Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review 74: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book is controversial. Says so right there on the cover - "The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure!" A quick look at its Wikipedia page seems to support this, claiming that the book has been criticized for its literary merit, its support of the military, up to and including fascism, racism, utopianism, and gods know what else. What is certainly true is that it's a book that is guaranteed to make someone, somewhere very angry.

In the unspecified future, humanity has taken to the stars. In our efforts to colonize planets that are hospitable to us, we have spread as far and as wide as possible. Unfortunately, this has brought us into direct contact with alien races who are not entirely keen on sharing land with us, and, as we have always done, we are willing to fight, bleed and die for every inch of it.

Our main enemy is the Bugs, whose proper name we never actually learn, and they are a vicious enemy indeed. They possess a hive mind, made up of Soldiers, Workers and Brains. The Soldiers are, of course, the most dangerous, not least because they have no individual sense of self-preservation. Unlike the human soldiers, who value their comrades and brothers-in-arms highly, the Bugs will never go back for a fallen comrade and never consider the safety of their own when prosecuting a campaign against the humans. In other words, the Bugs truly are alien to us, and therefore need to be eliminated.

The story follows a young man, Juan Rico, in his journey from enlisted grunt in the Mobile Infantry to Officer in the Terran Federation. Through his eyes, we learn about the technological lengths that we have gone to in order to be able to fight the Bugs. First among these is the powered armor that the Mobile Infantry wears - an all-purpose exoskeletal suit that vastly increases its wearer's speed and strength, in addition to providing him with instant contact with his squadmates and vital information that he needs to fight the enemy. Humanity in the future has made great strides in terms of warfare, all out of need to defeat the Bugs.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that this was a grand military adventure. That we would feel the thrill and terror of a young military recruit as he experiences a universe larger and wilder than he ever could have imagined. You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course. If you read it right, you can infer the newness and strangeness of the circumstances that Juan Rico finds himself in. But this book isn't about Juan Rico, even though he is the narrator. In fact, we don't even learn his proper name until nearly two-thirds of the book is finished. Before then he's just "Johnnie," which is one of the most generic soldier names out there. Juan Rico is so irrelevant to the story that we don't even find out that English isn't his native tongue until three pages before the end of the book. Juan Rico is nothing more than a cipher in this tale, about as important to the content of Starship Troopers as Glaucon is to The Republic.

In the classic tale of Socrates, the philosopher talks about justice and politics and society, with his wisdom inspired by a question-and-answer session with his students. Somehow, the students always manage to ask just the right questions to allow Socrates to expound on his theories, and they're usually wrong in just the right ways to make Socrates look smart. So it is with Starship Troopers.

Juan Rico is the means by which Robert Heinlein is able to put forth his opinions on war and society, politics, citizenship, crime, child-rearing and, of course, military service. Instead of writing a series of straightforward essays, unfortunately, he decided to make his readers slog through Starship Troopers.

This book is a love letter to the military and all it stands for. Not just war and death and destruction, of course, but also loyalty, sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is an examination into why people become soldiers, why some succeed and others fail, and about the historical importance of the soldier class in human history. It's about war as a tool of diplomacy, both in its startling effectiveness and its unfortunate inevitability, as well as the importance of the chain of command and proper military discipline. It's about the comradeship of veterans and the lessons they learn during the service. There's a good reason why this book is on the reading lists for both the Navy and the Marines.

What it is not about is any of the characters that are actually involved in the story. The only reason Juan Rico is who he is is because he is not someone else. He could have been Buddy St. Germaine or Phil Waxman or Marvin Crumplebottom and the story would have read exactly the same: son of a rich businessman who enlists in the armed forces just to tweak his father, learns a whole host of Valuable Lessons (tm) and eventually discovers his calling. There is absolutely nothing about Juan Rico than makes him any more interesting than any other character except that he happens to be the narrator of the story.

If that were all, I might be able to let this book slide as just thinly-veiled military fetishism. But honestly, there's no veil there at all. The story stops in several places while Heinlein uses his characters as mouthpieces to tell us how he thinks society should be run. Ancillary characters - students, subordinate soldiers - ask just the right questions or are wrong in just the right ways so that Heinlein, much like Plato speaking through Socrates, can make the points he wants to make.

