There are many schools of thought regarding the best manner in which a human can develop into being a responsible member of society. There are different types of institutions and beliefs, their programs hard to soft. There are cultures which value life within the family. And there are lifestyles which promote a lack of rules, everything free and easy as a means to discovering responsibility. Literature not immune, there are also many works of fiction which, directly or indirectly, admonish a manner or social environment in which a person can be brought to accountability for self and society—Huxley’s Island, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, and Hesse’s Siddharta among them. Feeling a manifesto as to the best mode of human development, Robert Heinlein’s 1959 Starship Troopers is another such novel. As much divisive as it is a product of the times, the novel has remained in print through the decades—and history—which have transpired since. Worth a read regardless whether the reader ultimately agrees or disagrees with the ideology presented, the length of this review will testify to the fact it is indeed a thought-provoking novel.
It is the future. The world is at peace, and all the countries have been united under one government: the Federation. In order to be a citizen—a voting member of society—you need to serve. Enter Johnny Rico, the son of rich, controlling parents. Wanting respectability rather than simply to follow the path his father envisions (university degree in economics and a high position in the family business after), Johnny rebels and joins the Military Infantry with the aim of passing boot camp to become a citizen. Basic training molding and shaping him in ways that shock, Johnny gets what he wants and much, much more.
Given the hard ideological line Heinlein drives throughout Starship Troopers, the novel is sure to cause a reaction. On several occasions the story of Johnny’s personal development via the military is interrupted for ethical and philosophical discussion on concepts underpinning society and those of the author’s—the merits of his own taking the forefront. Call it militarism, call it jingoism, call it what you will, at its most fundamental the novel is a belief in the value of personal development via the military. Given the more efficient, effective, (i.e. no-nonsense) manner in which soldiers deal with responsibility and hardships in our real world, it’s tough to argue with the basic idea that toughening the mind and body does indeed prepare one for the inevitable exigencies of this thing we call life. At the same time, the philosophy underpinning the methodology and the methodology itself, are wide open for discussion. Corporal punishment, hierarchal social structures, and the idea that in order to vote you must be willing to lay your body down for your country are all contentious. I will not descend into polemics of my own, but summarize by saying: such ideas are a dry forest waiting for the lightning of thought to kindle.
Regardless of whether the reader agrees with the author’s views, credit needs to be given for consistently using character and setting to develop the premise. Heinlein smooth and precise, the writing itself is a joy to read. As it also propels Johnny on a journey of personal discovery, it’s tough to fault Heinlein along structural and prosaic lines. He had an idea, outlined the best manner in which to express his thoughts, and went about writing a well-planned, cohesive narrative that manifested his concerns. It is thus possible to disagree with Heinlein’s views, but not easy to criticize the presentation.
Before diving into Starship Troopers, I read many reviews, in which several points appeared in common. Much of the criticism was pointed at the lack of a humanized enemy. The Skinnies and Bugs referred to in the same manner many soldiers referred to the North Vietnamese in the same faceless manner as the Vietnam War, the reviewers seemed to have forgotten that Heinlein was part of a generation where the line between good and evil was much clearer, the same way Heinlein seems to have been unable to pull his own head from the fishbowl of the times. Like Lord of the Rings, the evil of Starship Troopers is based on a form of aggressive tyranny that was present in the real world. Hitler was indeed an evil with few shades of gray. In the face of such militaristic hostility and genocide it is difficult to get touchy and feely, a war of good versus evil the result. Where problems start to creep in is when the sides are not as clearly defined; Heinlein’s theories wilt in the face of American involvement in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq—the equivocality of it all. Thus when Heinlein says: “War is not violence and killing, pure and simple. War is controlled violence. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force.”, it seems to imply the altruistic nature of government—that right and wrong can be easily segragated—which is a contestable idea to say the least.
Another point mentioned in several reviews is a basic assumption of the novel: humanity’s innate, irreversible animal nature. A soldier’s training is at one point paralleled with potty training a puppy—an idea which certainly causes liberal minds to balk. Other scenes, however, such as the criticism of a criminal justice system which shakes its finger at murderers and elicits apologies before setting them back on the street, will encounter less resistance. Regardless, the human animal is indeed on display, and which facet reflects light will be up to the individual reader.
Another major criticism leveled at Starship Troopers is its supposed glorification of war. Does the novel do so? I would say ‘no’. Scenes of violence are almost non-existent, there is no hero who slaughters the enemy in hordes, and in the end Heinlein does indeed treat the military like a tool, not a gore-factory. What I would say is that the novel accepts war as a part of life. That our current world exists in times of unprecedented peace is something that Heinlein implies is a dam that will burst. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots”, a Thomas Jefferson quote, one of many epigraphs Heinlein includes, is a chapter prefix that chomps at the bit to be tested for veracity.
And the last criticism of the novel I will discuss is its supposed “lack of a story”. While those looking for an action oriented tale which makes full use of the spaceships, weaponry, and powered armor so lovingly described will be disappointed, there certainly is a story in Starship Troopers. A bildungsroman wherein the military is the vehicle allowing the main character to develop himself, certainly the Johnny at the beginning is not the same as the Johnny at the end. There are battle scenes bookending the story and a handful of minor scenes scattered in the middle, but by and large it is his personal growth which is central to the text. It is best to approach the novel as such if it is to be engaged with meaningfully.
In the end, Starship Troopers is the coming of age story of a young man in the military. Wholly ideological rather than entertainment based, readers looking for a shoot ‘em up that features armed to the teeth exoskeletons will have to look to the myriad of anime and other forms of media which later latched onto the idea and ran with it. Full of contentious ideologies, at the very least it will cause a reaction. Whether that is nodding one’s head, shaking it, or just plain wide-eyed in amazement is most certainly up to the reader. Given the time that has passed since the novel’s publishing, it’s tough to correlate the altruism of the military given the wars we have seen. However, as it is still being discussed today, there must be some latent relevancy, making the novel at least worth a read.
A side note regarding the Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the novel: I saw the film in 1997 and walked away thinking it was a bit over the top—the glamorized violence and soap opera storyline difficult to swallow. Having since read Starship Troopers, I have a new appreciation of the film. In dialogue with the novel, it is clearly a parodied response to Heinlein’s rhetoric. Where Heinlein earnestly posits the virtues of a military education, Verhoeven presents scenes of uber-violence as a reminder that in the end the training is designed to produce blood and guts. The soap opera aspect is still crap, but the in-film advertizing, the veneration of life as a soldier, and the repeat eviscerations make Heinlein’s idea seem absurd—which was precisely Verhoeven’s point, it would seem. Given its focused coherence I still think the novel has more integrity, but the film certainly presents its ideology in an interesting, relevant light.