Fiction Review: "Starship Troopers" by Robert Heinlein

I first discovered Starship Troopers in my sophomore year of college, as I dove into the world of "good" science fiction novels. It's a novel I've read several times. I also had the misfortune of seeing the film that is apparently based on a thorough reading of a few sentences of the back cover of the novel...

Starship Troopers tells the tale of Johnny Rico's joining and service in the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry. The Federation is at war with  Arachnids (aka "bugs").

However, the plot of the novel is somewhat secondary - almost incidental. It is really a political manifesto. What is interesting is in the multiple times I've read this novel my own politics have shifted. Socially, I've always been liberal but over time my other views shifted from the right to the left.

The Terran Federation of Starship Troopers is a government in which the right to vote is only earned through at least two years of Federal Service. This service is implied to often, though not always, be of a military nature and is always dangerous. Much of the novel takes place in classrooms or training sessions, leading to criticisms that the novel is something of an "author tract" for Heinlein. There's a ton of things I could list but I'll try to summarize the premise briefly.

Heinlein advocates a society where full citizenship is gained solely by voluntary Federal Service, something which illustrates a willingness to put one's life on the line for the sake of society. In the military, everybody fights - there seems to be no exclusively logistical component to the military. Service is only voluntary - there is no draft. Officers come exclusively from the enlisted ranks. Also, a large discussion is dedicated to how horribly the obsolete democracies of the 20th century handled the problem of juvenile delinquency.

There's a lot more to it than that - indeed, I'd argue the point of the book is an expression of Heinlein's views. I know people that his society as ideal. I view it as interesting, though one I disagree with. I find that he confronts counterarguments to this theories with straw men arguments. For example, to dispute the idea that "violence never settles anything" he states:

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that, ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.”
This isn't a political blog so I'll keep my own politics to a minimum. But I can think of countless examples where violence, as opposed to solving something, makes an issue more unresolved. World War I toppled empires but left an unstable structure in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Iraq War left Iraq more chaotic than it found it. Yes, violence can solve some things. But far, far, from everything. I'd not even agree that it has settled more issues in history than any other factor. For all the violence of the 20th century, the Soviet Bloc toppled with barely a shot fired.

That said, Starship Troopers is a book which, by implication, invites the reader to participate in these arguments. I don't believe you could read it without putting a lot of thought to these types of issues, whether you wind up agreeing or not.

I've not said much about the plot. While it is secondary to the society Heinlein posits, the story of Johnny Rico is an interesting one. He winds up enlisting on little more than a whim and endures a brutal boot camp, all the more brutal as he can quit at any time. Unlike many of Heinlein's protagonists he is not hyper-competent, something which makes his tale far more interesting.

Technologically speaking, Starship Troopers is one of the most famous examples of the use of powered armor - soldiers which effectively become mobile tanks. I don't know if it was the first example of this or not, but it is science fiction trope made famous by this work.

Despite my own reaction changing over the years - or perhaps, because of that - I've always found Starship Troopers a worthwhile read.



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