Starship Troopers Is Perfect — and Therein Lies the Problem

Starship Troopers is one of Robert Heinlein's most famous books, and one of the most famously controversial in SF. And the 1960 Hugo winner has its problems — but that's probably why it's a classic.

Man, I accomplished straight-up nothing over the last fortnight or so. In fact, those of you who are especially alert, as well as those of you who have built tiny shrines in your basement to honor me*, may have noticed that this particular piece of writing was supposed to run last weekend. Well, I was on Christmas break. I have always found it very difficult to get anything done during the holidays, and now that I am fully self-employed, this is more true than ever: I take a couple days off, it spirals into a few more days, and pretty soon I am back to staying up till 3 a.m. watching whatever is on AMC and sleeping in until noon. IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO IMPOSE ORDER ON MY LIFE FROM WITHIN, AND I OFTEN WISH I WERE BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL AND ON A RIGOROUS, PREDETERMINED SCHEDULE. I believe I am not alone in this.

Which is why, I think, Starship Troopers is such an appealing book.

(Let me briefly interject that if you haven't read it, you ought to. I can now say with some authority that it's the first Hugo winner that can be called an honest-to-goodness classic, and deservedly so. As I mentioned back in November, Heinlein has one of the most engaging voices in SF lit, and this is him at his most engaging. The story is accessible and fast-paced — surprisingly so, given how much of it is comprised of conversations, rather than action — and if you're a fast reader, you can finish it in a day. Anyway, it's part of the canon, and it should be.)

For those of you who have not read Starship Troopers at least four or five times, as I have, it is the first-person account of a high school graduate named Johnnie Rico who defies his parents to volunteer for service in the Terran Federation government. The story is set in the 22nd century, and starts on a post-WWIII Earth, where only those people who've done a two-year stint working for the Federation are citizens with the right the vote or run for office. (The majority of the population are not citizens — many actually look at achieving citizenship as a sort of putting on airs — but enjoy all the same rights and protections other than participation in government.) Serving with the Federation doesn't necessarily mean joining the military per se — you can work as a scientist or in some other, more peaceful capacity — but Johnnie ends up a grunt in the Mobile Infantry, first going through boot camp and later, when interstellar war breaks out with the arachnoid aliens called the Bugs halfway through the story, putting on the M.I.'s super-powered armor to fight the enemy.

Starship Troopers Is Perfect — and Therein Lies the ProblemS

More than all that, though, Starship Troopers is also an examination of the moral philosophy that justifies the Federation's organization and policies. As Golem100 pointed out in the comments a few weeks ago, it's as much a tract as a novel, and it's rather famously controversial for that reason.** Me, I'm not that interested in arguing for or against the merits of the political model Heinlein lays out here. It's pretty much been done to death, and as best I can tell, the question has been settled among most intelligent readers: Heinlein wasn't some kind of fascist, and it takes a willful misreading of Starship Troopers to consider him one. Restrictions on franchise have been part and parcel of plenty of perfectly non-tyrannical representative governments, and his goes out of its way to give its people as many ways to qualify for citizenship as it can, and makes doing so as painless — and always voluntary — as reasonably possible.

Now, that said, critiques of the book as military propaganda hold some merit.

When I first read it, I was not far out of adolescence, the son of a self-made businessman in a high tax bracket, reasonably thoughtful, but awfully directionless — in other words, very much like Johnnie Rico. And the idea that I could, like him, sign up for a job where my abilities would be tested, where I'd always know what time I was getting up in the morning and what time I was going to bed at night, where I'd get paid to stay in shape instead of having to go to the gym, and where, at the end of the day, I'd be left with a sense of moral certitude that what I was doing was, in some way, deeply admirable — well, that idea was quite appealing, and by the time I turned the last page, I was ready to enlist.

Fortunately, unlike Johnnie Rico's dad, my father was a veteran, and he managed to gently dissuade me from that course of action. I say "fortunately" not because I think signing up for the military is a bad thing, but because ten years later, I can say with some surety that I am not psychologically cut out for soldierhood (the killing people I think I could handle, actually, but I am pretty terrible at just taking orders and not asking questions); and more important, because, for as much as Starship Troopers purports to be a celebration of the troops (and as much as, in many ways, it is), it paints a far-from-complete, grossly simplified picture of what their lives are really like, and of the moral dilemmas inherent in what they do.

My first problem was that what I wanted to join was not the U.S. Armed Forces, but the Terran Federation Mobile Infantry.*** I certainly don't want that read as a dismissal of my country's soldiers — but nonetheless, it's my understanding that the infrastructure in which they operate is not the highly efficient organization grounded in logically provable principles that Heinlein's is. My second problem was that even if I had been able to join the M.I., I find it difficult to believe, in my heart of hearts, that it would have been as wonderful as Johnnie Rico makes it sound.

Starship Troopers Is Perfect — and Therein Lies the Problem

I mean, sure, the camaraderie, and sure, the consistent feeling of doing a job that matters and doing it well. But Johnnie exists in a future where it's perpetually 1950; it's all too perfect. The Bugs are a convenient, literally dehumanized enemy who invite trouble by starting the war against Earth; losing his friends is just part of the job, and he never suffers from anything like post-traumatic stress disorder, just a bit of a funk; and he doesn't have to wonder why, just do or die, because, again, the math proves that he, as an instrument of his government, is doing the right thing. (Not to mention the fact that he apparently remains a virgin throughout innumerable tours of duty, because he's saving himself for the best girl in his high school class.)

And because, again, Heinlein is so engaging here, there is a danger to all of this. It's very easy to get so engrossed by Johnnie's story that by the end of it, you're humming the Marines' Hymn and ready to jump up and fight for right and freedom. It's very easy not to notice that he's given you all the good parts — yes, even the crappiness of boot camp is a good part, since it's conveyed with that same feeling that leaves you aching but all the better for it after a hard workout — and not just glossed over but more or less failed to mention any of the bad.

How best to deal with this? I think it's important to remember that Starship Troopers was supposed to have been the last of Heinlein's "juveniles" — his novels aimed at young readers — and to take it with a grain of salt, as such. It is thought-provoking, but it's not especially complex, and it's not supposed to be. It's putting an idea out there, and offering it up for discussion and expansion upon. And more to the point, I think it's important to remember that the book can also be read, as the good Dr Lizardo mentioned in the comments of our last installment, as Heinlein "preaching his usual core values of self-reliance, teamwork (not an oxymoron to pair it with self-reliance), accountability, personal freedom and the golden rule rather than any specific political agenda." It is a tract, but it's not necessarily pushing what it appears to be.

And maybe most important of all, the best thing to do is to be sure not to read it just once, as an impressionable high school graduate, but a few more times as the years go by. The fact that you can, and that it bears up so well fifty years later, speaks to the strength of the book.

*Yes, LeVar Burton, I mean you.

**Although the arguably more famous controversy now is whether Paul Verhoeven's 1997 movie adaptation is a horrible, brainless perversion of a thought-provoking classic, or an ingenious satire that should stand as its own work, or both.

***Or, failing that, Starfleet.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., from 1961.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.