Civilization carries with it certain privileges: security of property, rising standard of living, the ability to accurately forecast the future. Military science fiction poses the question, “What would humanity look like given a multi-century war against an alien enemy?” Not just an enemy from a different planet, but an enemy so alien that rational communication is impossible.
Three titles leap to mind that fit this bill: Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Haldeman’s Forever War, and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. All three accept the above conditions and then move in radically different directions. In future essays, I’ll explore Haldeman and Scalzi’s work, but in this essay I want to share what I love about Starship Troopers.
In terms of structure, the novel is a coming-of-age tale, a bildungsroman, following Juan Rico’s journey from finishing high school into the infantry. Heinlein covers basic training, an initial stint in combat, the decision to go on for more training, and concludes with the protagonist becoming an officer in charge of his own company.
Heinlein served in the Navy during WWII, and his love of military service is clear in this novel. The overall story is well told. The characters aren’t particularly unique, but character building isn’t Heinlein’s strength.
Heinlein soars in writing the novel of ideas. As we’ll get to in a future post, some of Heinlein’s ideas are more controversial than others (eugenics in Time Enough for Love), and after his stroke his control of the plot diminishes (as seen in Glory Road and Stranger in a Strange Land). Pre-stroke Heinlein typically develops a plot within which libertarian freedom, rugged individualism, and a robust concept of civics interact.
In Starship Troopers, the author accomplishes these goals in two ways. First, only those who serve in the military for a specific amount of time earn the franchise. If citizens are not willing to fight and possibly die for their freedom, do they have a vested interest in the well-being of their country? How does military service change the voting practices of the citizen? The United States in Starship Troopers lacks a draft, but it withholds the franchise from the perpetual civilian.
Second, Heinlein makes use of flashbacks to the protagonist’s History and Moral Philosophy course taught during senior year of high school. Taught by a military veteran (in this case, Mr. DuBois), this course covers a combination of civics, classical liberalism, and ethical conversation. The capstone project—being dropped in a foreign location with just a compass and tasked with returning home—is an exhilarating test of self-reliance that seems filled with liability in the real world. But this is an imagined future with an idyllic tough-as-nails veteran teacher who forces his students to prove every assertion in his classroom.
The enemy in Starship Troopers is a species called the Bugs. They are non-rational, and Heinlein avoids giving them personhood; diplomacy is not an option. Other writers, like John Scalzi or Orson Scott Card, find value in granting personhood to the enemy. Heinlein feels no such need—the Bugs attempt to wipe out humans, and it is the military’s task to exterminate them.
There is a refreshing clarity in this simple dichotomy. Heinlein is unconcerned with morally complicating his good-guys-bad-guys dichotomy; instead, he wants to ask questions about what makes for effective military personnel.
The battle scenes are excellent: fast-paced, with just enough dialogue and description to allow the reader to imagine the scene. Heinlein plays with the mech-suit concept, and he gets much traction out of imagining how 18-year-old recruits would handle the strength given by their suits.
Towards the conclusion, Rico’s commanding officer has died, and he is invited to apply for officer candidate school. Suddenly, Heinlein shifts from a militaristic author to endorsing the liberal arts! Officer training is also training in the arts of the gentlemen. Heinlein’s military service lies behind his plot devices: no one becomes an officer in Starship Troopers without first serving in combat, and the officer must surpass the enlisted man in his knowledge of military history and manners at table.
As any good science fiction novel does, Starship Troopers implicitly poses several important questions throughout the story:
- What is the citizen’s duty to his political community?
- How does a willingness to sacrifice for the good of others relate to privilege of voting?
- Why does further education matter for higher military training?
- Should civics teachers all be military veterans?
- Must the good man stand against threats to hearth and home?
The one critique I’ve heard about this novel is that it drags in the civics classroom scenes. But boredom is a matter of perspective. If all a reader asks of a sci-fi novel is a cool gadget that does shiny tricks, then those scenes are excessive. Yet if science-fiction includes the novel of ideas, then those scenes are essential.
Through Major Reid, Heinlein presents the military as a living tradition which is passed down generation to generation. One of the most moving scenes occurs when Mr. DuBois meets John on leave; they are no longer teacher and student, but one retired veteran greeting an active infantryman.
Ending verdict: Starship Troopers is a great read, and one which will hit a teenage reader differently than an adult reader, but will be of benefit to both. This novel engages with the philosophical principles undergirding a representative form of government, and has the accidental effect of encouraging the reader to appreciate his political community and the responsibilities inherent in living within civilization.
Photo Credit- Viktor Mukhin:r/imaginaryMechs