Starship Troopers

by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1959
Printing: May 1987
ISBN: 0-441-78358-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 264

Buy at Powell's Books

I had many mental connections with Starship Troopers before reading it. It's perhaps Heinlein's most famous work (only Stranger in a Strange Land really competes). It essentially founded the military SF sub-genre. It's also a touchstone of the libertarian SF crowd and is somewhat notorious for some of its political suggestions. I was expecting another of Heinlein's well-paced, engrossing stories sprinkled with the occasional odd political rant and embarassingly bad characterization (particularly of women).

That isn't what I got at all, and that was quite a surprise.

Starship Troopers has only the barest outlines of a story. It is a fictional autobiography, written by a rich kid who enlists in the military on a whim driven by a few underlying personal tensions. It records his time in boot camp, follows him through a few combats and officer training school, and then leaves him as an officer still in the military. That's pretty much the entirety of the plot arc. There is no true villain (the Bugs that are the target of the ongoing interstellar war are more background than anything else), not much in the way of plot structure, only a handful of significant characters, and huge wads of exposition, political speeches, descriptions of government structure, and various other narrative sidetracks. In short, it's basically a fictionalized memoir.

As a novel, this book would be a failure, lacking the cohesiveness that would pull it together into a story. One develops some curiosity over the course that Johnnie's military career will follow, but it quickly becomes obvious that he'll succeed at anything with few actual setbacks and rise in the ranks to show off all parts of Heinlein's lovingly detailed command structure. It's not trying to be a novel; Heinlein was trying for something else entirely. And how successful that will be likely depends to a large extent on how interesting you find his constructed society.

Starship Troopers is, in essence, a description of a utopia. In fact, it is a description with considerably less window-dressing of story than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, even though the latter is more commonly associated with the genre. The point of Starship Troopers is not really to tell Johnnie's story; it's to give the reader a guided tour of the mindest and ethics of Heinlein's imagined military, to defend the wisdom of its structure and training protocols, and to propose and advocate a world in which only veterans in a fully volunteer army one can leave at any time are allowed to vote.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Heinlein's constructed world isn't a simplistic portrayal of some traditional side of US politics. Yes, he uses the typical tactics of the utopia: setting up straw men for his characters to shoot down, designing into the world problems that are perfectly solved by the utopia's solutions, and denying the opposing view any effective advocate. But he's clearly given some of the issues that arise real thought, and has (through the mouthpiece of various characters but most notably the veteran and schoolteacher Mr. Dubois) produced at least superficial responses to all the obvious objections. He's also obviously and deeply in love with the structure and honor codes of the military, and that love shows through glowingly in many of the vingettes that make up this book. It feels good when military honor and personal responsibility win through triumphantly.

Still, there isn't much here besides that. The bits of military action bog down in lists of equipment and meaningless bits of tactics presented in detail at odds with their lack of context. Johnnie's career is obviously artificial, every event an opportunity to either describe some other facet of the world or launch into a political argument. One never gets sufficient detail about the underlying interstellar war to care about it at all. In fact the soldiers seem strangely aloof from such war atrocities as the complete destruction of an Earth city, not to mention the overruns of many human colonies. They're too caught up being proud of each other and the merits of their service. There is, in short, essentially none of the dirtier emotional realities of war present here, despite a fair bit of blood.

That means the book will live and die on the strength of the utopia. I'll be blunt: I found it facile and stupid. I think Heinlein's government concept is riddled with gaping logic holes, mostly in the area of magic resistance to corruption acquired somehow by veterans and the complete lack of people carrying ulterior motives through their career in the service (despite the fact that there are easy non-combat assignments and the service is the path to all political careers). The complete lack of arranged favoritism to family members of those with power was markedly unrealistic; this is something that I'm sure we'd all claim to want to eliminate and something that's never been eliminated on this scale in the history of mankind. I also found chilling the degree to which Heinlein took the ethic of following orders into a gleeful abandonment by the military of any responsibility for political decisions, but then I find that chilling about real-life militaries. Other people disagree with all of these points. I'll leave the detailed political argument to the many other essays that have been written on this topic and just say that if you don't enjoy paens to military honor and service, you're unlikely to enjoy this book.

At least the sexism was mostly limited to in-character obsessions, some quaint notions of male and female military careers, and the obnoxiously repeated observation that women are the only thing really worth fighting for.

Heinlein is quite competent at putting together sentences, but usually he also puts together a plot to go with them. For such a well-known classic of science fiction, I was expecting more meat. You probably have to read Starship Troopers at some point to be reasonably well-read in science fiction, but I think it's a waste. If you do read it, or even if you don't, read The Forever War afterwards. Haldeman's skewering of Heinlein's portrayal of warfare, politics, and the military is far more eloquent and better-informed than anything I can write (and, as a bonus, it's a much better story despite a weak middle section).

Incidentally, having also watched the movie (before reading the book, in fact), I'm somewhat amused by the general dismissal of the movie as having nothing to do with the book. The movie manufactures quite a bit of dramatic plot out of necessity, since the book provides little structure for a traditional movie-style story, and it gets details of the technology ridiculously wrong. However, the movie not only reflects the events of the book, it often reflects them through the twisted mirror of well-targetted parody. Starship Troopers, the movie, often manages to capture what Starship Troopers, the book, feels like to a reader who doesn't buy Heinlein's utopia, namely militaristic propaganda intermingled with blithely dismissed horror. For that, if nothing else, the movie deserves a little credit.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-10-20

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