Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – Book Review

This book has got me in a bind. It’s easy to relegate it to one of two neat classifications: either a straight-faced satire that takes the piss out of the military-industrial complex; or else, a fully realised celebration of the serving man’s fraternity, of the sacrifice of the individual for the collective’s greater good, and of militarism at large. The problem is, whether you choose one reading or the other, you’ll find out before long that the text is sabotaging you, delivering one blow after another to any degree of certainty you might place in either position.

It’s to be a bit of Column A, a bit of Column B, then. Okay, I’ll be honest—I lean harder towards Column B, but I’ve got several good reasons for that. Before I get deeper into it, let me give you the quick run-down in case you’re unfamiliar with Starship Trooper: It’s the granddaddy of military sf, presenting the experiences of a marine by the name of Rico as he prepares to serve a militarist Federation at war with an alien species carrying the derogatory moniker of “Bugs”. Herein is the first issue I had with the novel’s structure: after an explosive opening chapter that sees Rico use deadly power armour in tandem with the rest of his platoon, we are dragged back in time to his humble beginnings, a flashback that lasts a good two-thirds of the novel.

Heinlein renders in detail the moulding of Rico into a marine, presenting with exquisite detail the brutal training regimen he and his fellow trainees are forced through; here, perhaps, is as fine a time as any to mention that Heinlein had, himself, served—it shows that he was drawing from experience. But it’s not just the physical aspects that are shown. More time is given to the construction of a creed that places military service as the highest calling one can answer (some have used the word ‘sermonising’ in regard to the narratorial voice). Officers are drawn as benevolent tyrants whose consciences bleed for their recruits, whose cruelty comes from the necessity to mould these men into perfect cogs of a machinery that trades in death. The notion that some of these instructors might be sadists, say, is momentarily considered and dismissed:

I may have given the impression that boot camp was made harder than necessary. This is not correct. It was made as hard as possible and on purpose. It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer. It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did – and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved, and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.

I can see the point of those critics who have described Heinlein’s work here as a “novel-sized pamphlet”; the way military camaraderie is drawn here, I half wanted to join up. Not to mention that the right to vote is only available to those members of society that have served in one of the military’s arms—although you’re completely disenfranchised if you’re an active member. A career soldier is just as disenfranchised as anyone who hasn’t served at all.

So why not judge this book on what I dislike and be done with it? Because narrative voice, never mind character speech, is not authorial voice—a fact all too commonly forgotten. A speculative novel is not an 18-th century morality play, as someone on Twitter rightly pointed out. If that’s not enough, let’s look at the text itself. Some of the asides Rico makes, some of the philosophising he’s subject of, open themselves up to critique all too easily:

War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him . . . but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing . . . but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose or the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how – or why – he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people – ‘older and wiser heads,’ as they say – supply the control. Which is as it should be.

What might at first reading appear a monolithic statement opens itself up to criticism with ease: “controlled violence”? But the first thing that goes out of whack when violence is at hand is control. Make the enemy do what you want him to do by killing him? In the short-term, perhaps, but half a dozen armed conflicts the USA has undertaken in the seven decades since the publication of this book make the opposite argument. Perhaps even more egregious is the statement “It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how – or why – he fights”—if read straight, you can certainly make the argument that this society Heinlein portrays here has fascist under(over?)tones—it’s not a phrase far removed from “just following orders,” is it?

Now, it could be that we’re supposed to take this in as straightforward a way as it’s written, unquestioning; but Heinlein was a clever guy, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. It might be that I’m putting too much of my own beliefs here, but you might argue that it’s good literature that opens itself up to more than one reading. By that mark, Starship Trooper is an interesting and engaging work. My personal preferences go the way of others among his works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Double Star in particular. Trooper was an easy novel to get through, easier than some others in my Hugo-reading project; but a lot less of it will stick around in my mind in the long-term. Do you think you’ll read it?

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