Monday, September 24, 2007

Starship Troopers

One of my favorite books is Robert Anson Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Few books, of any genre, can stir controversy the way Starship Troopers has for the last 50 years. People hate it, people love it; few people are ambivalent about it – even those who haven’t, you know, actually read it.

In early the 70’s, when I was a young teenager, I stumbled across Heinlein the local library. Up to that point I had never read much Science Fiction. I had read H. G. Wells The Time Machine in 5th grade and it scared the crap out of me - so I stuck more to WWII submarine stories, the Hardy Boys and Westerns. But one day I passed a rack of tattered paperbacks and a copy of Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky caught my attention. The cover art was what did it, a big spidery looking purple machine on rocky ground under the light of Jupiter, surrounded by men in spacesuits (fairly obvious in retrospect that the artist had never read the book, or actually knew what Jupiter really looked like). On a whim I read it, and I was hooked. I loved Heinlein, it was like he was writing specifically for me, which in a sense he was, since his Young Adults where intended specifically for the demographic I was part of. Over the next year I read every Heinlein I could get my hands on, including his ‘Adult’ novels. I found that I didn’t, and still don’t, care much for his adult novels (Stranger in a Strange Land does nothing for me) but I loved his Young Adult stories, and I still do. The protagonists in his books were not much older than me, as group they tended to be awkward teenagers who didn’t fit in, they tended to think differently than their peer group, they tended to be talented, they tended to be opinionated, but by and large they stuck to their opinions even if that made them unpopular. They faced adversity, but with brains and wit and quick thinking they always overcame it.

Eventually I got around to Starship Troopers. I loved it. As a kid, what I took away from the book was honor, duty, and service above self, courage in the face of adversity. I hardly noticed the political stuff that others took so seriously, in fact I didn’t really notice it at all. In those days, before Star Wars made Science Fiction generally popular, if you read SciFi, you didn’t talk about it. In an age where man had recently walked on the moon, even my own peer group had little use for “that Buck Rogers Stuff.” It wasn’t until after I joined the Military and saw Starship Troopers on the CNO’s preferred reading list that I started to hear unflattering things about the novel.

Right from the first day I started this Blog I had intended to one day write a rebuttal to the nonsense I’d been hearing both in and out of the military over the last two decades. I intended to go through the novel chapter by chapter and address each of the idiotic statements I'd heard from others over the wardroom table and elsewhere. I intended to do this not just because those statements are wrong (Heinlein was a fascist, its true!), but also because Heinlein had made such an impact on my own life.

As it turns out, somebody beat me to it. In researching this subject online I came across a piece written by Christopher Weuve. I was so impressed by his critical research and solid analysis that I emailed to compliment him on the article and ask for permission to link to it from this site. As it turns out, Chris is an Associate Research Professor at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world (though he said he wrote the article prior to his tenure there). Chris also turns out to be a dammed nice fellow and he gave me permission to post a link here.

Go, read this. I think you’ll enjoy it. I wish I had written it. Thanks, Chris.

Note: I’ve been meaning to create a link section on this page, pointing to articles and information I fine useful and interesting, Chris’ article will certainly be on that list. Specifically because not only is it an insightful and thorough analysis of a controversial subject that is near and dear to my heart, but also because it is a perfect example of doing the legwork before forming an opinion. Chris tells me he intends to migrate the document over to PMWiki in the near future. I’ll update the link as necessary.


  1. Thanks very much for that link, I enjoyed reading Christopher's thoughts.

    I have never seen the movie, because Starship Troopers played such a large role in my own coming of age. I just couldn't bear to watch any effort that didn't accurately reflect RAH's vision.

    Unlike you, my parents were SF fans, and RAH's entire bibliography was readily available in their library. I cut my teeth on The Red Planet, Star Beast, Farmer in the Sky, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and especially Podkayne of Mars. Oh, how I wanted to be Poddy.

    As I got older, I started to read the RAH short stories, and eventually graduated to Starship Troopers when I was about 14. My father, a former Marine, made it pretty clear he expected me to read it.

    To say that it turned my world-view upside down is an understatement. I was already considering a military career at that point, and the story allowed me to consider an aspect of service that in my immaturity, I could not articulate on my own.

    Now that I have the maturity, I can say that while I am still inspired by RAH's vision of civic virtue and service, I think he missed the mark on some things, and hit the mark on others. I don't think he was a fascist, nor do I think he intended Starship Troopers to be anything other than controversial. Overall I think the book is a good vehicle to open up conversation about being in service and what it means.

    In terms of his "voice," from a philosophical point of view, I believe his doppelganger was probably Lazarus Long.

  2. Janiece, I thought you might like it.

    I saw the movie, unfortunately. I hated it, I never liked Verhoeven - I think he's an ass as a human being, and I think Showgirls is the pinnacle of his skill. I wish to hell he'd have left SST alone.

    Heinlein had a profound effect on me. He opened worlds for me that I didn't even know existed. I don't mean to put the guy on a pedestal, but his stuff just amazed me, and it still does. I reread most of his juveniles at least every couple of years, along with Glory Road and TMIAHM. I am probably one of the few people who absolutely loved The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. It is still one of my favorite Heinlein books, every time I read it I find another connection to one of his previous works, and I think it's just plain fun.

    I wouldn't say that I joined the Navy solely because of Heinlein, but he certainly had an impact on my decision - among other things I wanted to be the kind of person that someone like Robert Heinlein would respect.

    Personally, I suspect that at least part of the reason that some people find SST distasteful, is that Juan Rico doesn't have the grace to dislike the MI. He comes to love it. He likes his government, more than that he respects his government. As far as I can tell, this is unique in the genre of military science fiction. Haldeman, Scalzi, Drake, Pournelle, all wrote about soldiers who, while they may have enjoyed being soldiers (or not, in Haldeman's case), hated or, at best, distrusted their government. I think most liberal learning folks can forgive a character that likes the Army, but hates the government. And I think for them, Rico's love of the MI and trust and belief in his government is an unforgivable sin. My two cents, make of it what you will.

  3. I know that I'm very late to this conversation, but... I would also recommend Spider Robinson's rebuttal to critics of Starship Troopers, "Rah! Rah! R.A.H." which can be found in Time Travelers Strictly Cash et al. and at the Heinlein Society.

    Like Janiece, I got started on SF early, but didn't find the Heinlein juveniles until I was a little past their target audience.

    I still try to read ST and The Forever War together about once every other year. I have managed to avoid the movie, mostly; Verhoeven seems to have missed the point (and let me stop there).

    I am coming more and more to think of some form of earned franchise as a Really Good Idea.


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