Literary Things: Starship Troopers.

File this one under “Books You’ve Meant To Read but Never Gotten Around To.”

You know what I mean. That glimpse of the battered paperback version on your friend’s dad’s bookshelf. Finding the library-bound copy in your high school, even though you’re not quite done with what you’re already reading. Starship Troopers is one of those books that manages to hover at the edge of your vision and tug at your interest.

And of course, it’s a Good Book that hasn’t been ruined by getting branded a Classic. It won the Hugo Award. It’s penned by Robert Heinlein, and he’s supposed to be pretty renowned by all those other guys who wrote sci-fi in the 50’s and 60’s. Plus, the cover suggests military space-trooper big-gun action, and we’re all about that, right?

So, why haven’t you picked it up yet? Its clarion call is small but determined, and the promise of a rollicking good time lies within.

Probably… because you’ve already satisfied your curiosity about Starship Troopers.

"Wait... isn't this supposed to be an episode of FIREFLY!?!"

Like you, my first exposure to the material was Paul Verohoeven’s 1998 film. It’s got its flaws, but two things at least give it cult-classic status:

1) It IS a rollicking good time. Big bugs, big guns, many guts, over-the-top acting, and (as Ian humbly reminded me) NPH as a psychic.

2) It’s also an excellent satire of the material upon which it purports to be based. Said short: it mocks the book while streamlining the plot.

Should these two qualifications be enough for your satisfaction, please stop reading and proceed immediately to YouTube. There you can find the film chopped, sliced, and low-rezzed. You’re not going to want to read the book, however.

Because the book– it’s sincere. And it’s sincere about this:

–OVERARCHING MESSAGE OF STARSHIP TROOPERS TO FOLLOW–

Serving in the military… is the finest thing you can do with your life.

This is why the book– especially in the early years of its release– has courted controversy. Reading Starship Troopers means encountering Robert Heinlein’s treatise on How Things Should Be. And in his mind, the best possible society is one orchestrated by veterans. After all, what better measure of your ability to serve the common good than actually fighting for it?

I have a hard time dismissing the premise. This is partially because my father-in-law gave me the book, and he’s both a West Point graduate and a retired Army Ranger. I have great esteem for his character and the service that he provided this country. Looking at him, how could I deny that military training turns out remarkable men?

That, friends, is the heart of Starship Troopers, and– I’m guessing– why you’ll dig it when you finally pick it up. The protagonist isn’t a particularly remarkable man when we first meet him. In fact, Juan “Johnnie” Rico is a fairly average guy from a well-to-do Puerto Rican family. In Johnnie’s future world only vets can vote and hold office, but capitalism is still alive and well, and for the most part, the majority of humanity is too comfortably off to need the rights of citizenship. Military recruiting offices even go out of their way to staff maimed veterans so they can scare off headstrong potential enlistees.

Johnnie joins anyway. His well-considered rationale is to impress his high school crush, Carmen, and perhaps, to make something of himself apart from his wealthy father. We follow Johnnie through the major stages of military life, starting with a lengthy apprenticeship in basic training, then his initial days in a Mobile Infantry unit, his painful ascension through officer training school (the boy sucks at math, which is a necessity in this future military), and finally, a climactic skirmish on a barren world.

(Does this sound familiar? It should– on one level, this book is pure bildungsroman.)

However, Johnnie still gets the shakes before combat drops. He’s unsure of his place in battle. He even gets publicly flogged for a stupid maneuver in basic. In fact, throughout the story Johnnie does nothing but get chewed out, lectured, admonished, and generally, just does a passable job of fighting for the survival of his planet. He’s not the ideal man– he’s just a man, and that’s just the point. Heinlein is showing us that people may not be inherently special– but proper experiences and training can make them special.

That Johnnie and his “mates” fight interplanetary bugs is almost incidental– it’s essentially a way for Heinlein to show how his utopia works without disqualifying his premise. After all, an enlightened humanity that requires a military has to fight something.

There are whole gobs of material that I won’t even attempt to do justice to. Well worth the price of admission is Heinlein’s theory of the Mobile Infantry and their powered armor suits– something the Verehoeven movie omits wholesale. Also interesting are Heinlein’s egalitarian views on gender roles and– the most love-it-or-hate-it part of the book– the sequences in Johnny’s History and Moral Philosophy classes. Fair warning– the classroom portions can be a little long-winded, but they’re nothing compared to Melville’s asides in Moby Dick. Just strap yourself in and prepare to disagree a bit.

For pure story thrills, the opening sequence is great, there are some clever twists at the end (take notice if characters are described by rank instead of name), and there are a surprising number of heartwarming moments that would come off as pure schlock in less capable hands.

Fortunately, Heinlein– described by Issac Asimov as one of the greatest sf writers in existence– knows exactly what he’s doing here. The only major flaw of the novel is that the characters, aside from Johnnie’s boot camp instructor, Zim, are virtually interchangeable. They’re almost like a Greek chorus of direct admonishment. In the end, however, they still don’t detract from a fascinatingly fleshed-out society– one that’s slightly alien, but also just familiar enough to recognize.

…just like the call of the book.

The cover I most associate with the book, done for the 80's/90's paperback edition.

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About Ben Humeniuk
Married to Christin, dad of two, follower of Christ. I'm an educator and a cartoonist. And I'm going to encourage us to understand.

3 Responses to Literary Things: Starship Troopers.

  1. Pingback: Dusting Off The Old Degree | Benjamite

  2. Pingback: Ben’s review of Starship Troopers « Our Neck of the Woods

  3. Pingback: Literary Things: The Wheel of Time « Tellurian Things

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