Monday, 1 November 2010

Review: Starship Troopers

Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) is in some ways a very easy or a very hard novel to review, depending on how you approach it.  On the one hand, it is an incredibly simple story.  Juan Rico, fresh out of high school, joins the army of the future, goes to boot camp, gets promoted, goes to officer training school, and gets promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.  The end.  

Okay, but what about the plot?  The human drama?  The characters?  The conflict?  Sorry, but that is the plot.  As to the rest, there isn't any.  There is no drama, the main character never grows and we learn nothing about him, the other characters are all the same character with different names and ranks, and there is no conflict.  As Alexi Panshin says in his analysis of the book:
Starship Troopers is in no way an account of human problems or character development.  There is no sustained human conflict.  The story is the account of the making of a soldier–or, rather, a marine–and nothing more.  The narrator goes in as a boot and emerges a lieutenant, and that is all.
Unlike Heinlein's earlier novels, Starship Troopers is a very hard read.  Nothing at all happens, but that nothing is stuffed with various incidents and minutiae about military life that fill up the pages like bran.  You could chop out whole sections of the book, add in linking text, and no one would ever know the difference.  It is, in Panshin's words, a recruiting film script.  There is no plot, no characters, but there is a lot of extolling the glorious life of being a soldier and the excitement of war.   

Curiously, for such a thin book, Starship Troopers is one of Heinlein's most influential and controversial.   And it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.  It has to do with the background material.  In other words, this is a book that for over half a century has had critics arguing about the costumes and backdrop rather than the play.

First off, there is the power armour; a battle suit that is essentially a walking tank that gives a man the strength of Hercules.  It's a neat little invention and one that has influenced science fiction up to the present day, but it's relevance to the plot?  Nil.  It's interesting, but it plays no more part in plot or character development than a pair of boots.  This can't be due to lack of imagination when you consider that his previous book, Have Spacesuit–Will Travel involved a teenager developing such a close relationship with the motor car spacesuit that he was restoring that it started talking to him.

Then there's the background of the story.  Starship Troopers is set in a future where only those who have completed two years of "federal service" are given the vote.  In the case of Juan Rico, this means joining the army.  This has had fans arguing for decades about whether or not this suffrage by service made Heinlein a Fascist, which is blatant nonsense if you look at how Fascism actually operates.  It's actually closer to the Ancient Greek system, though Heinlein claimed that he got the idea from the Swiss.  One suspects that had Heinlein set the story in peaceful, modern-day Switzerland instead of an outer space war against super-intelligent bugs, his pontificating would have elicited giggles rather than criticism.  

Heinlein goes on about his political system at great length in the book, which gives his critics loads of ammunition, but both Heinlein's political philosophy and his critics' objections are maddening because of one thing that is overlooked:  What relevance does this have to the plot?  Nil.  Rico joins the army in order to get the vote, but it's a McGuffin.  As far as the plot is concerned, it might as well be a GI scholarship or an excuse to leave home.  

Part of the reason may be that Heinlein's attitude toward citizenship and military service are offensive even to those who are pro-military.  His ideas are often simplistic and clumsy and, worse, he tends to support them with straw arguments of the most facile kind such as in this exchange between a high-school student and her History and Moral Philosophy teacher, Mr. Dubois:
One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never solves anything."

Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly.  “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.  Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before—since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”
“You seem unaware of it,” he said grimly. "Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea—a practice I always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up 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 be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than 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 freedoms.”
Bear in mind that all of this is based on "a scientifically verifiable theory of morals.”  

