Review of Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”

starship

Cover art for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel “Starship Troopers”

I decided to re-read Robert Heinlein’s 1959 classic Starship Troopers (I probably last read it sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s) because science fiction writer Neal Asher‘s book Prador Moon (which I recently reviewed) was unfavorably compared to it by a few Amazon readers.

I must say Heinlein doesn’t disappoint. “Troopers” remains timeless, or nearly so, but as I understand it (I wouldn’t have picked up on this as a teenager), even in the late 1950s (and so much more now), the book was considered to have numerous controversial elements.

Yes, the idea that only military veterans are allowed to be full citizens with voting rights does go against the grain. However, this novel was Heinlein’s breakout book from “Young Adults” novels. Thus, Heinlein injected (supposedly) his personal perspectives into the world he created. His reasoning relative to citizenship is only a soldier, who is willing to give up his (all ground troops are males and most Navy pilots are females) life for the many of society has the moral and ethical perspective to casts a vote in that society. It’s also why he advocates for a volunteer only Army rather than a draft or compulsory military service for everyone. A volunteer willingly enters that world and can quit at any time during training. If the volunteer makes it to soldier, goes into combat, and remains, then they’ve established themselves as that ethical/moral model.

Addendum: Someone pointed out that I didn’t get the “citizenship” qualification just right. Here’s the correction:
The citizenship requirement is “not less than 2 years of Federal Service”. While most of this is military, it’s explicitly stated that, if you want to sign up, they have to take you. I believe the example from the book is something about “counting the hairs on a caterpillar, by touch, or something equally silly”. I only mention this because it’s often assumed that, in the ST universe, only the able bodied are eligible for citizenship.

The idea of youth crime and crime in general being responded to by swift, harsh punishment (public floggings) is another area that may be difficult for some to swallow. The book considered 20th century penal standards (as of 1959) to lenient and soft, resulting in an epidemic of repeat offenders and societal mixed messages about “understanding” criminal behavior. Heinlein seemed to believe that swift, sure consequences for crime, up to and including the death penalty, would lead to a more peaceful society.

As I mentioned, military service was strictly segregated between men and women. If written today, there would probably be more of a mix. While men are shown as definitely appreciating women, there is not a lot of interaction and no sexual scenes alluded to. Men have their skill sets and women have theirs, so in the military, they are both highly valued but rarely fraternize.

The protagonist, Juan “Johnny” Rico, is the eyes and ears of the story, and while there is a brief mention of him speaking Spanish and a Filipino fellow trooper speaking Tagalog, there is no other mention of race or ethnicity in the book. Today, such distinctions might be more highlighted, and some science fiction authors in the 21st century would probably make those issues the overriding focus of the novel. While Heinlein establishes “distinctions,” there are more differences between being “Terran” and “Colonial” than there are with race or ethnicity. A citizen is a citizen and a civilian is a civilian.

One interesting aspect is “the enemy.” The “Bugs” are roughly spider-like, somewhat larger than a person, and totally incomprehensible. They are organized in a hive society and operated by central brain entities (think Star Trek’s Borg), but that’s about as far as we get “into” them.

Heinlein makes no attempt to present the Bug psychology, their perspectives, why they are at war, if they consider this a war at all by human standards, or anything else. They are the most alien aliens in science fiction, it seems. This is in stark contrast to Asher’s Pradors, which are somewhat crab-like, but presented as a fully realized society (brutal to the extreme) with individual personalities and motives, and interactive family and societal struggles. We may not always understand why Pradors do what they do, but the reader is given the opportunity to try.

The “Bugs” in “Troopers” remain a cypher even at the final page of the novel.

For a military SciFi book, about half of the pages are not devoted to combat. Rico largely chronicles his experiences in the military within the larger context of his culture. Heinlein uses training, human transactions, family bonds, considerations of the war and the “Bugs” as methods for commenting, not on Rico’s future, but our present (and what science fiction writer doesn’t do that?). That’s probably why so many more modern critics find the novel uncomfortable.

I hate to do this, but to see a list of the “controversies” attributed to “Troopers,”, you’ll have to visit Wikipedia.

However, just to be fair, I also pulled reviews from Tor, Muse with Me, and SFReviews.net.

The upshot for me and for most other reviewers and SF fans, is that while some elements of the novel have a rather “blunt” perspective, “Starship Troopers” is the Grandfather of all military science fiction stories to come after it.

I’ve never seen the 1997 film version of the book, mainly because I heard director Paul Verhoeven‘s cinematic atrocity died in the reviews.

Heinlein’s novel should have been translated onto the big screen more or less “as is,” and given the episodic nature of the writing, plus the lack of a definitive ending, could well be adapted to a television series. Whoever currently owns the rights to “Troopers” should pitch the idea.

