For me, Starship Troopers is all the proof you need in order to name Robert Heinlein science fiction's greatest writer. I am getting in the bad habit of naming specific Heinlein books to be his very best, only to find that the next novel I pick up is even better than the last one. This particular novel is fascinating on a number of levels. There is nothing really special about Johnnie Rico; he's a normal lad who decides to join the military, ostensibly at the time in order to gain citizenship. In this future Terran confederation, only those who serve in the military are awarded citizenship and granted the privilege to vote. The government actually discourages volunteers and makes boot camp so difficult that only men with proper soldier qualities get through it. On the broadest level, we see Rico's progression from harrowed recruit to active service in the Mobile Infantry to combat against the Klendathu. I have no military background at all, but I found Heinlein's descriptions of military life and actual combat to be detailed and thrilling. We watch Johnnie Rico become a soldier. Along the way, he figures out why he actually did volunteer, developing a whole new outlook on duty and responsibility.
I don't want to delve too deeply into the politics of this novel. Some have pinned a fascist connotation on it, but I try to examine this future society philosophically. Only those who serve in the military can vote, but the vast majority of people choose not to serve and live happy lives as civilians, so I don't see anything fascist about this society. What intrigues me most, and it is this that sets this book apart from the vast majority of science fiction, is Heinlein's thought-provoking ideas about ethics, morality, duty, responsibility, etc. Mr. Dubois, Ricco's high school instructor in History and Moral Philosophy (a required course for all) gets in the ring and dukes it out with Plato, John Locke, and a host of other political thinkers. He argues that man has no natural moral instinct; morality is acquired by the individual and is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. If an individual is not taught the lessons of living in society, he will not learn that the basis of all morality is duty. In this way he criticizes the democracies of the late twentieth century and explains their ultimate failure. The promotion of the idea that certain natural rights are necessarily due each person caused young people to neglect their duties--by concentrating on the rights they think are due them. Liberty and freedom must be earned and paid for, and democracies failed because they did not understand this basic tenet. These kinds of ideas are the source of most of the criticisms directed toward Starship Troopers. I found many cogent arguments in the novel; criticism of democracy is not an endorsement of totalitarianism. Many would agree with some of the ideas Mr. Dubois puts forth (and which find their way into various places elsewhere in the book), but any agreement or disagreement should be purely intellectual. Great fiction is supposed to make us think deeply about important concepts, and Starship Troopers succeeds admirably in that regard.
Thus, Starship Troopers provides science fiction fans the best of both worlds. On the one hand, we have the well-told, gripping story of one man's military journey from boot camp to battlefields of war light years away from home, replete with several intense combat scenes. On the other hand, we have ideas of a political and philosophical nature laid out extremely well by the author, which is all but guaranteed to make you seriously think about society, government, and warfare. In the end, duty and responsibility are stressed if not glorified, and I find nothing at all subversive in that. Heinlein tells a fascinating story, and he makes you think, whether you want to or not. Few are the writers who can claim such lofty credentials.
on March 13, 2000
For those readers who may dismiss this book as a mere novelization of the action movie, please read on. This book was written in 1959 and is NOTHING like the movie. For me, it is one of the best novels that I have ever read in any genre. Starship Troopers tells the tale of a young man who decides to join earth's marine fighting force against a variety of alien enemies. However, the book spends little time actually in action scenes describing the various conflicts. Much of the book is all about the boot-camp of the future, the rigorous training that the men go through and the psychological state of not just the recruits but also of their commanders. This is a beautiful book, rooted in the American military traditions of World War II. It exudes the concepts of honor and courage in a poetic, easy-to-read manner. It discusses military and societal theory in such a way that the reader does not get bored, and much of the political commentary is interesting and insightful. The book is sophisticated in its critiques of modern society and of its view of the military and its place in society. It truly is infinitely more than the movie made it out to be. Heinlein has written a masterpiece that can live through the ages. Definately an great and entertaining read and a must for any sci-fi fan or military history buff. Check it out, and enjoy!
on February 25, 2004
The screen version of this classic SF novel is less an adaptation than a counterargument. In a way that's appropriate; Heinlein was certainly trying (or at least expecting) to generate loads of controversy with this work. But if you're about to read _Starship Troopers_ for the first time, it's only fair to warn you that _whatever_ you think of the film, you'll be disappointed if you expect the book to resemble it very much.
(Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier took incredible liberties with, and sometimes even directly contradicted, the book on which their film is 'based'. It's a fine film on its own terms and I think it's been unjustly maligned. But it's not this novel; it's the next round in an ongoing dispute with this novel. And whatever else the movie has going for it, its _military_ action is incompetent to the point of silliness.)
