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Starship Troopers (1959)

Robert A. Heinlein

New York, Ace Books; ISBN: 0-441-78358-9; Pages: 208

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

My first reading of the classic (and, let's face it, controversial) novel was about a decade ago. I had read only two Heinlein books before that and I must say that Starship Troopers was probably responsible for converting me into a Heinlein fan for life. I found the book oddly reflective of much of my own thinking at the time and that made it resonate ever so thoroughly. It also helped that it mixed Heinlein's philosophical musings with a straightforward adventure romp. I remember feeling a distinct loss when the book ended.

Then came Paul Verhoeven's film with the same title, and I enjoyed it thoroughly although it gave a polar opposite treatment of all the themes in Heinlein's novel. That's why I will never call the film an "adaptation." It is not. It is Verhoeven's own take on what violence leads to in human affairs. It is quite interesting to see how two people can take the same material and essentially make use of the same story to argue two wildly divergent points. I do talk about this in the review of the film, so will not be spending any more time on it here.

Two days ago, I re-read the book and found, to my great surprise and infinite delight, that I disagreed with its main themes as thoroughly as I agreed with them ten years ago. I say "surprised" because indeed I was. Upon this reading I could not bring myself to believe that Heinlein was arguing all this with a straight face. But he does, there's no question about it: there are pages upon pages of text that do not advance the plot in any way and can serve no other purpose but to expostulate the author's views. Such a complete reversal was a surprise. I also say "delight" because it is usually impossible to tell whether all those years are leaving any mark on one's thinking. The changes are usually so gradual, subtle, and cumulative, that one is seldom aware that there have been any at all. But this is fresh evidence that I am no longer the 20-year old I was back then. Time will tell whether this is for better or worse even though I'd rather that it did not if it were for worse.

The story of the novel is told by Juan Rico, a Filipino (on p. 205 he mentions that his native tongue is Tagalog), who happens to be the only son in a wealthy family. Following high-school graduation, he volunteers for Federal Service, for "no less than two years and as much longer as may be required by the needs of the Service." His non too-impressive record in the hard sciences but good performance in physical extracurricular activities makes him suitable for only one thing, the lowest of the low, the Mobile Infantry, the future equivalent of the Marines.

He goes through boot camp which, from what I've heard, shares intimate detail with boot camps of today. The sergeants are tough but fair, the officers are like steel in velvet gloves. There's a lot of shouting, grueling training, and not a few accidents with recruits, including deaths. If anyone doubts the plausibility of such intense preparation, one should take a look at how the Soviets trained their military intelligence officers (GRU). Rico nearly quits when a letter from his high-school teacher of History and Moral Philosophy. But he stays on and then the Bugs hit Buenos Aires and the war is on. There really isn't that much description of the war itself. Heinlein concentrates on M.I.'s experiences, in and out of combat, and Rico's decision to try to become a commissioned officer. That is, to go career. Eventually he wins the honor, becomes an officer, and leads his people into battle.

The novel is not as linear as my summary makes it out to be. For example, it opens with an exhilarating raid in the world of the Skinnies, the humanoid allies of the Arachnids who later turn coat and join the humans in their fight against the insect-like other aliens. It is perhaps the strongest proof that the book is not really about an interstellar war the Bugs and their allies that Arachnids and Skinnies appear so sporadically, and always as a backdrop to Rico's experiences.

Here's my take on several issues in ST:

But, whatever these shortcomings and to Heinlein's credit, he set out to write a book about military pride. He probably felt Americans were getting too soft in their race with the Soviets (at this point the U.S. was losing the space race, a profoundly unsettling development because Americans thought the Soviets could soon deliver nukes on their intercontinental ballistic missiles). No wonder he rails against anyone who does not understand math, or does not like science. The military is the only shield a society has to guard from outside attack, be it people wearing red stars or Arachnids. If the military slips in prestige, the fall is soon to follow. And that is a lesson of history, which shows that the spoils always go to the more aggressive, not the more refined. Heinlein did write a wonderful book in that respect. I almost volunteered today.

The other part of the book is a basic growing up story, in which Rico goes from clueless high-school senior to a seasoned veteran and responsible adult. In fact, he apparently comes to understand that getting out after two years and being a citizen is not what citizenship really is all about. Even though it would mean that he won't be voting any time soon (and so ostensibly he would be denied the one thing citizenship gives that non-citizens lack), he goes career. In other words, the internal sense of duty and obligation has conquered the external trappings of privilege. Whether one agrees with the substance of Rico's conviction, the basic idea of forsaking the obvious apparent for the unseen real holds. No wonder Rico's father was so proud of him. I choked with tears when I read the scene of their quick chance meeting.

Here are some favorite quotes from this book:

I will have to take exception to that last quote although I like it very much. But it is not true, both because most of our beliefs have nothing to do with math, but also because math itself is not "true" in any sense of the word. It's just a system of axioms and conclusions derived from axioms by application of rules. As a system of symbolic logic, it has its own failings. Heinlein should have been aware of Gödel's Proof. And Heinlein's idea of "scientific morals" is just preposterous. I am saying this as someone who makes his living by trying to construct mathematical and statistical models of social and political phenomena. Einstein was right, the hard scientists have it easy. Try working with people.

August 14, 2003