Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersRobert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2006 (originally published in 1959).

Summary: Juan “Johnny” Rico’s narrative of training and fighting in the Mobile Infantry during the Terran Wars with the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set 700 years in the future.

I read several of what would now be considered Robert A. Heinlein classics in my youth. Somehow, I missed this one, despite the fact that it won a 1960 Hugo Award. Coming across a copy, I finally decided to fill that gap.

I found myself wondering what this book is really about. The setting is a war between the Terran Federation and the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set seven centuries in the future, at a time when travel at faster than light speeds is possible through Cherenkov Drive. The book opens with the narrator, Juan “Johnnnie” Rico describing a “drop” onto a “Skinny” planet (the Skinnies at this period were allied with the “Bugs” and later with the Terrans.) We’re introduced to the Mobile Infantry and their special powered and armored suits, equipped with all sorts of lethal weaponry that renders each infantryman more powerful than a tank.

The book then traces Rico’s enlistment into the military, assignment to the apparently “lowly” Mobilized Infantry (M.I.), his basic training under Sergeant Zim (a good portion of the book), his deployment with Rasczaks Roughnecks, battles, acceptance into officer training, deployment, and further battles culminating in an attack on the Bugs home world of Klendathu, the outcome of which for Rico, or his forces, we do not learn.

What, then, is this book? According to Wikipedia, Heinlein wrote this in about two weeks as an angry response to President Eisenhower’s decision to cancel nuclear testing in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. It has the feel of a work that upholds the necessity of the military, especially the most basic element of it, its infantry. Its battle scenes reflect both strategic thinking and imaginative tactics based on the power suits the M.I. is equipped with. It touts values ranging from unit cohesion, never leaving a buddy behind, and the wisdom of sergeants It proposes a form of militarized society in which only those who have served (and survived, both men and women) have the right to vote and hold office. Others have basic rights of free speech and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, but not full citizenship.

One wonders if Heinlein thought Eisenhower had gone soft against the Communist threat of his time, and maybe American society with him. Corporal and capital punishment are practiced in this military–floggings to executions. One also the sense of a military engaged in cosmic warfare for the future of the planet (occasionally attacked, one of which results in the death of Rico’s mother, and the subsequent enlistment of his father, who had opposed Johnny’s enlistment), while the rest of the planet goes to the shopping mall, or whatever its equivalent was.

Twice during the book, Rico undergoes courses on History and Moral Philosophy, the first with a high school teacher (former M.I we later learn) and later in Officer Candidate School. Each seems to provide Heinlein the opportunity to explore profound political questions that give one the sense that Heinlein had deep questions about the long term viability of democratic-republican forms of government.

Needless to say, this has been a book to stir up controversy on a number of fronts from  Heinlein’s portrayals of gender relationships, to his political ideas, to his militarism, to proper forms of discipline and punishment. Yet to create such a social imaginary is not necessarily to advocate for it. One wonders, rather, if in his time, this was his way of challenging a country he thought might be going soft with what is required to prevail in a global conflict. One is reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s comment following the Constitutional Convention when asked by a lady, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was, reportedly,   “A Republic, if you can keep it.” One wonders what Heinlein might write in our day.

3 thoughts on “Review: Starship Troopers

  1. Heinlein stresses the concept of social morality, in that only those who have put their own life on the line can appreciate sacrifice for a greater good. He saw social order with some sort of representational government as a delicate thing beset by atavism ( the bug mindset). He postulates; what are you prepared to do to? How far are you willing to Go to defend your way of life?

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2019 | Bob on Books

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