retroj's Reviews > Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
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Apr 08, 2012

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bookshelves: reviewed, science-fiction, hugo, hugo-nominee
Read from April 08 to 10, 2012

I've been on a bit of a science fiction classics kick recently and this was an interesting one I might not otherwise have read, had a friend not lent it to me together with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I guess I'm doing the highlights of Heinlein this year.

Starship Troopers is the first work of the powered armor sub-genre that I have read, and a foundational book of that theme. I'm looking forward to reading some of the other important powered armor books in the future, because I can see there are a lot of interesting ideas to be found on this track of science fiction.

Starship Troopers was more than that of course — it's also a heavy[handed] dose of political philosophy — Heinlein writes politics, and that's why we love him. The edition I read even says right on the cover that this book is controversial — woo — well, I'm not so sure about that..

One theme I always take an interest in, in interplanetary sci-fi, is the FTL, faster than light travel. It seems as if every author has his or her own hack to get around Einstein to tell whatever story, and the variations are endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they deal with the technological consequences of FTL, or the social consequences, or other, and sometimes they blithely ignore the inconvenient implications of reality in a relativistic universe altogether. Heinlein did a very interesting thing in Starship Troopers, in that he examined in great depth the possible political implications of FTL and interstellar expansionism. I suspect that the people who have labeled this book "controversial" might have missed this point. Let me see if I can summarize.

Insofar as we know anything about the society depicted in Starship Troopers, I would categorize this as a dystopian future. A militarist society that enshrines the righteousness of force to perpetuate the state. Populace indoctrinated in moral philosophy on how to perpetuate the state (by force), the particular slant of it taught as if it were one of the hard sciences (evidence, references to "mathematical proofs" of moral philosophy propositions). Franchise withheld from the populace at large, reserved only to the military. We are given to understand that women are a small minority in the military, so you can just pack up your notions of sexual equality and head back to the nineteenth century. Heinlein has characters who argue at length, convincingly, for every one of these points, and more. And yet, how did we get here? Is this where the label controversial comes from?

The interesting thing is that no, there is nothing very controversial here. All of these strange and dire consequences follow naturally from three of Heinlein's precepts. One: faster than light travel, permitting interstellar society on a timescale similar to earlier sea-faring ages of history, and the concomitant conflicts of empires. Two: an incomprehensible alien threat promising human extinction unless humans shift to a total militaristic footing and hit back hard. Three: alien threat of a nature that the most rational means to combat it supports the particular flavor of militarism.

Perhaps the fact that the story was told from the point of view of a thoroughly indoctrinated soldier made the relationship between FTL and militarism subtler than it could have been, but likely the author just wanted to tell his story and follow the particular experiment in political philosophy found in these pages, and not worry so much about violating basic laws of nature. Yet as I read this book, I cannot ignore that the political philosophy follows as a direct consequence of FTL, and that's what really made the book interesting for me. (That and the powered armor.) It's not controversial because it's not our universe — absurd conclusions follow from absurd precepts. But it still makes for an interesting thought experiment.

I'll briefly mention a couple of drawbacks. First, this book had a lot of names, and a lot of military jargon. Keeping track of characters, their ranks, and relationships was not easy, especially since most of them only appeared briefly, but then might be mentioned several chapters later. While I doubt I will read this book a second time, it might take that for me to be able to follow some of the more complex interchanges concerning minor characters. Second, the story had its dull moments, and I just had to plow through. Last, they say never judge a book by its cover, but sorry I do feel that cover art plays a part in the interpretation of a book, and the cover art of the edition I read (orange trade pb) was no more than thematically tied to the content of the book — no power armor, troop formation unlike those depicted in the book, and vehicles totally unlike what I imagined for the pickup shuttles.

Wishing to end on a positive note: classic sci-fi! politics! powered armor! good job, Bob!
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