CLASSIC Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein


I'm a big fan of good, solid hard military sci-fi. This is why I keep reading the "Crimson Worlds" series. That is why I still re-read the "Stars At War" series, and why I am such a die-hard fan of the HALO universe. But let us never forget the book that created the entire genre- and the author whose political views were so completely misunderstood that the book itself was indicted by the know-it-all Left as some sort of bizarre warmongering paean to the glory of battle.


That book is the eternal classic, Starship Troopers, and that legendary author is none other than Robert A. Heinlein. I read this book originally when I was about 16 or so. I didn't fully understand it back then, even though I could see that there was the seed of something amazing in it. I recently finished re-reading it, and, my word, it's so much better all these years later.

Let's be clear about just how vitally important this book is to the history and development of science fiction. The concept of the "space marine" did not start with Robert Heinlein- it actually preceded this book by a few decades- but it was given its first true, fully fleshed expression in this book. Make no mistake- this is the book that created the template that almost every other science fiction universe since has followed. The only exceptions I can think of aren't even military sci-fi (Frank Herbert's epic Dune series, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, that sort of thing). Without this book, the concept of armoured powered infantry simply would not exist in anything like the same form. Without this book, there would be no Imperial Space Marines in power armour within the Warhammer 40K universe. Without this book, the Marines from the "Stars At War" series in their "combat zoots" simply would not exist. Without this book, there would be no SPARTAN supersoldiers or Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs) within the HALO universe. Without this book, the space marines of the StarCraft universe would not exist in their present form, nor would the conception of the human species within that game look even remotely similar to what it does now. Without this book, Jay Allan's "Crimson Worlds" universe, and the Marine Corps and its heroes, would almost surely look completely different- probably unrecognisable. The Marauder heavy-armour concept that has been carried over into the Destiny and TitanFall games, and into the Terminator heavy assault armour within the Warhammer 40K universe, was born within this book.

Bottom line: without this book, military sci-fi as we know it would not exist. Its publication was, quite simply, a pivotal event within the history of science fiction writing.

This is the book that started it all, the one that introduced us to the idea that men could be dropped from orbit while wearing the equivalent of an assault tank's worth of armour as force multipliers behind enemy lines. It is the book that introduced us to the concept of a society in which the voting franchise is restricted only to those who earn it. It is the book that introduced the concept of an alien hive-mind intelligence that understands us every bit as poorly as we understand it. And it is the book that forever transformed the way we look at science fiction- no longer was it merely a fun diversion; now it could be used to deliver a serious and powerful message.

And that message is indeed potent. Back when it was released, the book and its author both came under heavy criticism for being "pro-war". The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. Read the book carefully, and you'll quickly realise just how ridiculous that assertion truly is. The armed forces, as they are described throughout the book, make it extremely difficult for anyone to join and to stay- and incredibly easy for anyone to leave, with for the most part very limited consequences (i.e. if you quit or wash out, you simply don't get to vote, ever, but all of your other basic freedoms are preserved). Many mid-witted critics at the time argued that it was a fascist book. This is complete and arrant nonsense. How could a book that propounds a philosophy like the one in the following quote possibly be considered fascist?
“But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico.” 
He had picked one I could answer. “Responsibility, sir.” 
“Applause. Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral ones, to permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority . . . other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead—and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple. 
“Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service—nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility—we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life—and lose it, if need be—to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert.
And that, oddly enough, is the essence of this book- the formulation of a political ideology that every paleolibertarian should find cause to embrace. This book, despite being ostensibly a book about soldiers and soldiering, contains surprisingly little by way of actual battle scenes- there's a big one at the beginning, and another big one at the end, and that's it, really. The rest of the book is spent following the footsteps of one Juan ("Johnny") Rico as he goes from being a grass-green clueless (and largely witless) student to a leader of men and a legend within the Mobile Infantry- and in the process comes to a fuller understanding of exactly what it means to be a soldier, to defend with one's body and one's life the system and body politic that sent one to war.

This isn't really a work of fiction, if I'm honest- rather, it is a work of philosophy. And that philosophy is not militaristic- it is libertarian in nature. At its core, it stresses two eternal and absolute truths. First, as Milton and Locke and many other great Enlightenment philosophers pointed out, Man is flawed, fallen, and born with the capacity to do both great good and terrible evil. It is for this reason that Man must institute government, to protect him from others- and to protect others from him. Second, the fact that government is a necessary condition for civilisation does not make its existence a sufficient condition. In other words, a government that attempts to coddle its citizens and treat them like children will ultimately fail and fall.

These two themes permeate the book, from start to finish. And the writing is solid, powerful, stripped of any purple prose whatsoever. Just look at the way Heinlein dealt with the concept of natural rights:
“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand—that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ “The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature. ” 
Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. 
“Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?” 
“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.
And look at the way Heinlein argued, forcefully, against the concept of citizenship- and the voting franchise that comes with it- to anyone and everyone:

I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part . . . and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.” 
I still didn’t know whether I yearned to place my one-and-only body “between my loved home and the war’s desolation”—I still got the shakes every drop and that “desolation” could be pretty desolate. But nevertheless I knew at last what Colonel Dubois had been talking about. The M.I. was mine and I was theirs. If that was what the M.I. did to break the monotony, then that was what I did. Patriotism was a bit esoteric for me, too large-scale to see. But the M.I. was my gang, I belonged. They were all the family I had left; they were the brothers I had never had, closer than Carl had ever been. If I left them, I’d be lost.
The book is replete with paragraphs just like these- so solid and meaty and full of conviction that you can practically feel them. At the core of this book is a very simple, yet deeply profound and powerful set of messages:

