Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers.

NY: Putnam, 1959.

Robert Heinlein produced a number of seminal works in his career, and not only among science fiction fans. (Stranger in a Strange Land had considerable influence among college students in the 1960s, as much probably as Lord of the Rings.) But Starship Troopers spawned a reactionary series of subsequent novels by other authors

— notably Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (which took issue with it), Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero (which parodied it), and John Scalzi’s The Old Man’s War (which did a little of both), even though Scalzi said he had never read it before. Readers habitually make the mistake of attributing characters’ politics and opinions to their creator, and that’s what happened here, among the Vietnam War generation. I read this book in high school, shortly after it appeared and before Vietnam had gotten under way, and I enjoyed it purely as a military SF yarn. I reread it perhaps a decade later and took issue with its politics, and then again sometime in the 1990s, when it had become again simply an enjoyable adventure story that the author also used to ask a number of philosophical questions — a lifetime habit of his that can still start arguments among fans. And all this from a simply-written novel of only two hundred pages, too.

It’s a few years in the future and after a long, debilitating war between the U.S. and Russia on one side and China and its allies on the other, things have pretty much fallen apart. The treaty that ended the war didn’t make anyone happy and the veterans of the war (again, on both sides) have taken the lead in establishing a new social and political system which incorporates the good points of the old Western democracies but excludes their weaknesses — principally by settling political power in the hands of the veterans themselves. In this future, only discharged veterans of Earth’s armed forces are full citizens with the franchise. And Heinlein is careful to explain that this works not because the vets are smarter or “better” than civilians, but because of their moral position — they have been willing, by volunteering for the military (and they accept only volunteers), to put the good of their society ahead of their personal desires. It’s an interesting position, considering that many of those who serve are specialists of one kind or another and never see actual combat. But Heinlein takes that into account, too.

The actual plot revolves around young Johnnie Rico (whom, we discover very late in the book, is Filipino, which is Heinlein taking a poke at Anglo-centrism), whose family has money and whose father expects him to enter the family business. Johnnie, however, finds himself almost inadvertently enlisting and being routed into the Mobile Infantry — the only real army, as he quickly comes to understand. (Well, that’s an attitude shared by infantrymen everywhere.) The story takes him through basic training (which is very well done in a rather glorifying way), then into action-packed combat against the “Bugs” (an aggressive arachnid life form that the human race is beginning to realize it will have to defeat if it’s going to survive), then on to OCS. Heinlein did this sort of thing to a certain extent in his earlier juvenile, Space Cadet, but his treatment of the military maturation process is far more developed here. And, as noted, he has some particular philosophical points to make. Anyone who insists that “violence never solves anything” is unlikely to accept them, either, but even though the author picks and chooses his arguments (it’s his book), they’re worth thinking about. And the members of the younger generation of the 21st century are likely to react in completely different ways from their parents and grandparents.

And by the way: The recent movie of the same title has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book as Heinlein wrote it. If you’ve seen the movie but have never read the book, you have some remedial enjoyment coming.

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