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Worlds Without End Blog

Starship Troopers Posted at 5:07 AM by Emil Jung

emil

Starship Troopers

Very few science fiction novels have aroused such controversy over the decades as Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.  This militaristic epic, winner of the 1960 Hugo Award, has been accused not merely of glorifying military values but of endorsing fascism to the point that one could say that the Terran Federation is analogous to Nazi Germany. An extreme analysis of course, which in our post-modernist world is terribly unfair, but there is no denying that Starship Troopers is indeed a pseudo-Darwinian rationale for an endless inter-species war of all against all.  The novel, as it stands accused by many critics, rapidly degenerates into a series of lectures about politics, history and philosophy by way of various mouthpieces; and reverberates “that Heinlein voice.”

Oddly, I still found it compelling and stimulating, taking an interest in its political and moral philosophy rather than being converted to what is advocated in the text. It’s actually quite far from the fascism it is accused of. Anyone who can understand the oath may serve, regardless of their attributes or abilities. There are no wars within the human species, with lots of personal freedom, where almost everyone is reasonably well off and people who despise the government can do so openly and fearlessly.

A student of history will notice that the communal ideology of the alien “Bugs” is virtually identical to Western Cold War understanding of Communism and the Soviet Union. There is a delightful, explicit critique of Marxism as Rico concludes at one point:

“We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total Communism can be when used by a people adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we care about expending ammo.”

Virulent anti-Communist! Undoubtedly right-wing in its politics and unashamedly militaristic but also one of the finest coming-of-age narratives in science fiction.  We follow Rico’s rites of passage, making many mistakes along the way, and contrary to a glorifying view of war, avoiding blind heroism. (Don’t ever confuse the book with the movie sharing the same name!)

It is undeniably a significant work in the history of the genre, pioneering an entire sub-genre of military space opera, even if only paradoxical in that many, like Joe Haldeman and Orson Scott Card, have written fiction in conscious opposition to the philosophy espoused in Starship Troopers.

“To the everlasting glory of the infantry…”

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13 Comments

Thomas Baughman   |   16 May 2011 @ 00:45

Starship Troopers is pretty Fascistic, but that does not mean it is not worth reading. It is a great story.

Mattastrophic   |   16 May 2011 @ 02:11

I couldn’t finish the book. I do grant that the politics are more nuanced than some of the critics allege, but while it did define the military science fiction genre I don’t think it is so much military science fiction as it is a political treatise masquerading using the military aspects as a vehicle. At its core its a political book, and while I don’t have a problem with that per se, after a while it grated on me. That’s why I have yet to finish a Heinlein book, although I do intend to give the Moon is a Harsh Mistress another go some day. Some day… That said, I do agree that it is a seminal book in the history of SF, and one can argue that is precisely BECAUSE it is so controversial.

Deven Science   |   16 May 2011 @ 11:32

Strangely, this is literally the one Heinlein book that I haven’t read. I love all of his books, but I’ve just not gotten to this one, yet.

MT in Austin   |   17 May 2011 @ 08:19

There is no denying Heinlein’s politics get in the way of his writing. There is also no denying his literary prowess. Heinlein is a master of tight language. I would not say ST is important because it is controversial. Many books irritate readers but do not gain close to the notoriety of RAH’s novels. He didn’t win Hugos and Nebulas because he was controversial. He won because he was a master SF writer. ST is a great book. I read it when I was a teenager. My son read it when he was in 3rd grade. We both loved it and still do.

Emil   |   17 May 2011 @ 09:00

@MT, yes! I’m a huge Heinlein fan. At the time he challenged the old guard to imagine different futures and suggested that the conservative sf people where writing was a thing of the past. What he has brought is a "new sf" interested not so much in amazing inventions and heroic scientists as in societies and cultures of the future. His writing presents disturbing, often subversive alternatives to the "pulp" mainstream of his time. That is why fans awarded him the Hugos, and his peers the Nebulas.

