Starship Troopers

“The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure” reads the cover of my edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  Heinlein doesn’t pull any punches with this story and whatever controversy surrounded it, it’s probably as applicable today as it was when he published it in 1959.

Starship Troopers

Juan “Johnnie” Rico goes to high school in a world where democracies have bit the dust. The world in which he lives, the Terran Federation, which includes Earth, only allows one to vote after they have completed time in the military, deters crime through public floggings and requires high school students to audit a class called History and Moral Philosophy.

My initial instinct tells me that the controversy surrounding the novel develops from Heinlein’s apparent criticism of democracies as in his future world they have gone by the wayside.  I’m not convinced, though, that he was truly criticizing democracy as a way of government and even if he was, criticizing democracy is not necessarily the same as being anti-democracy.  Heinlein’s ideas tend to be more critical of how citizens had let their democracies deteriorate.  In his world, these democracies failed as a result of the citizens being more concerned about their own individual rights than they were about the good of the whole.  They expected freedom simply to happen.  Heinlein goes to great lengths to prove logically that this freedom will always cost something and will always require honor and responsibility in defending it.  One of the more interesting ideas comes from Johnnie Rico’s History of Moral Philosophy class.  In discussing the Declaration of Independence, a student asks about the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.  The teacher, a formal Army Colonel, lashes out with the response (I’m paraphrasing) that the pursuit of happiness is indeed a right, but the guarantee of its attainment is not.  For me, this illustrated the point that many people who find ideas controversial haven’t actually taken the time to think about them.

Other ideas and questions bombarded me throughout this story.  It might be easy to line Heinlein up with a conservative political philosophy; however, I’m not sure he and Ayn Rand (a foundation of conservative thought) would necessarily share the exact same ideas. I’m curious what it would be like to be in a room with the two of them.  After thinking about his thoughts on democracy, I had to ask myself what type of government had he created with the Terran Federation?  I can’t call it totalitarian, though some might.  Could it be called authoritarian?  Maybe, but I’m not sure what that means. Did he create a new type of government?  Could be.

The novel also works on a character level where we get to see Johnnie Rico mature as a person and a soldier.  I enjoyed his narration and the ideas he threw around.  Most of Heinlein’s ideas are told through Johnnie reminiscing about lectures from his high school History and Moral Philosophy class.  His relationships with his equals and his superiors kept me intrigued.  Calling a story “coming-of-age” seems cliche, but there was a little of it here.

Of course, with much science fiction, there were also some parts of the story that were just plain fun.  It’s easy to get caught up in the spaceships and the amazing space suits that the Mobile Infantry wore and the war with alien Bugs – giant bugs who lived in giant underground tunnels.  The final battle scene had me on the edge of my seat.

Have you ever read Starship Troopers?  What do you think of Heinlein’s philosophy?  And how would you describe the type of government he created in this novel?

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4 responses to “Starship Troopers

  1. Great book. I’ve read it a couple of times and look forward to the next time. If only they’d make a REAL movie! Good thoughts… they are very similar to my own. I know that Heinlein had serious problems with Communism, so I’m quite sure he was not for blind allegiance to the state. However, I found it very intriguing that he felt that some serious investment should be required by people before they have a say (or even a significant status) regarding the decisions and destiny of their country. I really enjoyed Heinlein’s ideas in this book and his concept of “citizenship” in the story should be considered as food for thought among those who wish to see their country survive.

    Aside from that, Heinlein’s insight into military training and camaraderie are amazing, and I agree that his descriptions of battle keep you on the edge of your seat. What a cool book! I don’t normally enjoy science fiction much, but I make an exception here. I think a lot of the reason for my interest is his discussion of government and philosophy. By the way, although we are obviously looking at “big” government, he seems to have it set up in a very federal way (in the traditional sense). To call it totalitarian would perhaps be too simplistic. The people have a say, but only the people who are sufficiently qualified. Perhaps you could go so far as to call it an oligarchy. Basically imagine what America would look like if only active-duty military and veterans were allowed to vote. Seems to me things would be a lot better overall for the country. Maybe not. Interesting idea either way.

    Although I do not agree with all of Heinlein’s views, I could not help but appreciate his book and I’m glad you posted your thoughts on it.

    Take care!

    -Ben

    • Ben, it’s great to read your thoughts! I’ve never bothered to watch the movie version. It seems to be universally panned! The other Heinlein books I’ve read are very similar in that he throws in his ideas and philosophy on topics such as economics, religion, government and politics. This novel, though, seems to be able to better incorporate his ideas into the story. I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but it’s incredibly enjoyable to read a good story that prompts you to think.

      Thanks!
      -Dale

  2. Hi Dale,
    I’ve always been intimidated by Heinlein and don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him unless a short story snuck in there somewhere. I remember my Dad (of somewhat intimidating intellect himself) was reading Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” for a long stretch of time once and mentioned frequently how brilliant it was. To me, it seemed like a thick slab of novel that was for “serious readers” and not a cavalier reader like I probably was at the time,

    I suppose I should try him sometime, though. Is this a good start? Or is Stranger in a Strange Land a better choice?

    -Jay

    • Hi Jay!
      Of the novels I’ve read, this one is the shortest and seems to be the one where his ideas are easily included in the story. This one covers government and politics. Stranger in a Strange Land covers religion (at least the institutional kind) and has some intriguing characters – not necessarily likeable, but intriguing. I would recommend both of them; however, this one would probably be the better introduction to his work.

      -Dale

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