I've been reading Heinlein for nearly forty years now. I don't think this is one of his best three or four novels, and it's never going to be one of my personal favorites either. Nevertheless, it _is_ a genuinely great work of SF and raises issues that genuinely deserve to be raised.
Whether you buy Heinlein's own _answers_ is a different matter. The 'arguments' presented by the characters in the novel are mostly aimed at straw men. ('My mother says violence never settles anything', indeed.) This is perhaps forgivable since so much of Heinlein's positive case is so good. But I'm not persuaded that the society he imagines in this novel would be as functional as he seems to think.
At any rate, its essential socio-political point -- that authority and responsibility are a coordinated yin-yang pair and an imbalance between them puts the world out of whack -- is extremely well taken. (It applies more broadly, too.)
Its account of what it means to be a human being (as opposed to an economic animal) is darned good too. And this is where the real meat of the novel lies.
You see, the _story_ here isn't about the war with the Bugs; it's about Juan Rico's coming of age. As a character (not Rico) remarks at one point: 'I had to perform an act of faith. I had to prove to myself that I was a man.' If you grok that, you'll grok the novel. (Yes, Heinlein tells this story in the context of military service, but its theme applies much more widely. And lest you think the novel is too autobiographical here, note that Heinlein -- a Navy man -- locates his story not in his own branch of the service but in the 'poor bloody infantry'.)
The stuff about the Bug War is a different deal. This aspect of the novel was very much a product of the anticommunism/Cold War era; I don't think it's survived all that well and I'm not even persuaded it was all that terrific at the time. But it's background, not main plot -- and at any rate Heinlein is surely right that a cap trooper in the Mobile Infantry isn't going to be involved in setting the Federation's diplomatic policy; Rico's own story doesn't depend on whether the politicians are 'right' to send him into combat.
One of Heinlein's greatest, then, but not the absolute cream. Anyway, don't get scared off either by the movie or by comments from readers who didn't grok it. Whatever you think of the Old Man, he was no fascist.
on October 26, 2002
Yes, yes...everybody knows by now that the movie is in no way similar to the book. In fact, I'm surprised the Heinlein estate (he's dead, right??) allowed the name to be applied to the movie. The movie is an awkward action-adventure gore fest; the book is a (at times) delicate portrait of the transformation of young, spoiled and dull Everyman, Juan Rico, to an exuberant and accomplished warrior.
This novel is usually portrayed as an anti-war treatise. However, that's not how I saw it. It is a treatise, for sure, but one that concerns itself with government's purpose in regard to the individual. Heinlein paints a strangely subtle portrait of modern democracy, with fascinating embellishments. By doing so, he spurs thought from his reader concerning the duties inherent in living in a democracy. The most intriguing question he asks is, do modern citizens of democracies have any right to them if they choose not to participate? To what degree is this participation in a democracy necessary? Is it true that "the best things in life are free"? What is moral in a just society?
What is most striking about this fictional society is that it is a limited democracy, modeled after Classical society, perhaps. Only those who enroll in and complete a "Term of Federal Service" (and all residents in the world culture may attempt it, though few succeed) are allowed citizenship and the right to decide the future of the society. The rationale of this is that only in the stress of Federal Service can a person learn the community virtue of placing the needs of the society above the needs of onesself. Although this idea may be impossible to speculate on, it is worthy of thought from all members of democratic societies.
Although the book reads a bit dated (it was written in 1959), if one reads this not as science fiction, but as political philosophy (as it was most likely intended), the ideas remain current, as all good science fiction should. The book calls into question whether any society can remain standing. Although Heinlein crafts what seems to be an indestructible society, it is hard to determine its strength, as we do not get to see the antisocial element in this society (although counter-culture and political dissension is hinted at), as the focus is on Johnnie's development. We only know that civil unrest (crime) in any form is met with harsh punishment. He alludes to the notion of this as effective deterrence to crime, but how are we to know? Perhaps that's another novel.
As I was reading, I thought a comparison of this novel and "Atlas Shrugged" would be interesting, in order to juxtapose two disparate ideas of model citizenship.
on November 15, 1997
Starship Troopers does not advocate a facist goverment! It considers a democracy where individuals who desire the right to vote must prove that they are willing to pay the cost of freedom. The fact, that so many people today find this requirement for personal responsibility threatening, does not bode well for our nation. I first read the novel in a high school English class. I was a 16 year old punk at the time. It greated a great deal of debate, to say the least, but had a profound impact on me. I enlisted in the Marine Corps on my 18th birthday, against the wishes of my parents, and have served, as both an enlisted Marine and Marine Officer, for 11 years. I have reread the book several times and was excited to learn, in 1992, that the Commandant of the Marine Corps had made Starship Troopers required reading for all Marines. Read this book with an open mind. It is science fiction literature, more importantly it challenges the reader to examine our role in society.