Meridian   |   22 May 2011 @ 02:21

I think the main problem with the book is that Heinlein comes close to lionising war, and certainly he claims it’s good for the soul and the body politic – if not necessarily for the human body. But it was written by a man who spent WW2 working in a shipyard and never saw a shot fired in anger, so the smell of hypocrisy keeps drifting over the reader. That’s not to say that someone who has never fought cannot write an effective book about war, and many have, but that smell makes reading the book uncomfortable even when you are enjoying it – as I did. M

Carl V.   |   26 May 2011 @ 23:07

I read this one for the first time a few years ago. I had been very reluctant to do so as I wasn’t a fan of the film adaptation. I’m glad I overcame that and went ahead and read it because I really enjoyed it. People can read into books what they want and although I wouldn’t deny that there are political and social things going on in this book that doesn’t stop it from being a grand adventure and a whole lot of fun to read. I was very pleasantly surprised by the story, and although not my favorite Heinlein, it ranks near the top.

Thomas Baughman   |   27 May 2011 @ 01:34

Carl is right. The book was way better then the movie.

Emil   |   27 May 2011 @ 01:55

@Carl @Thomas – the movie seems to be a combination of elements from "Starship Troopers" (mainly the names of characters and militaristic philosophy) and "Armor" by John Steakley (some action scenes). We should NEVER confuse the book with the movie. Why it was allowed to ever share its name with the book, remains a mystery. The original working title was "Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine." The scriptwriters claim not to have been aware of Heinlein’s book at the time (hogwash) and Verhoefen himself stated that he never actually finished reading the book because of the boring first few chapters.For me the film is nothing more but a crude sf action film. Consider its sequels, it’s a shame that the franchise shares the name with Heinlein’s novel.

Dave Post   |   27 May 2011 @ 09:53

@Emil: I’m reading Armor right now and the battles with the "ants" are described almost exactly as the bug battles in the Starship Troopers movie though the armor is much more significant than the shoulder pads and helmets the movie budget allowed for. Such a bad movie in so many ways but it’s still a guilty pleasure for me. I mean, NPH as a psychic Gestapo general! I saw the movie long before I read the book though so I don’t feel the outrage as acutely as most fans of the book.

Carl V.   |   27 May 2011 @ 14:44

At least Verhoefen was honest, because if he said he had read the entire book the film would prove that to be a lie! I always cringe when I hear of directors and/or screenwriters who are "adapting" a work and admit that they haven’t read it.

steve davidson   |   07 Jun 2013 @ 12:07

wow – some of the comments here are based on such tremendous ignorance of the history of the genre, the evolution of SF and Heinlein himself it’s staggering.

First this: “But it was written by a man who spent WW2 working in a shipyard and never saw a shot fired in anger, so the smell of hypocrisy keeps drifting over the reader.”

Terribly, terribly wrong. Heinlein graduated from the Naval Academy, served well and in important assignments and was felled by tuberculosis: he spent quite a bit of time and energy trying to get back in to the armed services. Ultimately he settled for what he could get, a civilian appointment.

Next This: ” At the time he challenged the old guard to imagine different futures and suggested that the conservative sf people where writing was a thing of the past. What he has brought is a “new sf” interested not so much in amazing inventions and heroic scientists as in societies and cultures of the future.”

You are attributing John W. Campbell’s accomplishments to RAH; Campbell instigated the ‘golden age’ by discovering the authors who wrote the kinds of stories he believed ought to represent the genre. Heinlein was one among many. If you read his early short stories (mostly published in Astounding), you will discover that there is not much difference between them and the standard fare – except that the reliance on science and engineering was stronger and the stories focused on people, not BDOs or strange planetary ecologies. RAH would go on to become a master of the field because of the strength of his writing, but he did not set out to turn SF on its ear – Campbell did.

Then this: “I think the main problem with the book is that Heinlein comes close to lionising war, and certainly he claims it’s good for the soul and the body politic”

Where does he make that claim? The book is not about lionising war – it is about responsibility. The military background is there because it is only in that context that the true boundaries of what real responsibility means can be higlighted and examined.

And there are multiple suggestions that somehow, RAH the man personally reflects the text. How then reconcile ST with Stranger in a Strange Land?

What most people seem to forget about Heinlein is that he was a master at world-building and thought experiments: he would pick an issue to explore and then remain true to what it revealed upon examination – regardless of his own personal thoughts. If you pretend that someone is presenting you with a “hypothetical” when reading him, you’ll be a lot more comfortable with the ride.

Kevin Leslie   |   07 Jun 2013 @ 19:53

steve davidson’s comment is the only one on here worth reading…

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