Juan's professor, retired Lt. Colonel Dubois, and the other lecturers repeatedly point to the 20th century as a model of how not to govern, happily cherry-picking some of the worst results of our system of government and holding them up as the inevitable result of a society that is not run by veterans. For that is how he sees the best of all possible states - one in which only veterans are full citizens and in which only veterans can run the country. The logic being that only someone who has voluntarily enlisted and served in the military is able to truly put the needs of society before his own, and is therefore the best person to run a country. Heinlein, through his fictional avatars, then goes on to show how much more superior the Terran Federation is to its more democratic predecessors and how stupid we were not to see the obvious truth.

The message, then, is that the reader is stupid if he or she does not agree with Heinlein. The ancillary characters who challenge Heinlein's thesis are written as obvious idiots and are roundly insulted and abused by their superiors, which effectively becomes Heinlein abusing his readers.

In addition, Heinlein sets up so many straw men to knock down that it gets tiresome. Juan's father, for example, is almost stereotypical as a foil to Dubois. Mr. Rico is rich and aloof and sees the military as nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs who have outlived their usefulness. The first time we see him, he is a snob and a jerk, and Juan's decision to piss him off by joining is almost inevitable. The next time we see Mr. Rico, of course, he has joined the Mobile Infantry himself, and has seen the error of his ways.

Other members of the cast are overtly written to embody certain themes in Heinlein's opinion of military rule, both positive and negative. Private Hendrick, for example, is a constant complainer, one who stands up for himself during boot camp and just barely escapes a hanging. He is not disciplined enough to be a soldier, and by extension a citizen, and therefore serves as a warning to others. Sergeant Zim [1], on the other hand, is the consummate soldier - hard on his charges in boot camp, yet as concerned about them as a father would be to his sons. Zim, along with an array of Lieutenants, Captains and other officers, serve as blatant father-substitutes for Juan Rico, with all of the qualities that one would want in a father and absolutely none of the drawbacks. If anything, their only flaws are that they are too concerned about their soldiers.

While reading, I wondered if maybe Heinlein was being sarcastic. If perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the true folly of military fetishism by taking it to its ultimate extreme. I have to admit, I didn't disagree with all of his ideas. His thoughts on juvenile delinquency, for example, really struck a chord in me - he maintains that treating young offenders as rational adults who can learn from their crimes is foolishness since, like puppies, young people are not inherently rational and have not yet learned the difference between right and wrong. The term "juvenile delinquent," he maintains, is an oxymoron, since a juvenile has not yet been able to learn of his duty to others, and therefore cannot be delinquent. To treat him as if he were is to fatally misunderstand human nature.

And I think there is a grain of truth to the idea that someone who willingly puts her or his life and body on the line for his or her fellow citizens might indeed have the perspective necessary to govern a country. I would point out, however, that this argument rests on a flawed assumption - that service automatically confers selflessness. There may be correlation, but causation is not yet proven.

But I don't think he's being sarcastic. The themes and ideas in this book resonate with those that permeate his other books. What's more, Dubois sounds like Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long and Professor De la Paz - other characters from other books who all served as mouthpieces for the author's political and social philosophies. And this is what makes Heinlein's books so special - he is not afraid to stand up for his ideas and put them right there on the page for the reader to see.

It is not so much Heinlein's ideas that I object to in this book, even if I do disagree with many of them. It is his presentation of those ideas that bothers me. Flawed logical methods presented as irrefutable discourse, transparent characters with no life beyond their purpose as object lessons, and a dissertation on military supremacy that is just barely disguised as a science fiction novel. It is written from the presumption that the writer is right and the reader is, from the first page, completely and utterly wrong.

I think the ideas that Heinlein presents in this book are important, and they are worthy of discussion. I just wish he had held his readers in a little higher esteem when he decided to discuss them.

“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
- Student to Mr. Dubois

[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

Starship Troopers on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
Starship Troopers on
The Heinlein Society

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