 The condescension of Heinlein speaking through his mouthpiece Dubois is palpable. When Heinlein gets into cracker-barrel philosopher mode it’s hard to stop him.  Never mind that a student who had “tangled before” with such a sophist would never throw him such a soft ball.  Heinlein has an opinion to pontificate on and story logic be damned. Small wonder that Panshin referred to Heinlein as:
(A) man standing in a pulpit delivering sermons against an enemy that no one but he can see clearly.
The main problem with Starship Troopers is that it is, in the end, nothing more than a Utopia novel where Heinlein gets to layout his vision of an ideal military and its place in society–at the top, naturally.  Never mind that military juntas (even one of veterans) make for bad soldiers as well as bad governments.  In Starship Troopers we are seeing Heinlein's self-confessed nostalgia for the Naval career that he loved dearly, but was forced to abandon at an early age due to illness.  A product of Annapolis, Heinlein was a firm believer in the academy system and was certain that a rigorous regime of selection, Prussian-style training, elimination, and lots of mathematics would produce near-perfect, incorruptible graduates.  In Heinlein's world, there is no such thing as gaming the system or compromises–never mind the fact that such a regime may have inherent contradictions or require infallible administrators. Lean on them enough and everything will work out fine.

Naturally, the product of this system are pure soldiers of the kill-people-and-break-things variety.  All they do is prepare to fight and fight.  In Heinlein's world, they do nothing else.  It isn't just they have nothing to do with support, logistics, and all the thousand other jobs that are needed to keep a fighting man active on the front; they don't even have to handle duties that were already well-established when Heinlein was writing, such as acting as an occupation force, executing counter-terrorism operations, providing security, peacekeeping operations, border patrols, disaster relief, and so on and so forth.  In Heinlein's world, soldiers never do anything as unglamourous as hanging around the streets of Belfast or lining up kids for vaccinations.

In all, this does a disservice for the military and for those of us who support it.  War is a harsh, grim business.  It is bloody, dirty, terrifying, and chaotic.  It is one of the few professions that require young men to unleash violence and destruction while trying to remain civilised in a situation where civilisation is no longer in control.  It is a life of sacrifice where those under arms look barbarism in the face so that their families back home don't have to.   It's one thing to give a proper portrayal that honours that sacrifice, but its another to indulge in cheap glorification as Heinlein does to the point of commending soldiering as a prerequisite to citizenship on the grounds that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch".

Really, Mr Heinlein, such grammar from an Annapolis man.

With that sort of logic, one is a step away from Terry Pratchett's political system of Ankh-Morpork, which is "One Man, One Vote," where the Patrician Lord Vetinari is the Man, and he has the Vote.


  1. Hoo-ray, David for saying what I thought about Starship Troopers for years. It's boring! The battles are exciting, sure, but there's not enough of them and in between is pages of "Who should we give a field promotion?"

  2. I think the problem is that the book started out as a Juvenile that Heinlein used to get himself out of his contract with Scribner's. It wants to be both a coming of age story and a platform for Heinlein the lecturer. The combination doesn't quite work, but the powered armor is cool.

  3. I liked the book. I think this so called review is rather stupid. Its just dumb thinking put into elaborate words to make it, Elaborate. I loved the book, and so does our troops. Its about military life not about action. Its the only book in the US To be required by all 3 branches of the military TO read. Its a great novel. Ignorant people have to be this way. just because once there is politics involved people start having cows. By the way Ignorant people actually reading this comment. The three Branches of the military Today are United States Navy/Marine Corps, United States Army, United States Air Force. Can you recite The first 4 sentences of the declaration? Or even the national anthem? Oh yeah but McDonald's Theme song is easy to remember

  4. After reading the novel, I came to the same conclusions as the author of this review. I am a Marine and read this mostly as a guy who reads anything he can get his hands on, but secondarily as an English major.

    The book is a journal of military life, and in most cases it seems accurate. I believe that the book finds itself on the US miliary reading lists, not because it is a well written novel, but because it speaks to discipline in preparation and training soldiers/sailors/Marines/airmen...

    I find it difficult to view Juan Rico as a traditional hero. Not only does the book's resolution leave the reader wanting, but it also begs the question of what, if anything, did Juan Rico do that makes his journey towards eventual commissioning worthwhile.

    The only answer, and it is tough to digest, is that he was able to manage his platoon sergeant in combat even though it was his drill instructor...

    Subsequently, he gets to have his father become his platoon sergeant. This, as far as I can see is supposed to leave reader admiring Rico--but it fails solely because the plot was never well developed.