As far as I’m concerned, “Starship Troopers” should be required reading for science fiction fans and authors alike. People lose something by disregarding the history of the genre many claim to love.

Here’s my Amazon review.

Addendum: February 27, 2021: Someone sent me a link to Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles on Facebook. A 1990s television adaptation on DVD. Might be interesting.

14 thoughts on “Review of Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”

  1. The 1997 movie has some good elements to it, but it also has some elements that would have made Heinlein take up his weapons and hunt down the director had he lived to see it.

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  2. This is one of my absolute favorite books EVER for serious Sci Fi, long with ‘Alas, Babylon’. Actually, much of this era of Heinlein is among my favorites. The idea that race isn’t an issue is one of the best parts of this book. I’ve read this book a zillion times, my eldest has memorized it, and it took years for me to realise that racial distinctions didn’t exist. Not that I minded, it was just the way it was. Yes, many of his theories would not fly today. The crews not mixing isn’t an issue either. You know the women fly and the men drop. They depend on each other and everyone has a job and does it. The idea that one needs at least two years of active duty to have citizenship is squinchy, yet if more of our citizens did participate in the military, they would understand more. Or even if our citizens took the classes one needs to become a citizen of the US. Punishment is also one of those sqinchy issues. Yet, time and again, in the last years, bullies not getting punished makes me so frustrated! Writing a letter of apology to a kid you bullied is absolutely illogical. Kids know it is a worthless task and do it to get done and later bully on, because they are protected from consequences. Could talk about this book for hours, but won’t. I can’t even recommend it anymore because people take offense too easily. Many of my favorite authors are relegated to the back of the shelves because they are ‘not nice’. Like Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy or Have Spacesuit, will Travel. Both of those share ideas that are absolutely against modern ones. I don’t care, love them anyway!!!
    As many times as we’ve read this particular book, though, we tend to use quotes from ‘Alas, Babylon’ more! NOTE: the movies were HORRIBLE!!!!!!!!!! It is obvious no one read the book before writing the screen plays. Although, there is an aged anime one that isn’t too bad, according to my eldest.

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    • The cover of the 1979 paperback edition of “Alas, Babylon” looks really familiar, so I’m sure I’ve read the novel before. That said, I don’t recall a thing about it (I’ll have to add it to my lengthy “want to read again” list).

      The “problem” with these older SciFi novels is that the newest “edition” of SciFi authors and fans are obsessed with making the genre relevant in ways that doesn’t retrofit so well into decades past. Rather than simply admitting it was a different era and that any creative work is a product of its times (even if that work is set 5000 years in the future), they condemn the works and the creators. This is why we see so many awards having their names changed because (gasp) the human authors and editors involved could be not-nice people sometimes (admittedly, both Campbell and Lovecraft had opinions that were odious even in their own day and Hugo…though the award still bears his name…was a louse). Personally, I think that while we’ve gained some “voices” in the genre, mainly those considered “marginalized” as well as more international voices (the U.S. is perceived as pretty much having a lock on science fiction for most of its modern existence, though I don’t know how factual that claim is), but I think we’ve lost something as well. I think the fans as well as the authors have lost their sense of wonder about the future, about the possibilities of humanity, amid the scramble for significance, for righting long standing wrongs (real and imagined), and believing that who and what you hate is more important than who and what you love. In another sense, reading novels such as “Troopers” is a little like literary archeology. It’s a way to examine the past in order to understand where the genre came from and how we arrived at our today. It’s why I like writing more “retro” feeling SciFi, in order to recapture said-wonder. Unfortunately, the fans, both hard core and casual movie goers, are allowing themselves to be convinced that they want what they are told to want by the small but vocal driving force in the SF/F industry. More’s the pity.

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      • In ‘Alas, Babylon’, when the main character has his raw burger with egg…I’m always thankful we do NOT eat like that today!
        The words you have shared are spot on. Literary archeology is fun, but unfortunately, I think we are still too close to what is being dug into. If you look at Anne McCaffrey’s books, you can see how she graduated from soft porn in some books to absolute FUN sci fi in her later ones. Righting wrongs is something that has become so darn opinionated today, and in one of Anne’s books (Restoree) the female character would be rewritten. Yet, her son took over the Pern series and I can’t stand Todd’s books!!!
        Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts–

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  3. I recommend the movie if you liked “Robocop” as an exploration of an inverted totalitarian society. It also had shades of the Tombstone/Earp saga , in the way that the man with jurisdiction goes outside the law in his attempts to enforce it.

