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Starship Troopers
by Robert A. Heinlein

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Heinlein won his second Best Novel Hugo for Starship Troopers. I've read it multiple times, although I can't recall how many, the date of the first read, or how many other Heinlein titles came before it. I know the last previous time was before I started this site, well over twenty years ago. In the early to mid-90s, after the posthumous publication of Grumbles From the Grave, I re-read all of his stories and novels in the original publication order. The book cover image is from the first paperback I read, although it is not the copy I have now. In the mid-2000s, the Science Fiction Book Club put out quite a few of his titles, including omnibuses of the juvenile novels. Even though this is not technically a juvenile, it was originally intended to be, and it is grouped with Have Space SuitóWill Travel and Podkayne of Mars in the last of those volumes. I still like this novel a lot, even though I object to and reject quite a few of the opinions expressed. I explained a bit of that in my Apologia. I've been publicly open about my personal stance of pacifism, no reason not to, so one might wonder how I can reconcile that with also liking a book that seems to promote militarism. Not sure if I can, but I will attempt it.

First, Heinlein's personal opinions went through a lot of changes over the years. He was what most would consider a Democratic Socialist in the '30s (he supported Upton Sinclair), but became more conservative as the years went by. He was also a military man, a graduate of the Naval Academy, who would have been a career officer if not for the fact he was medically discharged for tuberculosis four years into his service. There's no way to know if he would have also been a writer if not for that. His devotion to the Navy, and his admiration for all who sacrifice to serve their country, is well established. As a conscientious objector, I would hope you understand the operative word from the phrase is conscience. I respect everyone who follows what their conscience dictates is right for them. I can respect military service without agreeing with every decision of strategy and tactics enforced by military command or the government. We have to consider the era in which Troopers was written, the ideas Heinlein held then. The late '50s was the height of the Cold War, and President Eisenhower had just unilaterally announced a cessation of nuclear testing, several years before the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Heinlein was adamantly opposed to communism, and during this time he became more vocal about deterrence. In that context, it is odd that in the novel, the future Federated Nations came about after a war between the Chinese Hegemony and an American, Anglo, and Russian alliance.

He gave Scribner's first choice on the book, which if accepted would have been the thirteenth in his series of juveniles. Several letters to his agent, as shown in Grumbles, indicated he knew there was a slim chance they would take it. He was right. Not only did his editor there, Alice Dalgliesh, reject it, that decision was echoed by the entire staff. His only concession on editing was for literary concerns, not the content of the opinions expressed. As the juvenile series had progressed the stories and characters became more complex, and many were designed to inspire a desire for knowledge, most especially for space exploration. By the late '50s he felt a threat of a military nature was more pressing. In only one sense could this be considered a juvenile; the protagonist is 18 and just graduating from high school when the story begins. In every other sense it is clearly an adult novel. His agent was able to place it with G. P. Putnam's Sons, and Heinlein's association with Scribner's ended. Before book publication it was serialized in the October and November, 1959, issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Actually, the story begins in media res, with the first person narrator, Juan 'Johnnie' Rico, preparing for a military drop during a war between the Federated Worlds and an arachnid-type alien race, most commonly referred to as the Bugs. The first action detailed is on a world of 'Skinnies,' allies of the Bugs, but later they change sides and fight with the Federation. Johnnie is a cap (capsule) trooper, a member of the Mobile Infantry. An MI is the most lethal soldier in human history, sporting an armored power suit that multiplies the wearer's every movement, increasing their strength and endurance. They are delivered to their target on a Naval space ship, ejected through torpedo-like tubes, protected by a capsule which then breaks up after entering the atmosphere, then they parachute to the surface. The opening sequence details a skirmish on the Skinnies homeworld, designed to disrupt and disorganize their military capabilities, and to gather more intelligence. It's a quick-paced action sequence, but instead of continuing in that vein, the narration backtracks to the end of Johnnie's senior year, examining his reasoning for volunteering for Federal Service. There are only two other military actions depicted, but they come after Johnnie's rigorous basic training is described, as well as classroom discussions when he decides to enter the officer corps. Both in high school, and later in officer training, Johnnie has to take a course titled History and Moral Philosophy. It is within discussions of those classes that most of the opinions I would reject arise. My strongest objections would center on his concepts of acceptable discipline, both in the home, for law enforcement, and the military, as well as what constitutes true patriotism.

Much of the criticism leveled against this book has been the contention that in order to become a full citizen and gain voting privileges, one must be a military veteran. Wrong. Federal Service included many non-military occupations, ones that would be classified as civil service in our world. Even our military has many support services, not all involve combat, and in this future world those would still qualify for the franchise. If you want to view this as a pro-military screed you'll have many to agree with you. I look at it like a thought experiment, an examination of a "what if?" nature. It is true that the system developed due to veterans of the war taking over during chaotic times. What would have had to occur to produce a society of this nature, would it work, and if so how would it affect people who didn't choose to serve? There are many indications that those who don't go into Federal Service don't regret it. Sure, they can't vote or hold public office, but otherwise they are free to conduct their lives and their businesses as they see fit. Taxes are low and the economy is strong. Johnnie's father did not want him to join, would have preferred for him to stick with the family business. Johnnie hadn't originally given it any thought either, until his best friend, and a girl he likes, announced their decision to do so. At that time, they were in a period of relative peace, but that changes during Johnnie's basic training. It doesn't matter that his father later changes his mind, accepts Johnnie's choice, and enlists himself, but would he have done so if the Bugs had not directly attacked Earth, killing his wife, completely wiping out Buenos Aires and environs? We don't know, but that's the story Heinlein chose to tell.

Not that Heinlein would need me to defend him, but I have to point out that many of his other narratives are quite different. Who among his protagonists are we to assume most closely fit his own personality? One answer would have to be all of them, at the time they were written. Or maybe they're just stories, meant to entertain, but also to spark thought, maybe even debate. In another of his novels (I think Space Cadet, but I may be wrong), the notion of voting being restricted to those of higher intelligence is mentioned. Yet another 'what if...' scenario. If Johnnie Rico, a boy who learned to be a man and take personal responsibility through military service, was his alter-ego, then what are we to make of the self-centered Jubal Harshaw, or the highly individualistic Lazarus Long? Even other military characters, such as E. C. Gordon, are completely different from Johnnie, although no less heroic. The more I think about it, the more I think Heinlein's true alter-ego, the one person he most wanted to be like, was his own mother, as depicted in fiction as Lazarus' mother, Maureen Johnson Smith. Johnnie Rico, and the challenges he faced, was simply the person he felt he needed to write about at that specific time of the late '50s. It's just a book. I don't have to agree with Heinlein all the time to enjoy the exciting narratives, intriguing characters, and challenging thought. My opinion of him is much higher than his opinion of me would be. And I'm fine with that.

 

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Author
Robert A. Heinlein

Published
1959

Awards
Hugo

Available from amazon.com