Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein, was published for the teen market in 1959 and was the winner of the 6th Hugo Award. Although the back-of-cover blurb on my 1968 paperback edition says that the story is set in the 22nd century, a date is never actually specified in the text. The story is a military sci-fi piece set in a universe that includes at least three intelligent species, including humans, all of which have interstellar travel and a presence on multiple planets. The book's "history" diverges from our own sometime before 1987, which in the book was the start of the war between a Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and a Chinese Hegemon.

Technologically, Starship Troopers is mainstream science fiction--infantrymen go into battle protected and assisted by powered suits which amplify their strength and physical abilities, K-9 troopers are paired with genetically-enhanced dogs with the capacity for speech, and infantrymen are launched from spaceships to the planet below in automatically-fired capsules like human bullets. There's nothing that seems painfully outdated or outlandish, or that's not supported by the rest of the book.

Before trying his hand at writing, Heinlein spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, and made a failed attempt at a career in politics. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of WW2, Heinlein's application for a return to active Navy duty was rejected for medical reasons; during the war, he acted as a civilian mechanical engineer for the military at the Naval Air Experimental Station. If you read any review of Starship Troopers, you'll run across the opinion that Heinlein used this book as a platform for his political and social opinions; I can't disagree, but I also don't mind that he did it. Heinlein had a background in the military and politics, and drew on his experiences and opinions for his book--don't many authors do this in their writing? Maybe the critics were just miffed that he aimed his opinions at teenage American boys.

Speaking of teens... Because the book was written for the juvenile and teen audiences, it's missing a couple of things that are pretty standard in the adult market: bad language and sex. Heinlein's language, in my experience, is usually pretty tame; in Starship Troopers, "crumby" is the vilest word I could find (other colorful exclamations included "unprintable", "expurgated", "deleted", and "blankety-blank"). Although the book's main character has a keen appreciation for the few females he encounters, the closest the book comes to a romantic or sexual relationship between any characters at all is a post-dinner peck on the cheek.

Getting back to the book's political and social opinions--which may or may not have been Heinlein's, though I tend to believe they were mostly his--here are just a few that caught my attention as I read Starship Troopers:
  • The idea that violence never settles anything is an "inexcusably silly idea"
  • "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in human history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst"
  • Communism is a "magnificent fraud" and 20th Century democracies just a "noble experiment"
  • Sometimes capital punishment is the only viable option
  • There's no such thing as a juvenile delinquent, just a juvenile criminal paired with a delinquent adult
  • "Both for practical reasons and verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal"
  • The military should only accept officers who are combat-proven soldiers
  • "Everything of any importance is founded on mathematics"
  • In an ideal government, ""every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service [federal, which can be military or non-military] that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage"; "The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert"
Interestingly, I agree with most of them. They're all thought-provoking, and in the right (or maybe wrong) circles, probably argument-provoking as well.

As much as I like Heinlein's writing, and as much as I enjoyed this book (again--I've read it at least twice before), there are still a couple of things I don't particularly like about Starship Troopers. As always, Heinlein's sexism is blatant; as always, I shrug and move on. I'm not much of a military buff, despite enjoying military sci-fi, so I get horribly bogged down in his loooong descriptions of rank, hierarchy, and military organization. As an Air Force brat, this is probably an unforgivable sin. Oh, well.

There were a couple of throw-away bits I found pretty interesting, and that I hadn't really noticed in previous readings. First, in a brief scene in the middle of the book, a secondary character is reading a book called "Space Rangers against the Galaxy"; the narrator opines, "a pretty good yarn, except that I doubt a military outfit ever had so many adventures and so few goof-offs." As far as I can tell, this book doesn't actually exist, but it seems possible that this was Heinlein's good-natured ribbing of the pulp science fiction trade as a whole. Second, as part of the narrator's second phase of training, he's put in a situation and conversation that's nearly identical to one in Double Star, also by Heinlein. After assuming a position of power as a temporary replacement for an ailing superior, the narrator is forced to determine whether or not his superior intended to promote an underling or have him transferred elsewhere. It's a minor plot point in both books, but is used in both cases to demonstrate that the main character possesses the analytical skills required to hold a position of command.

Whether you agree with Heinlein's politics or not, this is a good book, and it's quick to read. If you've only seen the 1997 movie by Paul Verhoeven, don't make the mistake of thinking that you know what happens in the book. Although several things made the print-to-screen translation, the two versions are radically different. I like them both, by the way, but consider them distant cousins. Rating: 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I think Heinlein might have put more effort forth than any other sci-fi author on the concept of 'responsibility'. For that reason alone, I'd recommend him for teens (though there are plenty of other reasons, too).