    I have no right to comment on this matter but its just in my blood, so to speak, so I’ll ask someone who can answer with some credibility– Do you think the outlaw heroes of Neuromancer influenced today’s “Army of One” mentality, and not just in the military but managerial culture as a whole?

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    • I don’t know why you believe you have no right to comment on this. Everyone should have a say (as long as that say is productive and relevant). Yes, I’ve seen the original Robocop film as well as Tombstone, and I’ve read Neuromancer (terrific novel). I don’t see that “going outside the law in order to enforce it” thread running through “Troopers.” If anything, it is strict adherence to the law (with a few detours) that actually promotes victory and (in Heinlein’s view) the stability of a society.

      If you’re commenting on the real world and pitting outlaw heroes against the status quo, I’d have to say that we have the “official” version of what the authorities say is happening, there’s the covert version they will never tell us about which is actually happening, and there are “outlaw heroes” in the form of the distributed hacker group “Anonymous,” the dubious and equality distributed “Antifa” and really, any group (this would include those that invaded the Capitol on January 6th) who “take the law into their own hands” because they believe the status quo are the real criminals.

      In Heinlein’s view, at least based on this novel, I believe he’d advocate for “strong, swift justice” against any “outlaw hero.” But then again, real life is a much messier affair than fiction.

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      • Thanks for the detailed reply. I only speak for myself, I make as many caveats as possible when speaking on anything related to military or political violence.

        I’ve avoided fights for most of my life, I’ve never been one of the troops or even called plays on a sports team, which is probably obvious, but I’ve also studied history in more depth than most Americans are able with work demands and educational neglect thrown into the picture.

        I also know one person who was in the capitol recently and some of my latest posts are addressed to that person in a humorous manner, since we were both educated outside the normal school system.

        Sorry I wasn’t more clear. I’ve been reading Tefertiller’s Earp history, and the part that reminded of Robocop is the Vendetta ride after the shooting of Morgan and Virgil. I suppose its a bit of a reach to compare that to the final act of Robocop, but I think the Earp legend is almost as important as the Bible and WWII in American mythos.

        When Earp rode out against the remaining cowboys he stepped outside the strict letter of the law, but I believe it’s harder to call him a vigilante in the same way that Joaquin Murrieta was in earlier decades (unless you are an especially devoted member of the Clanton family).

        There’s a good section in another Earp book about some of the academic attempts to paint his family as “incorporation gunfighters” for the emergent capitalist expansion, which is a little funny. It means some academic Marxists are put in the bind of defending the former Confederates who rustled cattle across the border in order to attack the Earp’s legacy. The Tombstone fight was an act to proctect the town, the later Vendetta ride is more ambiguous.

        What interests me about the Heinlen / Gibson contrast is that Heinlen seems to see a highly organized, social future, even in a military state. Gibson’s future is fragmented, schizoid to the point of hallucinatory dream. I don’t see his future as totally dystopian however, and I wish more “dark sci-fi” would explore the liberating possibilities of being a cyborg.

        Does Heinlen write much about human-machine symbiosis in his work?

        I don’t really look for heroes outside the imaginative realm anymore, but I thought about it and people like Aaron Schwartz and Snowden did take on the expanding security state in a direct way, using information to return some power to citizens.

        I recently wrote a post on the capitol incident called Political Football; antifa I’ve been at odds with from the start; it never seemed right to brawl with someone for holding or speaking bad opinions.

        Antifa became more of a vigilante arm of the Democratic party. All of these groups remind me of UK soccer casuals, only with more guns and ideology added to the mix.

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  4. I will defend the movie, for lots of good reasons, which are based on the fact that what Verhoeven intended is not necessarily what was made. Given that someone else wrote the screenplay this also makes sense. Verhoeven had an agenda, but is deluded in his statements.
    Forex this YouTube link, long, but breaks it down. If you watch it and disagree I would be happy to discuss it with you.

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    • The video is unavailable on YouTube, probably for the same reason that certain information sources are banned from twitter and Facebook. Someone sent me a link to a video about the “Politics of Starship Troopers” which was also banned on YouTube but hosted by a different provider. Be glad to discuss. “Starship Troopers” would probably be a worthy topic for a small panel to discuss in a podcast, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

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  5. Hi there, I love Heinlein – shame he would probably be cancelled these days.
    Just a heads up, I have written a followup piece about Jason Sanford.
    “We Need to Talk About Jason: Jason Sanford’s Writing, Underage Girls, Torturing Children and Child Abuse”
    http://matthewhopkinsnews.com/?p=7682
    Jason Sanford has published particularly vile material involving the torture of children, that may gratify paedophile sadists. I personally feel this material is not something that should be used to make a profit and would be concerned if he was allowed to attend WorldCon 2021.

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