Bryon J. Fugate
I've read nearly everything Heinlein ever wrote. I like to group his novels into three general categories. They are:
1. "Youth" novels such as the excellent "Citizen of the Galaxy", "Tunnel in the Sky" and "Podkayne of Mars." These feature young heroes or heroines in challenging situations.
2. "Future History" novels, such as "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress","Time Enough for Love", "Methuselah's Children", "To Sail Beyond the Sunset" and "Friday."
3. Novels with metaphysical or philosophical leanings such as "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Starship Troopers."
You could put "Starship Troopers" in the category of a youth novels. Rico, the young hero of the novel is barely out of high school when he volunteers for military service in order to win citizenship privileges--and impress pretty fellow student Carmen. She's volunteering for service, hoping her mathematics talent will gain her a pilot's seat.
Wait! Citizenship privileges--what's that? Aren't we all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the vote? Well, not in John Rico's world. There, citizenship is earned by military service, and it isn't all flowers and pancakes, either. If war breaks out, your short stint becomes...indefinite.
So why would anyone risk life and limb, plus some very unpleasant times in boot camp, just to be able to vote? That's the philosophical underpinning of "Starship Troopers." Heinlein creates a republic based on a sort of responsible freedom, where liberty is granted, but the right to direct it is earned by those who paid in a stake.
So, is this book a boring political rant? Heck no! In amongst the lectures on liberty and good government a la Heinlein is an incredibly action-packed adventure. The Bugs are an alien race bent on destroying the Earth. And Earth armies have little idea how to stop them except they know they must do so to survive.
The scenes in boot camp are gripping. The battle scenes are realistic. The "special effects"--the armored suits the infantry wears are amazing "seven-league boots" that impart near-Superman powers on the soldier who wears it. The film that was based on this book caught the excitement of a society at war with a deadly enemy, but the book has more action than the film ever could have...and a lot more explanation of what motivates each character.
If you haven't read this, you are in for a real treat. This is, in my opinion, one of Heinlein's best novels, along with "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and the rambling but brilliant "Time Enough For Love." It's so good that I almost make a fourth category for just "Starship Troopers" by itself. It's my favorite of Heinlein's works.
on July 28, 2000
I read most of Heinlein's classic books back in the Sixties while still in high school, and I consider myself a fan of his. However, for some reason I have waited until my late forties to read what is arguably his best-known and most commented-on novel, STARSHIP TROOPERS. I think maybe I put off this book because I had heard it was a "juvenile." In fact, while I do highly recommend it for young readers, there is nothing juvenile about it.
Simply put, this is a political-social philosophy in novel form. While war action is depicted, this is a minor part of the book. Despite what one may have seen in Paul Verhoeven's 1997 film version, there is no graphic violence in the modern sense of the word, and there is no sex at all. The action is framed against the backdrop of an interstellar war between humans and an intelligent insectile alien species, but Heinlein doesn't bother to go into the whys and wherefores of the war. He shows it from the point of view of the grunt soldier unconcerned with large-scale strategy. A very large proportion of the story deals with the training of the protagonist, Juan Rico, as a recruit in the Mobile Infantry. This provides the framework around Heinlein's thematic approach to the nature of citizenship and leadership.
It is Heinlein's thoughts on these issues that have engendered controversy over the years, but I think it's important to set the record straight against the remonstrations of his detractors. The biggest hit he takes is that he is a "fascist," presumably in the sense that fascism promotes the welfare of the state above that of its citizens. In fact, all that Heinlein says is that public service is expected of all citizens--no public service, no franchise (and, if you read closely, the public service does not need to be military). It seems to me that this is exactly what some modern democratic states, such as Israel, have been doing for a long time: public service is the obligation of all citizens. Heinlein even veers into surprising modernity on some points:
1. He was into "diversity" before diversity was cool. Can you guess the ethnicity of the protagonist? He doesn't drop in on you until near the end of the book, and you'll be surprised.
2. He shows his strong aversion to sexual harrassment in the way he sets up how the sexes deal respectfully with each other in the military he envisions.
3. He does not consider the buck private to be sacrificial cannon fodder. Adumbrating the hi-tech infantryman of today, Heinlein has every foot soldier trained to exquisite expertise and outfitted with the best of combat and safety equipment.
4. His universal service for all citizens is completely ADA-compliant; he has a valued place for any willing citizen, regardless of disability. One of the highly regarded instructors in his officer candidate school is blind, in fact.
