Review of Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
by Robert A. Heinlein
To be completely honest, boot camp was my favourite part of this book. Everything after that seemed like a long denouement until the inevitable final page; boot camp was where the real character development happens. And this is an intensely character-driven book. Some people are critical of it because it lacks a plot, and they're correct on that point. It's not short on conflict, however. The conflict is just very personal. Also, I find Heinlein's descriptions of military disposition and protocol fascinating—more fascinating even than the action, which is probably a good thing, considering how many times Heinlein has Johnnie say something like, "I won't describe this next part…."
Since we acknowledge that this piece is part propaganda and all polemic, making a connection between the narrator and the reader is essential. Heinlein gives Johnnie a voice that does just that. We understand why he's signing up for the Mobile Infantry, why he contemplates dropping out of boot camp, and why he stays in. (Heinlein's choice of writing in the first person was apt, but once or twice it leads to contrived circumstances required for Johnnie to overhear other peoples' conversations.) Above all, Johnnie Rico is fallible: he isn't the super-competent action hero we often see in contemporary military thrillers. In fact, he's just a kid, which is no doubt why this novel appeals to adolescent readers.
Johnnie's experience at boot camp changes him (for the better, we're supposed to believe), moulds him from boy to man. I must admit, Heinlein makes military life seem very appealing in certain respects: discipline, but fair discipline; training; camaraderie, etc. It is an idealized portrayal though. When I first contemplated my review, I was going to laud Starship Troopers for its "realistic" portrayal of soldiering. But then I thought better of it and realized that, while there is some realism here, Heinlein omits quite a bit. Like, all the bad stuff.
Johnnie experiences mild hardship at boot camp, people around him die in training and in combat, and he nearly dies himself in the climactic encounter with the Bugs. Yet he never undergoes a real crisis. He contemplates dropping out once or twice, and his mother dies, but Johnnie doesn't seriously question his convictions. Nor does he face any real challenges to his decision to "go career" and become an officer. Johnnie isn't perfect, and he makes mistakes, but all his mistakes are minor and easy to overlook.
I suppose it's a tribute to Heinlein's skill as a writer that I almost overlooked this flaw in the book. I was so interested in learning what happens to Johnnie that I didn't notice, while reading, that nothing bad happens. A lack of realism does not a bad book make; after all, this is science fiction!
And what's with that, anyway? Some reviewers seem to think that Starship Troopers is unnecessarily science fiction, that one could transpose the protagonist to a contemporary or twentieth-century war setting and tell the same story, with the same themes. Not so. The "starship" in Starship Troopers is integral to this book.
Firstly, Heinlein needs the faceless alien enemy always within grasp of a science fiction narrative. The Bugs are not human and do not even have a recognizably human hierarchy. They are, as their name implies if not their physiognomy, a collective, colony-oriented species, like ants or bees. This is important, because Heinlein needs an enemy with whom we can't sympathize. If Starship Troopers were set in a non-science fiction contemporary Earth, then the enemies would have to be humans. And that would mean having to refute whatever philosophy espoused by the human enemies. The Bug philosophy, if they have one, is irrelevant to the conflict: they're trying to expand into human territory, and humanity is resisting by taking the war to them. Since they lack human motivations, we don't have to stop and question whether their side has a compelling reason for acting as it does.
Secondly, there's something appealing about the "soldier of the future" that Johnnie Rico exemplifies. This may be related to the individualist/"army of one" mentality that American society is prone to endorse. Heinlein embodies this mentality in the novum of the powered suit, which literally turns a single soldier into a walking, talking zone of destruction. When suited up, one becomes "more" of a solider, because the powered suit isn't a vehicle so much as it is an extension of one's own body. One isn't operating a weapon so much as one is the weapon now.
The final, and hopefully obvious, reason is that Heinlein needs the fictitious Terran Federation as an example of his ideal government. No such example exists on contemporary Earth; indeed, it's precisely a situation like this that calls for the "thought experiment" laboratory of science fiction. Starship Troopers isn't meant to be predictive; Heinlein isn't saying that he thinks we'll be battling bugs for real estate in the 22nd century. Instead, the 22nd century is just a convenient setting in which Heinlein can construct the society he needs for his polemic. Regardless of how one feels about the contents of that polemic, Starship Troopers is a wonderful example of what science fiction can accomplish that non-genre fiction would find difficult.
I've been ignoring the actual philosophy belonging to Starship Troopers, because I don't want my opinion of that philosophy to distort my review of the book. You should read this book, even if you don't agree with Heinlein's politics.
The issue of what form of government is best is far from settled. We have, in Canada and the United States, a "total representative democracy," as Heinlein might call it. Everyone theoretically can vote, although in practice our democracy puts limits on franchise—the Federation's limits are just more overt and widely applicable. So already, the prevailing philosophies and Heinlein's philosophy agree that enfranchisement isn't a right so much as a privilege; contemporary democracies just tend to extend the privilege to everyone of a certain age by default.
(My personal view is that a shadow oligarchy is the best form of government in theory; by shadow, I mean that the public shouldn't be aware of the oligarchy's existence. Yes, that means we could have a shadow oligarchy right now and not know about it, although I'm not so paranoid as to actually suggest that. Anyway, there are numerous practical problems with this form of government such that it's probably a very bad idea to implement it in the real world, and it's not really germane to Starship Troopers, so I'll end this aside now.)
You have to give Heinlein credit for not only discussing the problems with his contemporary society but for proposing solutions. There's a trend in non-fiction these days to identify aggressively the "problem" but then hide behind a claim that the book is just "an analysis" and offer no actual solution to the problem. Sometimes the author is a good enough writer to get away with this, and I still enjoy the book. Most often it's just annoying. Heinlein identifies what he sees as problems with his society and says, "This is how we can fix it." Kudos!
Heinlein's idea of limiting franchise to those who have served in the military (or an equivalent service organization) is interesting. I think it makes more sense, in a way, to make such a responsibility voluntary rather than use conscription, such as Switzerland does: if people want to vote, they have to serve, but they aren't required to vote. The resistance Johnnie encounters from the recruiting officer makes it clear that, at least in peacetime, the military is burdened with having to find "make-work" projects for all the people determined to gain citizenship. This isn't exactly an evil fascist enterprise to mould everyone into automatons.
There's a benefit to Heinlein's model that he makes explicitly clear toward the end of the book:
So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of franchise in the past? . . . Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.
There's two key phrases there: voluntary and personal advantage. Conscription might force people to experience a taste of military life, but it removes any element of choice from the equation: everyone has to serve, so how do we determine who wants the responsibilities that come along with service? Also, Heinlein believes that those who have served, on average, value the group over personal gain. We see this in contemporary politics all the time: if one candidate has had military service, he or she may find this an advantage, because it confirms him or her as "patriot," i.e., someone willing to put the safety of the country above his or her personal survival. Don't you want people like that governing your country?
I find Heinlein's argument for limiting franchise intriguing and not as silly as some critics claim. Still, the conscientious objector in me questions whether his harsh approach to justice is necessary. He seems to be making certain assumptions about how rational we are, as human beings and particularly as children, that are worth a deeper investigation than we see here. That is, I wonder if there is a better way to determine who should qualify for franchise than military service.
That isn't a question Starship Troopers tries to answer, which is fine. It still tries to answer questions worth asking. So read the book. And ask them.