The great Greek philosopher Socrates never wrote anything down. His legacy lives on today through the works of his greatest student, Plato, who did write everything down, both his teacher’s thoughts and his own. Plato supposedly merely repeats the conversations and teachings of Socrates. Yet somewhere along the way the student steps out from behind the teacher and begins to speak his own mind, though which thoughts are his own and which his teacher’s is often debated.
Starship Troopers is militaristic science fiction form the prolific and influential – and as we shall see, often controversial - science fiction writer Robert Heinlein.
The opening chapter jumps – literally – into the action. Fans of the 1986 movie Aliens will recognise it immediately, as that movie owes a great deal to this book. Opening with a bang is great for engaging the reader’s attention, however, references to initially unexplained technologies (a common issue with science fiction) can be confusing for some readers. You just have to go with it until things are explained or, perhaps more satisfyingly, you deduce it through context (see A Clockwork Orange, this blog).
Starship Troopers contains familiar war story tropes: a young man with ambitions of glory, and against his family’s wishes, joins the military to fight an aggressive alien attacker, only to be placed into a lowly and dangerous infantry unit, where he learns through hardship the true meaning of service (see also the movie Platoon). It’s this notion of ‘service’ – two years of military service will earn the recruit ‘veteran’ status and subsequent voting rights -
which comprises one of the controversial themes of this book, as critics accused Heinlein of advocating for a form of fascism.
Scenes of public lashings are further evidence for Heinlein’s critics. The main character, Johnny Rico, is himself flogged: ‘Now here’s a very odd thing: a flogging isn’t as hard to take as it is to watch’, and once over, all is forgiven. ‘In a way, an administrative flogging is the mildest sort of compliment…’ Intended or not, it has an air of normalising corporal punishment.
Being published only fifteen years after the defeat of the Nazis, accusations of promoting fascism may be a stretch. What Heinlein did intend however, was a condemnation of what he viewed as an amoral youth culture. Like Orwell’s 1984 (see review, this blog), Starship Troopers outlines an alternative history – ‘The Terror’ – where roaming ‘wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons’ robbed and killed, until there was a war between China and the U.S, British and Russian alliance. When Heinlein quotes Thomas Jefferson’s ‘The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of the patriots’ speech, the tone is clear: Starship Troopers was to provide a rallying cry for a return to martial values – a 1950s version of Top Gun.
The book details the training of new recruits – both physical (the worm to the unsuspecting and naive reader) and the philosophical and moral (the hook of the transgressive author). An enduring image, and an idea stolen by many science fiction movies (James Cameron, I’m looking at you), is the ‘power armour’:
‘Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla…two-thousand pounds of it, maybe, in full kit, yet you can walk, run, jump, lie down, pick up an egg without breaking it and jump right over the house next door and come down to a feather landing’ . There are three more pages of this description. This is the stuff that fans of ‘hard’ (i.e. technologically dense, sometimes scientifically accurate) science fiction love: the machinery, spaceships and weapons., and there’s plenty of that here.
It’s not until halfway through the book that we get our first description of the enemy, the ‘Bugs’
‘The Bugs aren’t like us. The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even spiders. They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.’
Though this may be science fiction, it’s clearly a metaphor for Communism, with ‘communal entities’ ruled by a ‘dictatorship’.
Johnny Rico continues:
‘Every time we killed a thousand bugs at a cost of one M.I, it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution…’
The young soldier’s moral education continues in officer training school under Major Reid (Heinlein?). It includes an overview of political systems through history, from Ancient Greece (‘…some weird and extreme as in the antlike communism urged by Plato in the misleading title The Republic.’) to modern times. All are summarily dismissed by Major Reid in favour of the present system of voting veterans, because:
‘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…He may fail in wisdom. He may lack in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history.’
‘…we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life…The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus acquainted to the ultimate authority a human can exert. Yin and yang. Perfect and equal.’
Now ‘Major Reid’ begins to get a bit murky:
‘All wars arise from population pressure…any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand.’
Perhaps in an effort to justify his position, Major Reid concludes:
‘Man is what he is – a wild animal with the will to survive…Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics – you name it – is nonsense. Correct morals arise from what knowing Man is – not what do-gooders and well-meaning Aunt Nellies would like him to be.’
Yet this is a science fiction novel after all, and there is still a final battle to be fought It’s a fun though sober ending to the book, and a welcome relief from the preceding exposition on the ethics of militarism. Starship Troopers is a not-so-subtle reminder that science fiction can (and often does – should, even) refer to contemporary issues. In disguising it, the lines between the ideas of the author and merely those of their characters, can be blurred.
If you’re a sci-fi fan then you’ve no doubt heard of Heinlein and his great contemporaries, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Also, nowadays there is a whole sub-genre of militaristic sci-fi, if that’s all you’re after. There is also the 1997 film by Robocop director Paul Verhoven, which tones down the ethical content and turns up the fun (and gore).