers. It is the first work to call itself “military science fiction,” and all such works that follow owe an intellectual debt to this novel (including mine). However, if you’re looking for an entertaining book you will probably be disappointed. And, I’m afraid, you will also be disappointed if you are looking for a book that challenges you with strong arguments and counter-arguments.

I loved this book once, but sadly, it looks like I outgrew it a long time ago.

By Clayton J. Callahan

2 thoughts on “My Love/Hate Relationship: Starship Troopers”

  1. rewatch the movie m8, but try to see it as verhoeven’s response to the book rather than a straight adaptation. cheers!

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  2. I also think that you should give the movie another try. Heinlein’s book was great for ideas when I was 15 but, as you point out, it’s not really that much of a story. Neumeier, the script writer for the movie, did a *much* better job of giving us an actual story with multiple characters who aren’t just blank slates. Plus, most of Heinlein’s ideas made it into the movie, right down to the idea of whipping as an acceptable alternative to prison. I’ll always be grateful to the book for making me stop and question things like birthright citizenship that I’d never thought seriously about because I’d never heard it questioned. But the movie is a lot more fun than the book if you can let go, as T16 said, of expecting a straight adaptation. Even though I agree it sucks that Verhoeven didn’t have enough of a special effects budget to cover both the Bugs and powered armor suits.

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