June 20, 2011


by Robert A. Heinlein
263 pages, Ace

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

First published in 1959, Heinlein's science fiction tale of a future war has had a pretty controversial history. Although Heinlein intended it for teenage boys, the book's militant anti-communist right-wing stance meant that it was deemed only suitable for an older audience. Indeed, it is almost impossible to separate Heinlein's political views from the novel itself. The lessons taught to the main character when he is at school appear to be Heinlein's own reactionary rants and the futuristic society he describes comes across as a fascist's wet dream. This right-wing future was mercilessly lampooned in Paul Verhoeven's 1997 movie adaptation but in the original novel, this agenda is not played for laughs.

As well as being a loudspeaker for Heinlein's less-than-liberal politics, “Starship Troopers” has also been criticised for glorifying war. This is pretty true – the author does seem to relish the almost comically violent scenes of combat and large-scale destruction. Heinlein also describes how military service changes a man and the dreadful risks faced by soldiers – but this isn't a bleeding heart condemnation of the savagery of warfare, hell no! Heinlein clearly believes that military service is the making of a man, turning his characters from weedy little mummy's boys into gristle-chewin', sharp-shootin' ass-kickers. His ultimate message is that fighting does solve things. War is not portrayed as a senseless waste of young lives but an act of glorious sacrifice for the greater good.

The story follows Juan Rico, a young man embarking on a term of service with the notorious Mobile Infantry. The term of service is not compulsory but only those who serve their term are given full citizenship rights in the Terran Federation, including the franchise to vote. A citizen, you see, contributes to the well-being of society... a civilian does not. So, young Rico signs up and undergoes the most brutal boot-camp training imaginable. Subtlety isn't Heinlein's strong point and it is during Rico's lengthy training that the novel occasionally grinds to a halt under the weight of his endless political proselytising.

As Rico is shaped into a model soldier-citizen by the rigours of his training, Heinlein presses his own agenda of an ideal society very heavily. This can make some pretty uncomfortable reading as his argument is so forcefully driven and his tone so unequivocal that I found myself agreeing with it on occasion (and then left feeling pretty ashamed of myself afterwards). You can see how such a book could be construed as dangerous in the hands of young, pliable minds.

After Rico's indoctrination and brainwashing – sorry, rigorous training, he's ready to serve in a combat unit. Just in time, too, because whilst he was learning the ropes in boot-camp, an interstellar war has broken out between humans and a race of intelligent and aggressive alien bugs. The bugs are a thinly veiled metaphor for America's fear of Communism, and the shadow of McCarthyism looms like a big black cloud over this part of the novel. Controlled by a hive mind, the bugs are unthinking, unreasoning beasts willing to sacrifice themselves in huge numbers. When faced with such a fearsome and fearless adversary, the Terran forces can only react with sheer brute force. Heinlein's characters pour scorn upon those who advocate a defensive policy against the Commies – sorry, the bugs. The Mobile Infantry's attack on the bug-occupied planets can be interpreted as a call-to-arms against the communist countries of the Cold War era.

So, the book can be seen as a manipulative, aggressive glorification of war laced with fascistic undemocratic undertones. When I summarise it like that, it is utterly bizarre that I enjoy it so much.

Right-wing agenda aside, Heinlein's future troopers don't seem concerned by race. Just look at the huge variety of races implied by the surnames of his characters: German, French, Arabic, Japanese, Jewish. The author's vision of the future sees all races living together harmoniously. Humans, it seems, have largely sorted out their problems. Now they just have to deal with the giant commie insects.

Bizarre politics aside, what makes “Starship Troopers” so enjoyable is its naivety. It's not often that one reads an “adult” book which portrays war not as a futile waste of young lives but as a wide-eyed gung-ho exercise in awesomeness. The opening chapter describes a Mobile Infantry “drop” in vivid detail and the combination of fantastic technology and ass-kicking action could well leave a big goofy grin on your face. The M.I. Troopers wear power-armour suits enabling them to leap over buildings and smash through walls. Flamethrowers, talking bombs and portable nukes are all part of their formidable arsenal and the sheer scale of destruction left in their wake is bound to elicit a few chuckles.

The legacy of these heavily armoured future warriors cannot be underestimated. The “Space Marine” has become a stock figure of science fiction. From Games Workshop's “Warhammer 40K” to the video game “Doom” and even cinema, there's nowhere Heinlein's work hasn't influenced. James Cameron reportedly gave his cast copies of the novel to read in order to prepare them for their roles in “Aliens”.

“Starship Troopers” is a strange book. On one hand it is a gloriously over-the-top space adventure, on the other it is little better than a manifesto for Heinlein's outdated reactionary political agenda. As already mentioned, it is difficult to separate the two – an abridged version of the book removing the controversial politics wouldn't work and to remove the future war story wouldn't make sense. Fifty two years is a long time in science fiction. Whilst many stories written by Heinlein's contemporaries now seem hopelessly dated, the technology described in “Starship Troopers” remains plausible. This is a must-read for fans of the genre and remains a shining example of how science-fiction can effectively convey a serious political commentary (albeit a rather unpleasant one). Even though many readers will, I hope, disagree with Heinlein's views, the novel remains a bizarrely enjoyable read.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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