“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.
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?