Friday, July 03, 2009

Robert Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Robert Heinlein was never afraid of using his novels as a political vehicle. Often however they had other things going for them. Whatever the politics that informed Stranger in a Strange Land for instance, it is a very good commentary on organised religion, amongst other ideas.

Starship Troopers doesn't have this. Its one dimensional characters use the backdrop of a interstellar war against a ruthless insectoid race who are difficult to distinguish (read Russian/Chinese communists) to expouse their own ill thought out ideas.

Human society we are told, until the near future would be fatally flawed. We've grown soft by refusing to deal with inherent problems in society, failing to punish people adequeatly and bringing things near to collapse. Luckily there is a solution, and luckily for the reader its a military one. Only those prepared to commit themselves to the military can have a say in how society is run, because only they have proved themselves worthy.

Unfortunately, Heinlein doesn't have the wit to weave these dubious morals into the story line, hiding the more obvious right-wing libertarian propaganda behind a clever plot. Instead we get lectures from the characters - whether they are our hero's teachers, or the letters they write to him as he waits in gigantic battleships ready to fight the alien hordes. Our hero has run away to join the military, escaping his rich, over-protective father who would rather he took on the family business and has endured the trials of combat school.

While training to be the ultimate killing machine, war breaks out. Though rather unbelievably our hero tells us that the cadets weren't really aware of the war starting. This seems unlikely given the highly militarised society and environment they are in. The evil insects destroy Buenos Aires and our hero's mother. So the scene is set for the coming conflict, which seems to involve pitching large numbers of troops into stupidly dangerous situations were they are easy prey for the bugs.

Later on, when Heinlein has realised he can no longer give us his cod philosophy through the medium of flashbacks to our hero's school days, our square-jawed character bumps into Dad on a troop transport. Guess what! Dad has realised his son was right all along and joined up to fight the alien peril. He's even managed to wrangle a position on his son's own spaceship.

Hero son goes away to officer school and becomes an officer, despite being bad at mathematics. The point about mathematics becomes something of a stick that Heinlein uses to beat us with as it gets mentioned over and over again. Despite his ineptitude at sums, our hero can still be a superb officer. Do you get the point Dear Reader? Schooling doesn't help us in the fight to make our society better, and it certainly doesn't help us kill communists. I mean Bugs.

At officer school, various senior officers lecture him in their version of Heinlein's worldview and then more fighting happens with Dad and Son, side-by-side, fighting for the soft civilians back home, who don't know what war is really like. Even though millions have died. Civilians are, you see, not too bright.

Starship Troopers isn't a manifesto. It's a sort of anti-manifesto. A list of things that Heinlein doesn't like - communal societies, juvenile delinquents, Buenos Aires perhaps - it does list some of the things he does like, war, guns and the military in the main.

Oddly enough for a Heinlein novel, the hero doesn't appear to want to try and sleep with his mother. Though he does get closer to his father as the story progresses. Sadly, Heinlein doesn't explore this relationship any further and the novel sort of peters out, which is a bonus really, because it could have been hundreds more pages long and life really is too short.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land


CyberKitten said...


Great review! I hated the movie but really liked the book - though maybe it's because I read it 30 years ago as a teenager? After reading your take on it I might give it another go to see if my views on it change.

Max Cairnduff said...

It does have a certain visceral immediacy though, did you not find that?

Heinlein's politics are odd, the characters in I will Fear no Evil would have loathed the politics of Troopers, same for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Sadly, his right wing works tend to be less self indulgent than his later more liberal ones, which do go on for hundreds of pages more. Troopers probably holds up best of his writing now, so if you don't like this one I wouldn't try the others...

Resolute Reader said...

Thanks Max. I have pretty much read most of Heinlein's works and I'm not really sure I agree. I think most of his writing is at heart Right Wing. The ideas develop and change with time, as does his style but at heart they are fundamentally Right Wing. His libertarianism comes out stronger later on - but this doesn't make him left wing. Some of his sentiments in his last novel, "To Sail Beyond the Sunset", particularly relating to women and sexual relations are really quite awful.

I actually think that the book that holds up the most, is "Stranger in a Strange Land", because he is tackling ideas, such as the power of the Church, that are pertinant and interesting today. Not sure that his conclusions are particularly brilliant, but the book does have some good bits. He's a SF writer from a different era and we should, I suppose acknowledge that.