  • The ability to vote is inseparable from the authority to use force against others to accomplish a goal. There is absolutely no moral distinction between voting for your neighbour's impoverishment through the ballot box and ordering an air strike to carpet-bomb his home.
  • Because the power of the ballot box is inseparable from the use of force, only those who have proven that they can be trusted to wield that power responsibly may be allowed to do so. In the case of the Terran Federation, that means military service- and not the kind of soft squishy service that  is carried out by 70% or more of most modern militaries.
  • In the Mobile Infantry, the motto is simple- "everyone works, everyone fights". In peacetime, this means that those who are granted the franchise have, from the Sky Marshall right down to the greenest private, trained together, worked together, and built the same values together. In wartime, it means that every single man, from general to boot, drop to the surface together. The officers fight with their men; there are no Fobbits or REMFs in the MI. There is no wasted manpower, there are no easy jobs. In the MI, 10,800 men form a division- and all 10,800 men fight, with merely 317 officers to supervise the lot of them.
  • The difference between a civilian, who has every possible freedom but the right to vote, and a citizen, who has affirmed that he has the moral right to vote through the concrete demonstration of his commitment to his duty, is that the citizen is willing to do the one thing that the civilian is not- defend his people with his body and, if necessary, his very life.
There is no idealisation of Man's character within this book- none whatsoever. One of the most powerful scenes in the book arises from the execution of a cadet who went AWOL and murdered a young girl. The cadet dishonoured his entire platoon in the process, and so the platoon carries out justice- and that is precisely what the execution is, justice- and then wraps its colours in mourning and shame for thirty days. For, as Johnny Rico narrates, the actions of that one man brought disgrace upon the entire platoon- the platoon accepted responsibility for that man, and now must accept the dishonour that he brought down upon them.

Or, to put it in Rico's own words:
Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics—you name it—is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is —not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
In light of the contents of this book, I truly do find it nearly impossible to understand what people are on about when they claim that this book glorifies war. It does nothing of the bloody sort. Instead, it lays out a powerful and coherent political philosophy grounded in age-old morality that any libertarian should strongly identify with. This is, in fact, an incredibly deep book- and an extremely dense one, because while it's only about 250 pages long, it's packed with more wisdom and philosophy than you'll see in most 800-page college textbooks in a PPE course.

A few words about the extended Starship Troopers universe built up by Paul Verhoeven, starting with his 1997 film. First, don't watch the film, it's not a bad movie per se but it's an absolute bloody disgrace in terms of the way it handles the source material. It turns the Terran Federation into a basically fascist organisation- which it most explicitly was not in the book- and turns the MI into some sort of half-arsed commentary upon American adventurism and militarism. These are both completely contrary to the spirit of the book. The animated series, though, is rather a lot better; it takes the best ideas from the movie (i.e. the full-fledged depiction of MI powered armour and the Marauder battlesuit) and integrates into it some of the esprit de corps that Heinlein tried to create within his book. Infuriatingly, it was cancelled with just three episodes left in the series which would have wrapped up the entire series rather nicely; instead, fans will now have to deal with the immensely irritating cliffhanger ending that never resolves anything. The Shinji Aramaki film Starship Troopers: Invasion is much, much darker than the original book and stresses the fighting and the brutality of war over any sort of moralising, which is fine, I suppose- actually, it's a damn good movie, I quite liked it (there is also plenty by way of animated bewbs in the movie, which I will readily admit does affect my opinion of it), but if Robert Heinlein were around today to watch it, he'd be mystified as to why it carried his book's name in the title because, frankly, most of the extended franchise material has nothing whatsoever to do with his original novel.

In the final analysis, this book is a linchpin of modern sci-fi, and if you haven't read it yet then you damn well need to, and fast. This book is a classic, it's a very fast read, and it still towers head and shoulders above the countless imitators and derivatives that it has spawned (with the sole exception of the HALO franchise, just so we're clear). This book is amazing, and should have pride of place in every sci-fi nerd's library.

Didact's Verdict: 5/5, what, after all of that did you seriously expect anything different???

Buy or download Starship Troopers here.

Comments

  1. I would argue that RAH approached the issue of rights from precisely the wrong tack in this book, that had he understood rights in the way that Ayn Rand wrote of them, he would have favored them.
    Still, Starship Troopers is a real classic for many reasons.

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  2. Thank you for the review, very apt. I, too, noted the passage about the regime in the book fusing "authority with responsibility". That's what the world needs today, a responsible regime, a regime imbued with the atmosphere of responsibility.

    In my latest book I give this verdict on Starship Troopers:

    "Starship Troopers is an eminent novel about the service life, covering such subjects as what it means to lead, to obey, to protect and serve, to ”go career” and to take responsibility. All in a plausible framework of the ways of a future Armed Force, with scenes from basic training, ship duty and combat. Plus some discussions on philosophy and politics. In all, an impressive mixture of an action story and a novel of ideas. -- You could say: what Space Cadet delineated, Starship Troopers exploited to the full."

    This I say in the essay Science Fiction Seen From the Right, a study of 20th century sf and fantasy from a conservative point of view. More in this link: http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2016/04/book-news-science-fiction-seen-from.html

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