JOIN THE ARMY AND SEE THE UNIVERSE!
In one of Robert Heinlein’s most controversial bestsellers, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest book camp in the Universe—and into battle with the Terran Mobile Infantry against mankind’s most alarming enemy!
Starship Troopers is a 1959 military science fiction novel written by Robert A. Heinlein, following Juan “Johnny” Rico through his military career in the Mobile Infantry (M.I.) of the Terran Federation, set against backdrop of an interplanetary war between humanity and a species of intelligent “pseudo-arachnids,” or simply “Bugs.” This is the first Heinlein book I’ve ever read, and the only one I’ve ever been compelled to pick up thus far. He is among other science fiction authors, such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, whom I always remember as important but don’t really go out of my way to read. Admittedly what drew me to this book was my history with the 1997 film adaptation of the same name directed by Paul Verhoeven. Having been released nearly four decades after the book, I wanted to see where it came from.
A couple of things stuck out to me about the book, most apparent when juxtaposing it to the film, which I could not avoid doing. First, there was how much of the story’s key plot points were actually mirrored between the two. The film takes a satirical approach to the source material’s fascistic and jingoistic qualities, while also looking a lot like “90210 in space” when not engaged in bloody carnage (which I was correct in assuming wouldn’t be a part of the novel). Nevertheless, despite not having seen the movie in years I could recognize clear points in Rico’s journey. I appreciate knowing that, while Verhoeven put his own particular spin on the story, a lot of it was quite faithful to the source material’s structure. It makes for a great way to compare the two creators’ vastly different perspectives on relatively the same story.
The other thing that surprised me, almost completely throughout, was how incidental the Bug War actually was to the story. The first chapter thrusts us into what it’s like for a soldier of the M.I. to be dropped into combat from orbit, some of their tactics, and basic functions of their powered suits, but this sequence doesn’t have them fighting against the Bugs, they are just mentioned in passing. Chapter two pulls us back into the past, where we follow Rico’s final days of high school, his decision to sign up, and so on from there, spending a lot of time going through boot camp. It isn’t until literally half way through the book (on page 104 of 208) that Rico (as narrator) states “I see that I didn’t make mention of how the Terran Federation moved from ‘peace’ to a ‘state of emergency’ and then on into ‘war.’” It is only from here that he goes on to explain some of the circumstances behind the conflict and characteristics of the Bugs themselves.
A coming-of-age story, the book reads much like a memoir, but he’s mostly recalling his experiences within the M.I., with its grueling training and strict hierarchy, as well as the ideology that governs his society, all of these shaping him into the man he would become. There is some controversy with these aspects of the novel, as they can be seen as borderline fascistic (if not fully), and definitely militaristic. It does a lot to glorify what becoming a solider does for those cut out for it, depicting them as disciplined, morally sound, exceptional people. It’s not quite framed through the lens of superiority, however, beyond the privilege that only veterans can be citizens that get to vote and run for public office. Any person who can understand the oath can enlist. Higher ranking officials are always depicted as wise, responsible, and privately compassionate people too, who maintain the rigorous standards for the betterment of society. Enlisted people as a group are never seen being aggressive, imposing, or oppressive to civilians either, there’s just the vague condescending notion that they know better than civilians do, but only because they made the choice to be so.
I think calling it outright fascist is a little too dramatic, though the institutions and events that take place could certainly be depicted that way quite easily (see film). What I do think, however, is that it’s naively utopian. I can suspend disbelief that this is how this fictional society works (I’ve accepted far more absurd), but in no way am I convinced that in reality things would be so prosperous with such a system in place, especially with its heavy use of corporal and capital punishment. There are numerous references to people receiving lashes for offenses, or hanged for loftier crimes, and I honestly don’t believe that could exist without creating a miasma of fear and resentment among the populace. The book, however, frames it as grim but necessary discipline that nobody really questions. Even those enforcing it have a “this hurts me more than it hurts you” mentality, as if this world somehow perfectly weeds out anyone who would feel differently. I can accept it as a fiction, but again, I think it’s unrealistic. For a novel that spends far more time with ideology than a bug war it did hurt the overall experience.
That all being said, Starship Troopers is an undeniably influential novel that I did manage to enjoy reading. It has been credited for being one of the first science fiction stories to push the idea of powered armour, and I’m not sure if any other stories had future military fighting space bugs before it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the first. The depth it goes into with military training and structure was quite interesting too. Though far from ideal, it is surprisingly progressive for its time as well, continually underlining the role of women as the best pilots and naval officers. Few get to even be named characters, but it’s something. If you find militarism distasteful, you probably shouldn’t pick this up. It glorifies it quite heavily. If you can see past it as merely a fiction, however, it makes for an intriguing coming-of-age story in a setting unique for its time.