I think Heinlein's admittedly idealistic views make great reading for teenagers, and any parents interested in inculcating a sense of responsibility and duty in their youngsters could do worse than to give them a copy of STARSHIP TROOPERS--after first reading it themselves.
on June 16, 2007
I first encountered this story in October of 1959, when the first part of a two-part serial entitled _Starship Soldier_ appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I had just turned nine, so I didn't understand what I was reading all that well -- but I really liked the cover art for the second installment, in December, which was a stunning scene of the Mobile Infantry in combat, done by Emshwiller. My main memory of it at the time was that my father didn't think I could understand what I was reading; he asked me if I could explain "genetic impoverishment" (I couldn't).
I'm not going to give a neat plot synopsis here; most of the other reviews have that.
In the nearly 48 years since then, I have re-read this book more times than any other of my favorites. I don't know why this is, and it would probably be pointless to speculate on it. The point here is that I have come to see things about this story that others might miss.
This book represents a major watershed in Heinlein's career. _ST_ was his last juvenile novel, and it marks the beginning of Heinlein being a controversial figure. This book is one of the greatest bones of contention in the history of science fiction, with people arguing mightily (and seemingly endlessly) over it, dividing themselves neatly on opposite sides of the right-left faultline. Many opinions have been given on it, almost all of them quite worthless, a point which applies to those approving of the book as well as those disapproving of it.
This is one of Heinlein's strangest books, and one of his most convoluted. One has to read it closely (or many times, anyway) to really take note of it. The story is told from the first person point of view, a point which starts to take on significance when the reader realizes that there are entirely too many casual references to drugs and hypnosis through the
text, starting with the very first paragraph.
One might consider also that nowhere else in the body of Heinlein's work does he describe a society like that of _ST_ (a limited franchise democracy, with a decidedly right-wing, law-and-order ambience, complete with floggings and hangings). If he really were advocating this, one would expect to see this type of society depicted in many of his novels -- but it isn't. This is the only one.
And, of course, it's well-known that the opinions that authors put in the mouths of their characters are not necessarily the opinions of the authors. The opinions of Johnnie Rico's mentors and authority figures are not, I think, identical with those of Heinlein himself -- but that's sort of hard to tell, because Heinlein always maintained a closed front to the world, only displaying the sides of himself that he wanted to.
The one other thing I want to say about this book is the fact that you can keep on finding things in it that you hadn't previously noticed, even after many readings (that's also true of much of his other work). I noticed a new thing just a few months ago; this has to do with Heinlein's technique of showing rather than describing, and it makes for the sort of book you can read more than once. I won't go on about that; you can look for yourself, and maybe you'll find things that I've missed.
_Starship Troopers_, is one of the absolutely essential works that someone interested in Heinlein should read. The corollary to that is that, in order to have a valid opinion on Heinlein and his work, one needs to read more of his work than one book, or even half a dozen; depending on which ones one reads, that number would be around fifteen or twenty.
This book, of course, works on a number of levels. Whatever level you want to approach it on, I highly recommend it -- just don't stop here, because all of Heinlein's work deserves attention.
It's a shame so many people will only know this story from the movie version. This book is so much better than the movie, its hard to know where to begin. Heinlein seems to have woven two books together into one. One the one hand, this is the story of every soldier, describing the brutal ordeal of basic training, and the logic behind military discipline. These details feel like a tribute to the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our societies. In spite of the science-fiction elements, this story is first and foremost about military service and puts the reader into the mind of the soldier like few other books I've ever read.
In addition, this book also explores the roles of rights and duties, and theorizes that society might be better if individual rights were constrained to correspond to the level of responsibility one is willing to accept. Since the right to vote is the ultimate power, it should only be given to those who demonstrate a willingness to put the good of society ahead of themselves. Its an interesting argument, but one that I'm not sure I find convincing enough to want to give it a try.
These two threads are set in a future faced with a nasty alien threat, providing an engaging coming-of-age story. Powerful and interesting, this book satisfies on many levels.
on November 18, 2003
Most people think of the ill-conceived movie when they think of Starship Troopers, but out of curiousity I decided to read this book anyway. To my own surprise, the movie and the book were like night and day, more so than one would expect.
This novel is not action-paced thriller. Instead what you get is a very engaging book about military life, and Heinlein's theories on Utopia. What really surprised me most was how well he argued his theories through the characters in his book. Before long, I found myself wishing I was in the military!
But in all seriousness, this book is very intelligent, and really forces readers to think about modern society. After reading this, you cannot help but question things we take for granted in Western Democracies, and whether they really help or hurt us. I truly enjoyed reading this book and I strongly recommend it to any politically minded people, as well as people interested in military life and war. It truly is a science fiction masterpiece. Enjoy!